A solicitor who failed to meet billing targets under a law firm’s ‘pathway to partnership’ scheme was not unfairly dismissed, an employment tribunal has ruled.
It found that despite a “bust-up” between junior associate Alexandra Jenkins and partner Catherine Watkins at the former’s appraisal, it did not breach the implied term of mutual trust and confidence in the contract between employer and employee and so the claim for constructive unfair dismissal failed.
“It appeared to me that there was a disconnect between the claimant’s own perception of her performance and her worth to the firm, and that of the partners,” the judge said.
“It was for the partners to make decisions about their business and, in particular, to make decisions as to who would be promoted within the firm and groomed for partnership.
“My view of the meeting was that the claimant was on the defensive within it, perhaps recognising that, by reference to the fee income data, she had not performed to the required level. Overall, I did not consider that that involved a breach of the implied term.”
Ms Jenkins joined two-partner South Wales law firm Newbold Solicitors in 2014, specialising in residential conveyancing.
She began working part-time for three days a week, increased to four in 2016 and in December 2017, following a period of maternity leave, she “undertook a role across all of the firm’s offices reviewing conveyancing files and dealing with complaints”.
The pathway to partnership programme was introduced in 2018, the year that Ms Jenkins became a junior associate. Under it, a solicitor would be promoted to junior associate after a year, and then two years later, if criteria were met, to senior associate. After a period as senior associate, they could go on to become a salaried partner.
Despite the written document, the judge said there was “some confusion” among the partners and Ms Jenkins as to what it meant, with all the parties “anticipating that progress would be made from junior associate to senior associate after one year”.
Ms Jenkins began working at the firm’s Neath office in September 2018, but the office was closed and the solicitor was transferred to the Barry office, where Ms Watkins was based, from April 2019.
It was agreed that Ms Jenkins would manage the Barry office on a day-to-day basis, with Ms Watkins focusing on her role as head of litigation, and “also on her partnership role generally”.
At the time of her appraisal meeting in October 2019, after which Ms Jenkins resigned, her billing record was £63,000 against a target of £75,000.
Ms Jenkins believed that the fees she had generated since October 2018 had been “really promising, but that there appeared to be obstacles being placed in front of her”.
She “felt strongly” that she was ready to be promoted to senior associate and also that she deserved it.
The judge said the “disconnect” between the parties was “exacerbated due to what I can only describe as a ‘bust up’ between the claimant and Ms Watkins” at the appraisal.
The spark was Ms Jenkins claiming that two members of staff had recounted Ms Watkins as saying “Alex thinks it is her office, it isn’t, it is mine”, and then refusing the partner’s demand to reveal their identities.
The judge said: “My conclusion was that, whilst it was certainly inappropriate of Mrs Watkins to indicate her annoyance to such a degree, it seemed that the claimant very much gave as good as she got in relation to this exchange, and that neither party handled it as well as they should have.”
He decided that the firm was not unreasonable in refusing to depart from the criteria in the pathway to partnership policy.
“Indeed, the indications from the evidence were that the claimant’s junior associate colleague was hitting her targets but that she, in any event, was not promoted to senior associate until late 2020 or early 2021.”
Other instances cited by the solicitor, such as how she was supervised and the extent to which she was allowed to manage the Barry office, were also insufficient to ruin the relationship of trust and confidence.
The judge finished: “Overall my conclusion was that, whilst there were occasions on which the respondent, particularly Ms Watkins, is not likely to look back on its, or in particular her, behaviour in relation to the claimant with any pride, it nevertheless was not behaviour which was calculated or likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of confidence and trust between it and the claimant.”