The legal sector was recently shaken by the case of Oliver Bretherton, a former legal director at an international law firm, who was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for sexually predatory conduct involving junior staff members.
This case is a sobering reminder of the importance of maintaining professional integrity within the legal profession and has set a significant precedent for handling non-criminal sexual misconduct.
Leaders must also take account of the SRA’s appetite for targeting law firm management teams, in addition to the guilty parties. At the recent COLP COFA Conference, Paul Philip (SRA Chief Executive) said that the regulator aims to force firms into greater accountability. “The profession knows who the bad lawyers are…We will try and use fines as a way of instilling self-regulation,” he told a packed Birmingham conference hall.
Zero Tolerance and Strong Reporting Frameworks
A clear zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct is the cornerstone of a firm’s preventative strategy. Law firms should not only articulate such policies clearly but also ensure that they are part of the firm’s culture. The SRA’s guidance on sexual misconduct emphasises that such behaviour is incompatible with the principles of the profession, and firms must have secure reporting channels that protect and support whistleblowers.
Ongoing education and training are instrumental in creating an environment that respects professional boundaries. The Bretherton case highlights the necessity for all firm members to understand the gravity of sexual misconduct and the nuances of power dynamics that can lead to it. Workshops and seminars can keep these conversations active and relevant.
Policy Reviews and Updates
Law firms must regularly review their internal policies against the latest SRA guidelines and adapt their procedures accordingly. Outdated or lax policies can no longer suffice in addressing the complexities of workplace misconduct.
Leadership and Accountability
The role of leadership in preventing workplace misconduct cannot be overstated. Senior staff members should be held accountable to exemplify the firm’s ethical standards. Their actions set a tone for the firm’s attitude towards misconduct and integrity. Allegations of sexual misconduct must not be allowed to be swept under the rug.
Support for Affected Individuals
Supporting victims of misconduct is as crucial as preventive measures. The SRA guidance suggests firms should provide access to counselling and legal support for those affected. This aligns with the SDT’s acknowledgment of the “significant and profound harm” caused to the victims in the Bretherton case.
Enforcement of Consequences
The consequences for violating the professional standards must be clearly communicated within the firm. It is clear that legal regulators are serious about enforcing standards.
Creating a Preventative Workplace Culture
A culture that anticipates and prevents potential misconduct can be cultivated through regular feedback and culture audits. Law firms need to know who the bad apples are, in what situations and environments they are likely to strike, and should encourage a workplace where such behaviour is never normalised.
The Bretherton case is a stark reminder of the consequences of failing to adhere to professional and ethical standards. By taking comprehensive measures, law firms can safeguard their workplaces against misconduct, support affected individuals, and reinforce the legal profession’s commitment to integrity and public trust. This approach is not only in line with the SRA’s guidance but is also a fundamental aspect of legal practice that protects both the workforce and the profession’s reputation.