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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Friends in need

Friends in need


Jean-Yves Gilg asks what more can be done to ensure lawyers have the mental health support they need to stay at the top of their game

The Solicitors Regulation Authority may have come across as overly formal in its response to the Junior Lawyer Division’s letter raising concerns about mental health and wellbeing, but what else did anyone expect?

SRA chief executive Paul Philip clarified that the regulator’s prosecution policy takes a balanced and fair view of the circumstances in each case.

Citing the new enforcement strategy, published last month, Philip wrote that when considering an individual’s conduct or behaviour, “the systems and environment in which the events took place” and “any effect this had on their judgement, and their responsibility or control they had over the matters in question” were considered.

Behind the seemingly formulaic approach, Philip’s letter is quite honest. He says, the SRA is “very mindful of the difficult and vulnerable position that trainees and juniors can find themselves in”. Anything less than that would have been callous, as well as lacking in credibility.

What Philip didn’t, and couldn’t, do was reopen the cases that prompted the JLD’s letter – whistleblower trainee Emily Scott and newly qualified solicitor Sovani James.

Philip didn’t headline his letter ‘tips for bullied trainees’ but it could have been read that way to some extent. The main reason the SRA sought strike off was the length of time both lawyers had allowed the misconduct to go undisclosed. The SDT agreed with this argument.

It’s not that they didn’t acknowledged Scott’ and James’s predicaments, but that both could have come to the SRA earlier.

Changing the prosecution policy would do little to improve wellbeing and combat bullying. In Scott’s case, the partners involved were struck off – there isn’t much more that could be done other than increasing the fine. But as criminal lawyers know, increasing sentencing tariffs doesn’t reduce crime.

Efforts should be made to encourage those in trouble to come forward by providing a safe environment. This would help not just junior lawyers but the profession as a whole. Certainly, the SRA could do more in this respect.

At present, it is possible to approach the regulator in confidence. For most lawyers in situations similar to Scott’ or James’s however, this is not enough.

Think about Scott, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to complete her training if she reported her supervisor. Even with the option of an anonymous report, she would have feared it being traced back to her.

It’s likely – at least one hopes – that if the process is managed properly, another firm could step in to offer top-up months. Even so, this is an incredibly tough decision to make for a lawyer only just embarking on their career.

Talking to peers and trusted friends can help, and organisations such as LawCare will provide support. They won’t make the decision for you, but they will help you think it through and point you to further professional support.

The SRA can’t be blamed for the unethical or downright horrendous behaviour of some in the profession, but it could do more. Perhaps an in-house, but arm’s-length, counselling department, an entity between LawCare and its enforcement unit, where lawyers can if they wish share concerns anonymously?

More structural changes would take time. The SRA is for the SDT moving to the civil standard of proof, but other changes would have to be brought in at the same time to balance out the outcome. One would be for the reversal of the precedent that dishonesty results in automatic strike off (see page 62 of this month's magazine for Susanna Heley’s compelling argument).

For the time being, Philip’s letter has opened the door to conversations with the profession, and lawyers should seize the extended hand and engage. But most of all, make sure friends and colleagues in need know you are there for them if they need you.