In spring 2023 the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) issued new wellbeing at work rules. They include specific obligations in the Codes of Conduct for both firms and individuals to treat colleagues fairly and with respect, and not to engage in bullying, harassment or unfair discrimination. These new additions cover similar ground to the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination and harassment by all UK employers, so what is different now?
1) Beyond the Equality Act
The SRA rules go beyond the scope of the Equality Act firstly by creating a specific positive obligation that individuals treat colleagues fairly and with respect. It also requires managers (a partner/member/director of a firm depending on its legal structure) and the firm to take a pro-active approach to deal with issues. In addition, the SRA’s focus is more broadly on workplace culture and is not limited to the relationship between the firm and the individual employee.
2) Spotlight on workplace culture in law firms
The rule changes follow the SRA’s Workplace Culture Thematic Review in early 2022, which gathered views from organisations, firms and individuals in the legal sector. A quarter of respondents felt that their firm did not have a positive workplace culture. The review also highlighted concerns such as long working hours, pressures from clients, high workloads and targets.
Previous research, including by the charity LawCare and the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society, had highlighted high levels of stress, bullying and discrimination in the sector.
So, even if problems aren’t universal, the research points towards a clear need for change. While some in the legal profession don’t see scrutiny of the human relationships within a firm as part of the regulator’s role and consider the SRA is overstepping, we’ve seen similar increased scrutiny of non-financial misconduct by the Financial Conduct Authority in that sector (and similar resistance).
But the connection between human behaviour and regulatory risk is clear. In recent years there have been cases where it has been suggested that a firm's working culture has contributed to individuals, especially junior solicitors, committing misconduct.
3) Regulatory issue
The SRA have made it clear that it is up to firms how they run their individual businesses, however this change means it will become a regulatory issue if “poor working cultures start to impact staff wellbeing, behaviour and ultimately standards of service to the public” (Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive).
The guidance published to accompany the new rules gives examples of what could be considered a serious regulatory failure. These include “where the work environment does not support the delivery of appropriate outcomes and services to clients. Or creates a culture in which unethical behaviour can flourish or where staff are persistently unable to raise concerns or have issues addressed.”
The new rules demonstrate the SRA is willing to regulate to initiate cultural change in law firms. For anyone who has worked in a high-pressure law firm, the link between culture, wellbeing and client service standards is incontrovertible. The point at which the SRA will intervene to address what it sees as issues will no doubt become clearer as the changes bed in.
4) Impacts everyone
The new rules include specific obligations for individuals, law firms and managers. There is an obligation for both individuals and law firms to treat colleagues fairly and with respect, and not to engage in bullying, harassment or unfair discrimination. There is a further obligation on managers to “challenge behaviour” that does not meet this standard. The SRA guidance on the new rules defines challenge behaviour as taking action to address the behaviour which has been witnessed.
Workplace culture is under the spotlight across all sectors. The new SRA wellbeing at work rules provide a good opportunity to ensure everyone in your firm understands their role and responsibility in fostering a positive workplace culture.
To learn how you can navigate these SRA conduct requirements and provide essential training to equip your law firm partners with the knowhow to fulfil their regulated role and minimise the risk of non-compliance, please click here