09 Feb 2022

Law firms must give lawyers and staff 'psychologically safe' ways to address workplace culture concerns, says SRA

New survey urges firms to improve workplace culture by training line managers, improving reporting measures and a promoting healthy work-life balance from the top down

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The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has issued new guidance for law firms looking to promote more positive working environments as law firm working culture continues to be placed under the microscope during the pandemic. 

The regulator’s Workplace Culture Thematic Review – targetted at law firms in England and Wales – was based on the views of some 200 solicitors and additional feedback from industry stakeholders, found that while the majority of respondents felt positively about their work environments, there was still progress to be made with regards to issues like systematic bullying, discrimination and mental health. 

Other areas of concern ranged from an overemphasis on targets and ‘wholly unreasonable’ workloads to abuses of authority by senior staff going unchecked by the firm and firms pressuring staff to withdraw any lodged complaints. 

The SRA said it published the new guidance after receiving complaints that some firms have fostered ‘unsupportive, bullying or toxic’ working environments and cultures. 

These firms failed to provide adequate support systems and supervision necessary to deliver legally competent services by exerting pressure to take short cuts or act unethically, according to the guidance. 

The practical guidance encourages firms to do 'everything they reasonably can' to protect employees from bullying, harrasment, victimisation and discrimination by improving reporting procedures, fostering a safe environment for lawyers and staff to openly discuss mental health concerns and promoting a healthy work-life balance from the top down. Strategies include setting a positive example at the most senior level, training line managers to support lawyers and staff, singing up for initiatives such as the Mindful Business Charter, communicating clear working hour expectations with clients and emphasising other success metrics alongside financial performance. 

"I’ve underestimated how much junior people are influenced by senior leaders," one partner at a large law firm said. "If you say they don’t have to work late and weekends, but you are doing it - it doesn't ring true, and they will challenge it. Initially I argued that this was my role as a partner, but they said you're putting me off being a partner. It’s just not good enough to say do as I say, you must think about how it looks from their point of view in terms of their career."

While the SRA cannot direct working practices that law firms choose to adopt, it indicated it would hold individuals accountable for ‘serious failures’ in accordance with its enforcement strategy when firms fail to deal with matters on their own. 

“In the legal sector, a poor culture can not only affect personal wellbeing but also ethical behaviour, competence and ultimately the standard of service received by clients,” said Paul Phillip, chief executive of the SRA. 

Phillip said the thematic review was intended to help firms consider “what more they can do to ensure a positive culture, where solicitors at every level can speak up and the demands of a commercial environment are balanced with wellbeing”. 

“I urge solicitors and management to read these documents and take the necessary steps,” he said. 

Two CM Murray partners, employment and partnership law specialist Emma Bartlett and SRA professional discipline and regulatory expert Andrew Pavlovic, said the SRA's new publications "make it clear" that the regulator "will investigate firms where it appears that a failure to cultivate the right culture has played a role or contributed to individual misconduct". 

"Over the last two years, maintaining the firms culture whilst largely working remotely is challenging enough, but a bigger focus on health and wellbeing was undoubtedly required as a result of the changes the pandemic brought," Bartlett and Pavlovic said. "Lawyers continued to work long hours, and the need to maintain a culture of openness and feeling that it is safe to disclose any work issues, whether relating to client work or their own wellbeing, has never been more important."

The review also highlighted the role prioritising employee wellbeing can play in benefiting a firm’s bottom line by lowering staff turnover and recruitment costs, appearing more attractive to prospective talent and improving client experiences. 

Research published last year by Thomson Reuters and Georgetown Law showed more than half of law firms are now viewing acquiring and retaining talent as a high risk to future profitability. Some 31% of respondents expressed concern over staff being poached by competitors, making it the second-highest area of concern for the year ahead, while associate salary increases came in a close third at 29%. 

 

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