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Can regulation change workplace culture at law firms?

- Professionals talk in boardroom Workplace culture

Law firms’ workplace culture is now set to be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) following the approval from the super-regulator, the Legal Services Board (LSB), issued on 4 April. The SRA’s codes of conduct for individuals and firms have now been amended to include these requirements, as noted below. We review the changes and effects of the SRA’s broader remit of regulation and set out what it means for law firms.

For Individuals: “1.5 You treat colleagues fairly and with respect. You do not bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them. If you are a manager you challenge behaviour that does not meet this standard.” Read more in the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors.

For Firms: “1.6 You treat those who work for and with you fairly and with respect, and do not bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them. You require your employees to meet this standard.” Read more in the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms.

Individuals will be required to treat not just other solicitors, but those working for the firm, as well as barristers and experts “fairly and with respect” and managers have to call out behaviour when they do not. Law firms will be responsible for upholding these standards.

What does this mean for law firms?

1. Updating internal policies and procedures

Law firms will need to consider their existing policies to establish the kind of behaviour that is reportable, as well as internal protocols of dealing with these matters. Awaited SRA guidance on ‘Workplace environment’ should help. The Equality Act 2010 still provides a legal route to challenge such behaviour and the Employment Tribunal is intended to be the primary route to decide whether treatment is unfair or discriminatory.

2. Reporting to the SRA

A ‘serious breach’ of the requirements is expected to be reported to the SRA, although it is not clear where the responsibility for the breach will lie, with the individual or the firm? The SRA’s Enforcement Strategy will be key to understanding the obligations of when to report behaviour to the SRA.

Why are these changes being brought in?

The SRA has stated that these obligations are intended to support the wellbeing and mental health of those who work at law firms. By improving the working environment, the SRA further hopes that solicitors will be able to better support clients and comply with the duties they are required to comply with under the codes of conduct. The changes are also intended to help lower the risk of reputational damage to law firms and improve public confidence in the profession.

Will the changes be effective?

Defining behaviour that does not meet standards of treating others fairly and with respect, and what amounts to a ‘serious breach’, as well as setting out how managers are expected to challenge such behaviour will only be one part in ensuring that law firms comply.

In practice, complying with the requirements in cases where individuals and firms fall short of doing so, will depend on whether individuals feel comfortable to report and have trust and confidence in the process of how the report will be dealt with.

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