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SDT issues mental health warning to employers in case of solicitor under billing pressure

Billing targets: Letter was inappropriate, SDT said

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has decided against striking off a solicitor it found had created and backdated correspondence and lied to both her client and her employer, after finding that a root cause of her misconduct was the firm’s culture and the pressure it exerted on her to meet billing targets.

Her mental ill-health arising from the pressures of work, allied with difficult personal circumstances, was the other factor, and the SDT said law firm managers should be “more alert” to the warning signs of mental health problems among staff and consider providing access to external counselling.

It criticised a letter in April 2013 to Sovani James from the managing partner of her then employer, McMillan Williams, about the number of hours she still had to bill in the 2012/13 financial year to meet her 1,515-hour target – which had been inflated by the 75 hours under target she had been the previous year.

She had 19 days to record 137 hours. The letter said: “Please therefore by return of email let me know your plans on how you are going to resolve that deficit before the deadline…

“I am assuming that you will be working each and every weekend and long hours during the week to ensure that the required target is reached.”

The SDT said this letter was “threatening and harassing in tone”, with its intention to “frighten the recipient into compliance, mainly into… doing whatever was necessary to make up time recording deficits and therefore increase billing”.

It continued: “This was inappropriate. The letter lacked finesse and empathy.”

The tribunal said the managing partner, Colum Smith, assumed that Ms James had enough chargeable work to meet his demands, showed no interest in whether she had external pressures, did not question the reasonableness of the target and demanded a response the same day.

“This was hectoring of a junior employee and Mr Smith had to take the respondent as he found her, namely as a vulnerable individual who was suffering from a mental health condition.

“It could be said that he did not know that she was unwell, but a lack of such knowledge pointed to a clear failure of effective management and shortcomings in the firm’s HR and supervision functions.”

Ms James, born in 1983, was admitted as a solicitor in 2010 and specialises in medical negligence claims. She resigned from McMillan Williams and left in February 2015.

The tribunal found [1] that she had made “untrue and misleading” statements to a client and her employer about the progress of a case from around September 2013, and in November 2014 created four backdated letters on the file to cover her errors. She was found to have acted dishonesty.

The tribunal said that the dishonesty allegations had alone justified strike-off but it found exceptional circumstances existed here for a less severe punishment.

It suspended Ms James from practice for two years, but suspended the sanction for three years so she could stay at the firm she joined in February 2015, The Roland Partnership in Chester.

Her practising certificate was also made subject to conditions around supervision and not holding client money. She was represented by Paul Bennett of Aaron & Partners.

The SDT noted a medical report that Ms James had “mild” depression and anxiety at the time.

While acknowledging that many solicitors were under stress and did not commit dishonesty, it continued: “During the last 10 to 15 years, and in particular the last five years or so, awareness and openness concerning mental health issues have developed.

“Management at law firms and elsewhere should be more alert to the warning signs, which include among other things decline in performance, physical symptoms of distress, and uncharacteristic behaviour such as a drop in reliability.

“Management should be able to respond appropriately, for example by providing access to external counselling services.”

Ms James did not seek to lay all the responsibility for her misconduct on the firm, but the tribunal said “the firm must take upon itself a significant proportion of the blame”.

The evidence indicated that the firm “was not supportive of its solicitor employees”.

It also described Ms James as having an “egg-shell skull personality” at the time, meaning the impact of letters such as Mr Smith’s was greater on her than on a fee-earner without one.

“It was unusual for solicitors appearing before the tribunal to use words such as ‘terrified’ and ‘fear’ in the context of the workplace. The use of these words gave an indication of the respondent’s vulnerability.”

A “perfect storm of circumstances” combined to put her in the position she found herself, it added.

The SDT found that since leaving the firm, Ms James has “got her life back on track” and was working in a supportive environment.

“The tribunal was convinced that the respondent had learned from her mistakes as evidenced by the fact that she had worked trouble-free for the last three years.

McMillan Williams became the first high street law firm to secure external investment in 2015 following a deal with private equity investor the Business Growth Fund.

In the email that had set Ms James’s billing target for 2012/13, she was told that, with the firm courting outside investors, “targets which the firm projects become particularly important, as external investors will initially look at time recording, billing and work in progress for the purposes of [EBITDA]”.

Legal Futures has contacted the firm for comment.