LITIGATION IS A TOUGH WORLD: IF YOU MAKE MISTAKES: GET HELP – PLEASE
The decision of the Administrative Court in Solicitors Regulation Authority v James  EWHC 3058 (Admin) has already received wide publication. The Court overturned a decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal not to strike off solicitors who had been dishonest. It was held that such dishonesty should normally lead to striking off. I don’t want to discuss the merits of the decision, but one passage, in particular, has led to several headlines. Here I want to look at practical steps a litigator can make if they make a mistake. As I have stated many times – the cover up is always worse than the mistake itself. In this case it deprived a perfectly capable solicitor of the means of earning her living.
Some of the things here I have said before. However they are worth repeating. Not least because this is far from being the only case where solicitors have been overwhelmed and then subject to striking off.
A CULTURE OF FEAR
Just one description of one of the solicitors. The findings of the SDT, which were not challenged.
“The SDT found that the firm was a challenging place to work. It was seeking external investment which would bring time recording and billing under scrutiny. The senior management sought to pass pressure on to junior staff such as Ms James, with monthly publication of league tables to create competition between fee-earners. The SDT was particularly critical of an email from a senior manager in July 2012 complaining about a shortfall of Ms James’ billed hours as against her target and a letter from the senior partner to Ms James in April 2013 requiring her to work evenings, weekends and bank holidays to make up chargeable hours. The SDT found this was a “notable example of bad, ineffective and inappropriate management.”
Ms James had no recollection of receiving the email or letter but the SDT found that she was under pressure at work and in her personal life, due to problems with her partner that it is not necessary to rehearse here. The SDT accepted her evidence of feeling terrified and crying at work and that she had suffered hair loss. It summarised the position at :
“It was unusual for solicitors appearing before the Tribunal to use words such as “terrified” and “fear” in the context of the workplace. The use of those words gave an indication of the Respondent’s vulnerability; small issues such as getting behind on a file had magnified to the extent that the consequences anticipated by the Respondent were dire and, in her own words, she felt as if she had a massive dark cloud hanging over her. The Respondent was vulnerable, isolated, dealing with difficult home circumstances, relatively young in terms of life experience, and in what she viewed as an environment that had become toxic to her. She had lost her confidence and felt that she was no good at a job that she had previously enjoyed. This was, in effect, a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances.”
GET HELP (OR GET OUT…)
Litigation does not have to be conducted in this kind of environment. Being involved in litigation inevitably, involves a degree of pressure. However I am certain that litigators work best in a collegiate atmosphere.
THIS HAS TO BE SAID TIME AND TIME AGAIN
The important thing is to seek help. We litigators make a living because people make mistakes. It cannot be a great surprise that mistakes happen in litigation. Everyone is going to make mistakes (Even judges, otherwise there would be no need for the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court…).
WHEN THE SKY FALLS IN
Mathew Hickey puts the point succinctly in Rocket Lawyer
“There will be moments in your legal career when things go wrong. Maybe even the devastatingly, “the sky is falling” sort of wrong.”
Legal culture, however, favours the myth of infallibility. Lawyers do not make mistakes. This contrasts with reality, where mistakes are made.
THE REASON THIS IS IMPORTANT
This myth (and again myth it is) of legal infallibility can have profound consequences. The most significant of which is that it can make lawyers reluctant to admit their mistakes at once, or, as in the case above, attempt to hide them. The difficulty is that:
- Many mistakes can be rectified if dealt with early.
- The “cover up” of the mistake is almost always far more harmful than the mistake itself.
- The costs, expense and delay to the client are made much worse.
SO TELL YOUNG LAWYERS (AND REMIND OLDER LAWYERS) THAT MISTAKES WILL BE MADE
- Making mistakes does not make you a bad lawyer.
- Failing to admit mistakes makes you a bad lawyer (you are never going to learn).
- Covering up your mistakes makes you a dishonest lawyer (and probably an ex-lawyer).
Mistakes in litigation, if identified early enough and dealt with promptly enough, can often be rectified, or at very least the consequences minimised.
Far better to face up to a mistake than lose your means of earning a living.
