The JLD is concerned about the treatment of some trainees during their training contract and that the SRA, as the profession’s regulator, should provide better advice and assistance to these vulnerable members.
On 16 January 2013 Heather Iqbal-Rayner, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, wrote to Charles Plant, chair of the SRA board regarding the lack of protection afforded to trainee solicitors. A full transcript of the letter is set out below.
If you wish to comment on this letter or provide us with examples of where you have been subjected to similar experiences in the work place or been professionally compromised please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The JLD wants to hear from you in order to continue its dialogue with the SRA on this important issue. All emails will be treated in the strictest confidence.
‘I write to you as the new chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division. We are a body who represent SRA members from LPC students, trainee solicitors, and qualified solicitors of up to five years’ PQE. Our membership at any one time is in the region of 75,000.
I, myself, am a social welfare and housing lawyer and I qualified almost two years ago. At my admissions ceremony I distinctly recall John Wotton, former Law Society president who was officiating at the event, speaking about upholding integrity within the legal profession. Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with Mr Wotton’s sentiments, I felt that I personally had witnessed very poor standards of integrity within the firms I had encountered during my paralegal and training period.
It was not until I became vice-chair of the JLD that I realised that my experiences were far from unique.
We receive frequent communication from trainee solicitors asking for advice and assistance when their training principals bully, abuse, pressurise, and in some cases, blackmail them. These enquiries include trainees making financial errors which have been overlooked by their principals causing a deficit in the client account. Instead of the firm taking responsibility for the correction of this deficit, trainees have been asked to refund the money under the threat that if they do not carry out this action they will be unable to qualify as solicitors. Other examples, to name but a few, include when training contracts are signed by both parties and the firm fails to ever lodge the training contract with the SRA, and when trainees are told to ignore either financial breaches or unethical behaviour again under the threat of the withdrawal of their contracts.
The SRA issues, regulates, and provides guidance for the contract itself. When the JLD receive the type of enquiries cited above, we, of course, pass those enquiries to the SRA as the regulator of the training contract. The feedback received subsequent to these referrals is always that the trainee has been advised that the SRA cannot assist because it is not in ‘the public interest’ for it to do so and/or it advises that any breach of the terms of the training contract should be taken up as employment matter to the Employment Tribunal Service. In light of the changes regarding the two year employment period needed to now bring a claim for unfair dismissal, a trainee working under a fixed term two year training contract has no recourse via the tribunal service.
The JLD questions whether the SRA as a regulator is satisfied that it is doing enough to protect trainee solicitors and uphold the integrity of the profession. We suggest that, having closely followed the publication in the Law Gazette of the findings of the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal, we cannot identify any cases of a training principal being reprimanded for grossly abusing his/her position.
The JLD has recently participated in your consultation regarding co-operation agreements by pointing out that the SRA should not necessarily only look to protect senior solicitors who whistleblow (and who may be complicit in some ways in a firm’s misdemeanours), but it should also be protecting trainee solicitors who often have access to files of those who are, perhaps in some way, in breach of the Code of Conduct.
We would therefore welcome an incorporation and acknowledgement of the protection of both junior whistleblowers and, if applicable, protection of their training contracts. This, however, will not wholly address the concerns we have about the lack of sanctions being brought against principal solicitors who fail to uphold the terms and aims of the training contract. Is the SRA prepared, when receiving complaints from trainee solicitors, to fully investigate and act upon these complaints?
We assert that protecting junior lawyers, who are themselves the future principals and senior solicitors, is absolutely in the ‘public interest’. The SRA, as the regulatory body, should want all current and future lawyers to act with integrity and in full compliance of the Solicitors’ Rules, the Code of Conduct, and the Legal Services Act 2007. We would like you to state precisely how the SRA intends to protect and uphold the requirements set out within the training contract and if it is not prepared to support this request then we ask for a full explanation as to why it feels that it is not in a position to do so.
We thank you for your consideration of this request and look forward to receiving your reply in due course.’