The right kind of lawyer
Nicola Laver asks, is there a right or wrong kind of person to be a solicitor?
This is the question I pondered for days having read a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) judgment on a family solicitor who told the tribunal in his statement he was “not the right type of person to be a solicitor” and, though technically competent, he was “a square peg in a round hole”.
Criminal convictions aside, I’m not at all convinced there’s a right or wrong type of person to practice in the legal profession. Each solicitor is unique and follows a career path reflecting their own professional interests, strengths and passions – and allowing for their weaknesses.
Natural leaders progress into senior management roles; business-orientated individuals migrate to commercial areas of law; and lawyers driven by a profound sense of justice may focus on criminal defence work, family law or human rights. Some lawyers relish the challenges of working with a large team in a City firm; others eschew the politics of big law and prefer the small firm culture.
But the reality is, every solicitor requires a level of support; and this is where teamwork and effective management and supervision are vital. Without this support structure, there’s the risk of weaknesses in the system and a higher risk of error; and if mistakes happen individuals may hesitate (or even avoid) admitting to them.
Let’s not pretend we’re robots: artificial intelligence may reduce human error in automated legal processes – but we are talking about humans here. By our very nature, we make mistakes, and this leads to two key issues. First, does our working environment allow lawyers the confidence to admit a significant error or oversight to their superiors?
Second, do we learn from our mistakes? Most solicitors undoubtedly do (and I firmly believe we must make mistakes to learn certain lessons) but the SDT is having to deal with the same issues time and again, as a solicitor says in this month’s issue (see page 62). Among these issues are lying and whitewashing incriminating facts, and client account breaches. Susanna Heley points out that in many cases the original mistakes could have been rectified easily or through professional indemnity insurance – if only the solicitor had owned up.
It’s not an easy thing to do: I’ve been there and remember it well. I was some three years’ qualified and on the morning of a property completion it dawned on me I had not ordered the mortgage advance. Given the culture of openness in which I worked, and the great relationship with my supervising partner, I went straight to him (though I also recall climbing the stairs with wobbly legs!).
There was no sharp rebuke, rather a ‘let’s get it sorted’ approach: “Call the lender, tell them what’s happened” – and if it went pear shaped that’s what the firm’s insurance was for. In the event, the lender sent the advance within a couple of hours and completion went ahead as planned. I never forgot to send the report on title to a lender again.
Solicitors must avoid compromising their duty to act with integrity when they know they’ve made an error. Come 25 November, the regulatory framework will be tighter as the SRA’s new regulatory arrangements come into force. It’s important to know that under the new arrangements, the SRA makes clear it will be possible for a solicitor to behave without integrity without necessarily being dishonest. If there were any doubts after rulings such as SRA v Malins  EWCA Civ 366 and Wingate and Evans v SRA, the bar has been lowered.
How do we help maintain the integrity of solicitors? Fostering an open workplace culture is a good start, enabling lawyers who recognise they’ve made an error to speak up so that any necessary action can be taken.
Far better for the profession that solicitors feel they can be open about their mistakes than suppress them – and risk paying the ultimate professional price before the SDT.