PILOTS LEARN ABOUT CRASH LANDING: LAWYERS DON’T
As a passenger I am comforted by the fact that pilots have regular training on what to if anything goes wrong during the flight. I don’t expect things to go wrong, I certainly don’t want anything to go wrong. However there are good reasons for pilots to be trained in this way. Not least they are learning from mistakes made in the past.
However there is very little by way of equivalent for lawyers. It could be said that the issues are “obvious” and do not need telling. However this does not take into account the sheer feeling of panic that can overtake a practitioner when a mistake has been made. There, are, of course, sometimes issues of ego as well. However the purpose of training and instruction is to ensure that people know what to do.
APPLYING THIS TO CIVIL LITIGATION
The need for contingency planning
Litigators, of all people, should know that things can go wrong. If they did not then there would be no need for litigators. Planning for things to go wrong is not a sign of weakness or defeatism. It is pure realism. All litigation departments have systems in place to ensure that things go right, however your contingency plan provides the essential safety net. Further effective contingency planning will feed back into the department and cut down on mistakes in the first place.
Knowing when things go wrong
Any contingency planning has to have a strategy for recognising when things have gone wrong. In many cases this is obvious. The key point is often when a limitation period is missed, proceedings not served in time or an application made to strike the action, or part of the action or Defence, out.
Who should deal with the file?
When matters go wrong on a file it, normally, becomes the bane of the lawyer’s life. It is often passed onto someone else. Hence the courts often see witness statements that say:
“I now have conduct of this matter because I am the newest/youngest/ most gullible person in the department and everyone else realised that this file was a bag of rats.”
Of course the statement does not say that expressly. However most of our District Judges and Masters have knocked around for while and they can recognised the “hospital pass” file. It is not difficult to read the writing between the lines and Judges are, often, not impressed. Any personal sympathy for the litigator involved is overtaken by anger (if not disgust) with the firm that put the litigator in that situation.
Further it is doubtful whether the new fee earner is comfortable with the file. I have been involved in cases, particularly for large firms, where the assistant solicitor given charge of the matter regarding being handed the “problem” file as somewhat of a blot on their career. They have explained to me that they felt that even being associated with the file would taint their reputation and their prospects. Further because much of the time spent on the file could not be billed they were unwilling to spend enormous amounts of time on it.
Someone sensible, and experienced needs to take this on
If a decision is made that problem files should be moved on (and my Advice is that, subject to the views of the client, they should be at least for the purpose of solving the immediately problem) they need to be moved to someone senior and with considerable, patience, wisdom and experience. There is an abundance of talent in our litigators and, in most firms, someone will fit the bill. Dealing with problem files should be the pinnacle of the litigator’s career. With these files it is often your firm’s money and reputation at stake it is sheer folly to hand the file to someone who is uncomfortable with them, no matter how diligent they are.
Act promptly and act decisively
Usually this involves an application to the Court, or defending an application. This is where things can go wrong and where golden opportunities are missed for things to go right. Any application made hereinafter, should be perfect with the forms accurately completed, witness statements clear, concise and wonderfully drafted and everything lodged and served in good time.
The important thing here is to be clear about the decisions you are making and, if relevant (which it usually is), consult with your indemnity ins
- If the position is hopeless then it is prudent to recognised this at once and mitigate the damage as much as you can. Hopeless applications to the court will only increase costs.
- Even if the position is, apparently, hopeless there may be other escape routes. For instance the law relating to service of a claim form within the four month period is extremely strict. It will be rare for a court to grant an extension. However:-
- If the limitation period has not expired you can issue again. (This is not, automatically, an abuse of process).
- If the limitation period has expired, in personal injury cases, then you can make an application under Section 33.
The case may require some lateral thinking. However if the position is hopeless then you must advise your client to go elsewhere.
If the position is salvageable then there are two rules:-
* Don’t make the position worse.
* Do what you can to make the position better.
FINALLY, IF YOU DON’T WORK IN A COLLEGIATE FIRM – EVENTUALLY YOU WILL HAVE TO GET OUT
One of the joys of my job is working with solicitors who are enthusiastic, talented and experienced. They know that bills have to be paid. However (and I repeat this without apology) the best litigators are working in a collegiate atmosphere. It will be impossible for anyone to spend forty years working in a place that does not provide support. The long-term (and even short-term) plan is to move on to firms which value their most important resource (the lawyer).