The recent case of Claire Matthews, a junior solicitor who was struck off after lying about a missing briefcase, has thrown the spotlight on mental wellbeing in the legal profession.
Matthews, a recently-qualified solicitor at the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) external advisers, took documents home in a lockable briefcase while acting for the regulator in a data protection case. However, she subsequently fell asleep on the train home and left it behind. The briefcase has not been found.
When asked, she lied to colleagues about the whereabouts of the papers. A week later she informed her firm that the documents had been left on the train that morning, a further inaccuracy. Matthews told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that she was overcome by “uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic” upon realising the briefcase was lost and claimed she tried to kill herself as a result.
Neither Matthews nor the firm reported it to the SRA and it was a complaint from an involved party that sparked the investigation. The SDT found that the delay in reporting what had happened breached the firm's information security policy and contravened Matthews' duty to maintain the trust the public placed in her and in the provision of legal services.
The SDT struck her off the Roll having found that she acted dishonestly by concealing the loss of the documents and by providing further untrue information.
However, concerns have been raised within the legal profession about the sanction and the process of the decision and numerous lawyers have offered to assist Matthews should she choose to appeal.
The SRA's approach to handling junior solicitors who have said that their mental health issues have contributed to their misconduct has previously caused segments of the profession to express concern.
The SDT rarely demonstrates leniency should a solicitor lie. Reported cases show that on appeal the Court* adopts a similar and arguably exacting approach despite mental health/ stress issues being a factor. Giving judgment on a case in 2018, Lord Justice Flaux concluded: “It may be that pressure of work or an aggressive, uncaring workplace could excuse carelessness by a solicitor or a lapse of concentration or making a mistake, but dishonesty of any kind is a completely different and more serious matter.”
Avoiding the risk
Without doubt, the profession now pays closer attention to its employees' wellbeing. Perhaps the wider issues of stressful environments and culture will be considered more holistically as part of the regulatory landscape.
The case of Matthews should perhaps reinforce firms' awareness of all their employees' wellbeing. No solicitor is immune to stress and anxiety whatever the level of Post-Qualified Experience.
Firms are increasingly aware that stress and anxiety can negatively affect productivity. They can also result in a heightened risk of professional negligence claims or regulatory investigations against the firm. Underwriters are alive to this risk and are keen to understand a firms' culture and initiatives concerning wellbeing.
Some practical measures to support workplace wellbeing might include:
- Foster a no blame culture where staff are encouraged to be open about mistakes.
- Train/educate managers to recognise early signs of stress.
- Build a mentoring scheme.
- Encourage discussions about general wellbeing between colleagues.
- Increase awareness at year end or at promotion times.
- Align the firm's core values with wellbeing and demonstrate your commitment to them.
At Lockton, we are aware of the risk to our clients arising from employee stress and anxiety. We are happy to share some of our own initiatives with clients and participate in a general discussion around these issues. If you would like to engage with Lockton about these, or any issues, please contact your Account Executive or Claims Advocate.
Matthews has now filed her appeal at the Administrative Court on the grounds that the SDT failed to investigate and properly evaluate the impact of the incident on her mental health and therefore erred in its misconduct and dishonesty findings.
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