"In this life, one thing counts,
In the bank, large amounts,
I'm afraid these don't grow on trees,
You've got to beast a junior or two"
Young solicitors are being "hauled" before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in "disproportionate numbers for small mistakes" and "losing their careers," according to the president of the largest local law society in the country.
Paul Sharma, president of the Westminster and Holborn Law Society (WHLS), criticised the "rotten" culture in law firms, in a speech to the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society. He said "inordinate pressure" was being applied on young solicitors, who were "burdened with mountains of work" they were expected to complete "within impossible deadlines."
The WHLS president slammed City firms for their "outdated" approach, with partners dumping work on junior lawyers, to avoid the "hassle" of doing it themselves. Partners view themselves as too "important and busy" to do the work, as they're attending "expensive client lunches", he added.
Partners also make junior lawyers work long hours, to mirror the 12-hour days they endured when they were that age, claimed Sharma. He equated this to "the old argument for corporal punishment by angry, damaged adults – 'A good thrashing didn’t do me any harm'."
The pressure "to bill high legal costs, forces mistakes and bad judgment," said Sharma. But he was dismayed that when junior lawyers appear before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, they are often unable to afford legal counsel. The WHLS president told the audience that he has therefore launched a campaign for the Law Society to pay for solicitors to be legally represented at disciplinary hearings.
Sharma highlighted the case of junior solicitor Claire Matthews, who was struck off after she lied about leaving a briefcase with work documents on a train. Matthews "worked impossible hours under mountainous pressure", said Sharma, and went into a "blind panic" when she lost the files. She represented herself at the SDT hearing, as she could not afford the legal fees. However, the SRA assembled "a battalion of lawyers" and "went hunting for a scalp," claimed Sharma.
"Surely, equity and equality of arms demanded that Claire Mathews had legal representation," said the WHLS president. "That fundamental principle of justice that all accused deserve to be adequately and properly represented before punishment." And he said that senior partners in City firms would be able to "afford equality of arms" when it came to legal representation, but that "young solicitors more often cannot".
Matthews will have her case reheard, following a crowdfunded appeal.
“We are aware of members’ concerns about costs in the SDT, particularly their impact on more junior solicitors," a Law Society spokeswoman told RollOnFriday.
"It’s true there is an inequality of arms between the individual solicitor and the prosecution in the tribunal, which is why the Law Society has consistently advocated that the higher (criminal) burden of proof applies at the SDT," the spokeswoman added. "We are looking at ways to offer more support to members appearing in the SDT, within the limits of what we are able to do under the current regulatory regime.”
The SRA declined to comment.
A recent survey found that one in five solicitors have experienced bulling, discrimination or harassment in the workplace over the last year, and junior lawyers are at risk of burnout.