In Industry Insights

A recent RollOnFriday poll has revealed concerning insights into the billing practices within the legal profession. Over a third (35.5%) of surveyed lawyers admitted to inflating their time sheets, with 13% confessing to doing so regularly. This practice, known as time padding or time dumping, involves recording more hours than actually worked, raising significant ethical and regulatory concerns.

If there was ever a regulatory issue hiding in plain sight, this is it. Our regulators should be looking very closely at this issue to protect the integrity of the profession from what looks like rampant unethical behaviour.

Ethical and Regulatory Issues

  • Integrity and Honesty: Time padding undermines the core ethical principles of integrity and honesty that solicitors are expected to uphold. It is a form of deceit, with clients billed for hours not genuinely worked.
  • Client Trust: Such practices erode trust between clients and legal professionals, potentially damaging long-term relationships and the reputation of the UK’s legal profession as a whole.
  • Fraud: Inflating time sheets is essentially fraudulent behaviour, as it involves misrepresenting the actual time spent on client work (don’t tell me you haven’t seen The Firm).
  • Professional Misconduct: The SRA views time padding as professional misconduct. Solicitors found guilty of this practice risk severe penalties, including rebukes, fines, suspensions and being struck off the roll.

Risks of Getting Struck Off

The SRA takes a hard line where time padding is identified and can be proved. For instance, a newly qualified solicitor was recently struck off for “inaccurate” and “misleading” time recording.

The SRA alleged that the solicitor had inaccurately recorded time spent on client matters, breaching Principles 2, 4, and 5 of the SRA Principles 2019 and Paragraph 1.4 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors 2019. The solicitor admitted to breaching Principles 2 and 5 but denied dishonesty.

The solicitor, who was dismissed by his employer, cited personal and work-from-home challenges as reasons for the inaccurate time recording. However, the Tribunal determined that he knew the records were inaccurate and deemed his conduct dishonest by ordinary standards. Despite his defence that he intended to complete the recorded work later, the Tribunal did not accept this belief as permissible and emphasised the importance of trust and accuracy in time recording.

With no previous disciplinary actions against him, the solicitor’s challenging circumstances and unblemished record were acknowledged, but the Tribunal found no exceptional circumstances to avoid striking him off the Roll. The seriousness of the misconduct necessitated this decision to maintain public confidence in the profession.

This serves as a stark warning to other practitioners about the serious consequences of such unethical behaviour.

Why does time padding happen?

The comments on the RollOnFriday article reflect a mix of cynicism, frustration, and a call for change within the billing systems used by law firms:

  • High Targets and Pressure: Many comments highlight the unrealistic billable hour targets set by firms, which pressure lawyers to pad their time sheets to meet these goals and secure bonuses or avoid job threats.
  • Outdated Billing Practices: Several commenters advocate for a shift away from the billable hour model towards fixed or capped fees, arguing that this would reduce the incentive for dishonest time recording.
  • Pervasiveness of the Issue: Some believe that time padding is almost endemic, with practices such as rounding up time, billing for multitasked activities, and retroactively adjusting hours being common.

This suggests there is something rotten in the billable hours culture of some law firms. Junior lawyers in particular may be at risk of pushing the ethical boundaries. Even more so if clear policies are not in place and more experienced solicitors do not model the correct behaviours.

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