The legal sector must have a joined-up approach to dealing with addiction, writes Jean-Yves Gilg
Noel Sedgley was looking forward to retiring. A respected sole practitioner with a spotless career, he set up his own Bournemouth-based firm in 1988. Then, last year, a close friend died, followed by a colleague. Work pressure suddenly increased. A negligence claim stalled the sale of the practice. Then the gambling started. In the space of two months, the 66-year-old solicitor made 59 transfers totalling more than £1.2m from the firm’s client account.
By the time Sedgley realised what he had done, it was too late. He had repaid the money, but this act of practical contrition showed he had been aware of the nature of his conduct. In the eyes of the law, he had been dishonest, and he was struck off. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has expressed sympathy for sole practitioners before. But much as it sought to look at the situation from a different angle, its hands seemed tied.
During the proceedings, Sedgley talked in terms of being ‘in a kamikaze state’ and ‘pressing the sod-it button’ but none of that mattered.
His isn’t the first case involving a previously blameless solicitor dipping into a client account to feed a stress-induced addiction, before making the money good later. Most of them end badly. However unfair it sometimes looks, once a dishonesty finding had been made, it’s difficult to ignore the consequences. That’s not to say the dishonesty test should be revised. Blunt and inflexible it may be, but it’s there as a unitary reference for moral standards. Could the tribunal have been kinder in finding some mitigating circumstances? This would have allowed Sedgley to close the final chapter of his career with some dignity.
Sedgley’s downfall is saddening enough as it is. More distressing, though, is how he felt there was nowhere to turn. Speaking to Solicitors Journal, by way of his lawyer, Sedgley said he was ‘really looking for help in a way that the profession is not geared up to provide’. Organisations such as LawCare are invaluable. Picking up the phone to their helpline is like finally reaching the lifeboat after your ship has capsized. For those suffering from addiction, it is the beginning of the fight back. But there are others, spiralling downwards, first feeling under control, experiencing the highs, in denial, until they eventually break down.
There is no single answer to how we can tackle addiction. But whichever way you think about it, the solution will require a deeper re-assessment of responsibility within the profession. Sole practitioners are not the only ones affected by addiction but they are probably the most exposed. Working mostly on their own, they rarely have a colleague with whom to split the burden of work or meaningfully share concerns.
Sedgley’s difficulties in selling his firm are not unusual, nor are the financial hurdles that many face trying to secure run-off cover. Structural change to the insurance market is a theoretical option. It would involve bringing PII back into semi-public hands or forcing insurers to offer affordable premiums for smaller firms with a certain risk profile. This would just be a return to the old days where the risk taken on by insurers is shared with the more affluent and less risky end of the sector. There is probably little appetite for this. So, solutions lie elsewhere.
With the right approach, the stigma attached to addiction could be dealt with and the real issues behind it addressed – work pressure, family breakup, bereavement – before they put us off balance. Firms should, as a matter of course, include wellbeing and stress awareness as part of in-house training. They could be made to by the regulator. It sounds a little regimented, but has anything else worked? It need not be complicated or cumbersome. Local law societies could help too, as referral points for isolated practitioners. We can all watch out for colleagues and be there for them in times of trouble, but something more needs to be done across the sector so others don’t press the self-destruct button.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal
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