The Telegraph recently reported on the release of a YouTube video by a City firm trainee commenting on very personal religious beliefs. Since then many firms have been asking what they would do if they had to deal with the same situation. There have been questions about whether there should be disciplinary action, whether policies across the City need to be tightened up, or if indeed anything should be done. All these questions are being asked due to one thing – the firms’ reputation. Considering the place of modern law firms in business, it seems as though concern about reputation is a fair one, but to what extent should it limit the actions of trainees and staff?
Law Firms as Businesses
Although in the past, law firms were seen as just a location to obtain legal advice and nothing more. Nowadays this has changed. Due to increased competition and greater client expectations, firms are now much more akin to businesses. As any business person knows, the reputation of a business is invaluable, otherwise the goodwill in a business wouldn’t receive its own monetary value on a sale or merger. To protect this value, businesses will have strict internal controls and disciplinary proceedings in place, which mean that the employee faces ramifications for harming reputation or client relationships. These can range from an internal “slap on the wrist” to an action for dismissal, depending on the severity of employee’s action.
As businesses, law firms have already put internal controls in place to discipline employees in order to protect reputation. This case though seems slightly different. The firm in question, as many others do, encourage an environment where staff members are free to express their opinion and the firm actively works towards diversity in their workforce. Free opinion and diversity are two invaluable qualities in any firm, therefore restricting opinion through disciplinary procedures seems counter-intuitive to the firm’s ethos and fundamental beliefs. If disciplinary action is taking place or if firms tightened up procedures it would seem contrary to their beliefs.
On the other hand – does the trainee in question not have a level of responsibility and duty towards the firm, to perhaps be more conservative about how or where he expresses his views? A City salary is certainly something that law students aspire to and trainees work hard for, but surely with such a high level of remuneration the trainees should be duty bound to the firm to think in their best interests when speaking publically? It seems unjustified that trainees should control their everyday actions in fear of what may, or may not be published.
Law firms as professionals
There is another element to this matter that most businesses don’t have to consider. Law firms are professional organisations. Most of the revenue making activities of the firm are done by staff that are either professionally accredited or training to be professionally accredited. Although professionalism is something that is taken into account by all employers, in the case of solicitors there is a particular emphasis on it. This is more so considering a recent survey that found that only 47% of legal service users trusted their legal advisor. As the profession desperately tries to turn around this lack of trust, is it better to adhere to strict internal controls for the sake of the profession, or should the public be able to expect the quality of our work and our opinions are two different matters? The SRA code enforces standards on all solicitors that make sure they maintain public trust, but this should not put a gagging order on solicitors and their opinion. Solicitors’ business is dependent on opinion in part, as legal arguments are usually constructed on two conflicting opinions on a point of law. From this view point it seems even more bizarre that there should be a limit on opinion imposed by the regulator, particularly as to do so may damage client work and therefore damage reputation further. Yet still, this lack of trust the public has is concerning, and one that is perhaps best addressed by further regulation that seeks to limit firms being embarrassed by actions of their employees.
As much as it would be an ideal world if everyone could separate out the quality of someone’s work from their own personal opinions about a person, it seems as if this might be a far off fantasy. This is not to say that internal discipline should come under draconian control. What I would advocate for is the maintenance of personal accountability and control. As a profession, we claim to be intelligent and savvy individuals, so surely ones that can exercise personal accountability and control. One trainee, who is perceived as failing to do this, does not mean that a whole new system of internal regulation needs to be created – perhaps just a quick reminder that YouTube isn’t the best place for your opinions. From the latest reports, this seems to be the approach the firm in question has taken, but it will be interesting to see if future events illicit such a cool headed response.
 Legal Services Consumer Panel “Tracker Survey 2014” (Legal Services Consumer Panel, 2014) http://www.legalservicesconsumerpanel.org.uk/ourwork/CWI/documents/2014%20Tracker%20Briefing%202_Trust_Sat.pdf
This blog post was written by Vicky Pridmore. Vicky is currently an M Law Student at Northumbria University and working in a business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. Due to this experience, and previous work experience, she has developed an interest in the commercial world. On graduation she hopes to secure a training contract that will allow her to further her interest in both national and international commercial matters.