Trainees must not be afraid to ask for help

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 7 February 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission.

Anyone who holds themselves out to be infallible is fallible for precisely that reason, writes Pippa Allsop.

In the space of a week, two junior solicitors have been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Following his training contract with them, Cain and Cochran Solicitors set Paul Gill up as an associate and tasked him with the formulation of a new employment department. Eight out the ten allegations levelled against Gill by the SDT were found to be proven, including falsification of documents and a failure to properly advise clients. The tribunal commented that Gill ‘wanted to progress and enhance his role and did not want to be criticised’ and that he had ‘put on a veneer that everything was alright’. Sound familiar? Only to every trainee or newly qualified in any law firm – ever.

Crucially, his conduct, though desperate, was dishonest and found to have been ‘deliberate and repeated and continued over a period of time’. He was described brutally but perhaps accurately as ‘completely incompetent… like a “rabbit in the headlights”’, unable to ask for help as he became increasingly trapped in a spiral of trying to cover up his mistakes.

Similarly, Paul Smith, a five years’ PQE solicitor at Williamsons, has been struck off for apparently trying (and failing) to manage a 170 plus personal injury caseload, which led to him making a ‘series of deliberate acts of concealment’ , including the fabrication of documents, lying to clients about the progression of their matters, and even paying thousands of pounds in settlement monies from his own savings – all to save face.

Like Gill, Smith’s motive was not found to be for financial gain. Of course, how could it be when he was transferring large amounts of his own money to try to appease clients and cover his own mistakes?

I cannot downplay the fact that both of these solicitors were incompetent, or the significance of the difficulties caused for their clients by the errors made. At the same time, though, I cannot help but feel these individuals have also been failed at the very outset of their career.

This sympathy has been shared by many other commentators on both cases and I sense will be keenly felt by those NQs who have had not too dissimilar (but much less extreme) experiences. In Gill’s case, his firm was also a party to proceedings and was ultimately fined £7,500 together with a costs order of £20,000 as punishment for ‘the lack of supervision [which] lasted from when [Gill] commenced at the firm until he left’.

Not that long ago, as a trainee, I recall a partner calling me to their desk to discuss a task I was to undertake. They were not unkind or dismissive, but there were a considerable number of acronyms used, some of which I misheard and all of which I did not understand. I duly attempted to note them down, nodding and making agreeing-type noises at appropriate intervals

Those people in my short career for whom I have held the most respect have been those who have been able to admit they do not know an answer, or have done something wrong by omission or error. Conversely, those individuals who have either forgotten what it is like to be at the start of your career, or simply do not care, are the ones I have distanced myself from. They are not conducive to a healthy working ethos, and worse, they can even perpetuate the problem of trainees or NQs being too afraid to ask for help.

For me, the take-home message from these cases is that everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. And anyone who holds themselves out to be infallible is fallible for precisely that reason.

For more information please contact Pippa Allsop.