Law charity calls for culture change after solicitor is spared being struck off on grounds of anxiety and stress

The charity LawCare has urged the solicitors’ profession to change its culture after a junior solicitor who had committed dishonesty offences was allowed to continue practising because her firm had failed to support her when she began showing signs of anxiety and stress.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Sovani Romana James falsely created and backdated letters to give the impression that a case was progressing, but granted leniency because her managers had failed to offer support when she showed signs that her mental health was being affected by sustained pressure to record more hours. As Legal Futures reports, the tribunal specifically identified the culture of the firm in question as contributing to James’ mental ill-health at the time she committed the offences. James told the tribunal that her hair was falling out in clumps and that she was often tearful at work, but managers had not been supportive.

The tribunal said that law firm managers should be “more alert” to the signs of mental health problems and suggested that firms should consider providing access to external counselling when employees exhibit such signs.

LawCare agrees and has called on firms to change their cultures to be more supportive of lawyers under pressure. The charity said in a statement: “We know that making the transition into practice can be a particularly vulnerable time for junior lawyers and that an approachable and supportive management style is vital at the start of their legal careers. The legal environment is competitive, the 24/7 culture is widespread, firms are under financial pressures and people drawn to the law are often perfectionist in their approach and find it hard to admit mistakes or that they are struggling for fear of being seen as weak or not cut out for the job. All of these factors contribute to an environment that can take its toll on the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers. We need to do something about this. Things shouldn’t get to the point where a lawyer feels the need to cover up mistakes and act dishonestly as this has widespread repercussions – for the lawyer concerned, the client, the firm and the reputation of the profession.”

Addressing the specific issue of mental health, LawCare continued: “We need an open culture of acceptance in the legal community that it’s ok to talk about how we are feeling. If this young lawyer had been able to ask for help and speak with her manager about how she was feeling, that she was finding the pressures of work overwhelming, that she needed support, she may not have landed up on the path that found her and the firm’s culture before the SDT. There is growing awareness about the importance of mental health in the legal workplace and more and more firms are putting the wellbeing of their people at the top of their agendas. This painful case is a stark reminder of why mental health really does matter in the legal community and we hope that lessons are learnt.”

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