Heavy workloads hinder one in 10 in-house lawyers from completing regulatory duties

Study by professional regulator also shows that 5% of in-house counsel felt compelled to suppress information

Majority of in-house lawyers under pressure from business colleagues with some struggling to maintain independence Shutterstock

Around one in 10 in-house legal teams say their regulatory obligations have been compromised due to pressures to meet organisational priorities, according to a new survey of in-house lawyers based in England and Wales from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The survey found those pressures were typically linked to increased workloads, though 5% of respondents said they have felt compelled to suppress or ignore information that conflicts with their regulatory duties, raising questions about their independence. Some senior in-house lawyers admitted it is challenging to balance regulatory responsibilities while also maintaining effective working relationships with colleagues in the business.

One respondent said: “We are challenged if we say no because of the value of contracts. It is difficult to push back, particularly if you are a junior, so we have a senior member in the team to support them.”

The survey found that many in-house teams lack dedicated policies and controls to record and report legal risks and manage conflicts. Roughly two in three in-house lawyers said managing workloads is their biggest challenge, while 70% said demands from colleagues create the most pressure.

Some in-house lawyers are also struggling to keep their skills and knowledge up to date, with 10% saying they don’t have enough time for training and development. Most junior in-house counsel also have to manage their own training, the survey showed, with a quarter of juniors saying they have not received on-the-job training on professionalism, ethics and judgement.

Just over a third of senior leaders (35%) said they found it difficult to secure more budget to invest in their teams.

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Paul Philip, the SRA’s chief executive, said that while the majority are able to maintain their position as independent advisors, a minority of in-house lawyers struggle. He said: “We heard frequently that heavy workloads were a significant challenge. That is a problem if it means some in-house solicitors struggle to commit appropriate time to training or careful consideration of key decisions.”

The SRA surveyed more than 1,200 in-house lawyers based in the UK. It said it was committed to improving resources for in-house solicitors and would be “publishing new guidance tailored for the in-house community, launching dedicated online resources and running events to share best practice and get further feedback on areas where more support is needed”.

The ethical duties of in-house lawyers has come under the spotlight in the wake of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, which led to the suspensions, termination of contracts, wrongful prosecutions and convictions of hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

The SRA said in October it was "assessing whether individuals we regulate fulfilled their duties" but anticipated that it would need to wait until the end of a public inquiry into the scandal before taking further steps. 

A survey last year from LOD and SKYE found that in-house teams worldwide are facing the twin challenge of balancing risk management while workloads continue to increase.

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