Cutting corners

May 1, 2014

Five things you’re tempted to do but really shouldn’t

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Can a ‘moment of madness’ really compel a solicitor to do something so reckless as to jeopardise his or her professional life?

That’s what Katherine Edwards claimed when she recently faced the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for forging colleagues’ signatures on two Lasting Powers of Attorney while still a trainee.

Legal practice today is undoubtedly pressurised for all solicitors. But if you can’t cut the mustard, don’t pretend you can by cutting corners.

Here are our top five temptations to avoid:

  1. Don’t misuse client funds. Whether it’s to pay for the exotic holiday you can’t afford or to boost your school fees fund, or to make sure there’s sufficient wine flowing at the firm’s Christmas bash, just don’t do it. Of course, you fully intend paying it back soon. But like Arthur Fowler, you will be caught first.
  2. Don’t alter legal documents. Whether it’s to boost a client’s defence, to cut the stamp duty payable, to alter a chronology to cast doubt on a claim – or simply because you’re bored and imagination got the better of you – just keep the facts as they are.
  3. Don’t mislead clients or third parties. Emailing a nagging business client that his commercial transaction will complete next Tuesday when you know full well it won’t might momentarily ease off the pressure on you but you’ll get your fingers burnt. Apart from the inevitable complaint from the client – and anyone else affected – your firm will face a financial claim if your client paid out money on the basis of your representation. Your reputation will also take a knocking.
  4. Don’t forge a signature. Not a client’s, not a colleague’s, not your senior partner’s – and definitely not your ex–wife’s. Even if you can’t recall doing so – as rogue solicitor Andrew Mandleberg claimed. You will probably be struck off.
  5. Don’t ignore limitation expiry dates. Even if it means having to tell your boss there’s no time to file your client’s counterclaim and your client decides to sue. It takes guts to admit to an error – and at least you’re unlikely to get struck off. Just don’t brush it under the carpet.

SDT cases are often reported (just check the Law Society Gazette for some of the latest SDT decisions, or look at the SDT website) and make for interesting reading. Recent cases include a solicitor fabricating a client letter for personal benefit and a firm using client money to send staff on an internet marketing course.

What’s clear is that whether it’s cutting corners or deliberate and calculated dishonesty, the culprit is unlikely to escape the regulator’s watchful eye. For the most part, today’s law firms have robust risk and compliance procedures in place, particularly the larger firms who can dedicate more resources than their smaller counterparts.

Don’t carry on doctoring

Doctoring file notes is a typical example of cutting corners. Facing a complaint from a dissatisfied client and worried about your file being investigated? Solution: check your file, spot the error in a file note, add a sentence/alter a draft agreement/change the date – and all’s well that ends well.

Except it probably won’t.

This writer worked in a regional commercial firm where a partner nearing retirement had an unblemished professional record and was highly respected by clients and colleagues alike. A complaint loomed, an attendance note or two were altered, resulting inconsistencies became apparent when the file was inspected and he was disciplined – finally ‘retiring’ in disgrace.

In the Edwards case, the SRA noted she did not have sufficient experience, which begs the question of what supervision procedures her firm had in place. Perhaps her ‘moment of madness’ was symptomatic of an inherent lack of supervision that made her panic and forge the signatures.

But she compounded her problems by failing to mention the incident on applying to the SRA for a practising certificate. She was struck off the roll, ordered to pay £2,000 costs and her professional life is in ruins before it had barely begun.

After the decision, the SRA’s enforcement chief Gordon Ramsay said:

Solicitors hold positions of trust, and the Principles we ask them to abide by state they must act with integrity and maintain that trust that the public puts in them. Those solicitors that fail to uphold these Principles can expect to face severe consequences.

Perhaps it’s time for lawyers to pin these cautionary words on their office wall. NL 

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