Solicitor suspended for “dumping” hours on file to meet billing targets

SDT: Harm to the reputation of the profession

A solicitor who “dumped” hundreds of hours of unjustified time on a largely completed file in a bid to meet his billing targets has been suspended for nine months.

Clive Austin recorded nearly 530 hours against a probate matter during 2017 when his employer, Southend firm Giles Wilson, reckoned that “a reasonable and proportionate amount of time” to have spent on the file was about 15 hours.

He had been working on the probate since October 2015 and by his own admission believed he had completed the administration in January 2017.

He accepted before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that his purpose “was to seek to demonstrate to the firm that he was meeting his target hours”.

Mr Austin, who qualified in 2001, told the SDT that, having spent the majority of his career in the charitable sector, this was the first time he had had to record his time.

The tribunal noted: “He was extremely busy and considered the time targets for handling these cases to be unrealistic. He stated that he had no secretary whilst at the firm.”

The solicitor did not consider himself “well suited to the culture” at Giles Wilson and felt “personally compromised by what he regarded as unachievable time recording targets and costs limits for types of files”.

This led him to approach a recruitment consultant to explore other options but Mr Austin said the consultant told a partner of the firm about it.

Finding he had acted without integrity, the SDT said: “The respondent stated that it was as a result of the conversations which followed that he began recording time inaccurately.

“He described his actions as ‘stupid’ and said he had naively thought that whilst this would affect internal performance calculations, there would be no substantive harm.”

There was a second charge relating to a cheque for £1,115 from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which was a refund on a probate matter he was handling in 2018 while working for another Essex firm, Mullis & Peake.

Mr Austin paid this into his own bank account, but the SDT accepted his explanation that he believed it was actually a personal rebate for a very similar amount (£1,103.65) he was expecting from HMRC. He thought the difference represented interest.

The cheque arrived with no covering letter and three months after HMRC had notified him of the rebate on the probate matter. Mr Austin said he was handling around 200 files at the time.

When contacted about it in 2020, more than a year after he had left Mullis & Peake, he repaid the money immediately, saying he was “horrified” at what had happened.

The SDT said it found him “a credible and truthful witness” and his “indignation when it was put to him that his account was false to be genuine and compelling”.

Nonetheless, the SDT said Mr Austin was “duty bound to take steps to establish the provenance of the cheque with absolute certainty before paying it into his personal account”.

The fact that HMRC had not corresponded with him personally at work before and that tax rebates were not uncommon in the probate work he undertook “should have prompted him to take steps to investigate the position”.

By failing to do so, he had shown a lack of integrity, but the SDT said he had not been dishonest.

The tribunal acknowledged that the direct harm caused was “minimal”; the primary harm was to the reputation of the profession.

“Wildly inaccurate time recording and the payment of client monies into a personal bank account without undertaking appropriate checks was conduct which may seriously harm the reputation of the profession,” it said.

This was aggravated by the element of “concealment” involved in “dumping” time on the probate file “to give the impression that [he] was meeting his targets”.

The SDT handed Mr Austin a nine-month suspension and said that, on his return to practice, he could not be an owner, partner or compliance officer at any firm, and could neither hold client money nor be a signatory on a client account so that “he did not have unsupervised control over client monies”.

“Public confidence in the legal profession demanded no lesser sanction for the serious misconduct which had been found proved,” it said.

It also ordered Mr Austin to pay costs of £20,000.

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