The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has criticised a firm for creating an atmosphere where a junior lawyer said she was ‘terrified’ of admitting her mistakes.
Sovani Ramona James, who worked at the time for south east firm McMillan Williams, was found to have acted dishonestly in creating and backdating letters to give the impression that a clinical negligence case was progressing.
James’s misconduct had included dating four letters for opponents and medical experts as September 2014, when metadata on the firm’s computer system found they were created in November that year. The misconduct was only detected after James, 34, left the firm in 2015.
But the tribunal opted against striking her off the roll after concluding her primary motivation was ‘fear’ of the consequences from the firm’s management of the discovery of her wrongdoing.
James reported that the firm’s culture had changed from being supportive to being focused on billing and that the environment was ‘toxic’, with a ‘culture of fear’ created among junior solicitors. The tribunal heard that league tables were published each month showing the performance of every fee earner, and staff were expected to sign in and out at the start and end of each working day.
Giving evidence to the tribunal, the firm’s HR manager did not agree that the atmosphere at the firm changed in 2012/13 and said there was not significant financial strain put on solicitors.
In its judgment, the tribunal said: ‘Pressures suffered by management were passed down to the fee earning team who must have felt that they were carrying the weight of the world on their junior shoulders.’
The tribunal heard that James had been warned in an email in 2012 that she had recorded 75 hours short of her target of 1,440 hours for the previous year. Her target was subsequently increased for the next year to 1,515 hours.
A letter from managing partner Colum Smith in April 2013 said her record showed ‘fundamental problems’ with her time recording and it was assumed she would be working every weekend and long hours during the week to catch up.
This letter, the tribunal said, was ‘threatening and harassing in tone’, with the intention of frightening James into compliance and showing no interest in any pressures she was under.
The tribunal’s judgment said that awareness and openness around mental health issues had increased in recent years and law firms should be more alert to the warning signs.
‘Management should be able to respond appropriately, for example by providing access to external counselling services. We have all become much more aware of bullying and harassment in the workplace, which can have a significant impact on employees.’
The tribunal was told by a former colleague of James’s that lawyers were constantly told they would lose their jobs and that failure was their fault. Another reported that under-performing junior lawyers were regularly told they were losing the firm money and they should be grateful to have their jobs.
The tribunal heard that James lost a significant amount of weight during the period in question, her hair fell out in clumps and she would break down in tears.
She has since moved closer to home and has worked for almost three years at The Roland Partnership in Chester. The tribunal ruled that James’s misconduct had been exceptional and she should be able to continue her career. It imposed a two-year ban, which would be suspended for three years and ordered that she pay £9,511 costs.
McMillan Williams has been approached for comment.