They say that in order to maintain a good work-life balance you shouldn’t take your work home with you. Of course that is easier said than done in this modern digital era, especially for those within the legal profession.
It is becoming even harder to leave work in the office (where it arguably belongs) as the number of firms offering flexible hours and mobile working arrangements increases. In many ways, this is welcome news for the vast majority of practitioners who are able to take advantage of such policies. It allows them to be there for important family moments, relieve some of the stress and long hours associated with the work of a lawyer, and it means avoiding the mind numbing drudgery of long commutes.
Yet it seems that working on the train, or even talking about work, to and from the office is still the ideal solution for many an overworked and wearied legal professional. Unfortunately, some of you out there might be doing a little too much talking between the fog of the city and the warm glow of home.
As I sit here typing this blog on the 17:59 from London Bridge (I leave the exact date and specific train carriage a mystery for soon to be obvious reasons) I can overhear the dulcet tones of one commercial practitioner as he sings the intricacies of a deal he is currently working on with surprising candour. It is all very complicated and extremely important work, at least, that is how he makes it sound to what I have deduced to be a former neighbour he bumped into on the platform.
This is not the first time I have sat transfixed in my seat “speeding” (yes, those are sarcastic quotes marks) southwards from London as an unknowing solicitor divulges privileged information in what could very well be considered a breach of rule 4 of the SRA Code of Conduct. I am fairly certain that just such an example of no-no behaviour is taught to graduates during their first week of the LPC.
Technically speaking, simply telling someone anything about – including just the name – of one of your clients is an immediate breach of the code. In such a scenario, the matter should be referred to the firm’sCOLP. If the disclosure amounts to a material breach then the firm is under an obligation to report it to theSRA, which may well escalate the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
I recently asked the SRA if they had any figures relating to the number of solicitors who have been reprimanded for such breaches of confidentiality. I was told that the regulator does not and that the ‘onus’ is on individual solicitors and firms “to comply with the code”.
A prime example of this occurred just last year, when London firm Russells accidentally revealed the identity of its client, JK Rowling, as the crime writer ‘Robert Galbraith’. This was all highly embarrassing for partner Chris Gossage who had been the ‘leak’, when he told his wife’s best friend that the authors were one and the same.
But it appears, at least to the SRA, that this sort of thing does not occur very often. It was the exception that proves the rule that all solicitors strictly abide by the code of conduct. Well I’m afraid to say that it happens all the time. To think that practitioners don’t chat among themselves, their friends and family about a specifically difficult or famous client would be absurd. It is perhaps simply human nature to talk and gossip about such things.
On one recent journey home I sat opposite an employment practitioner who chatted nonchalantly on his iPhone (other smart phones are available) about a case before the Employment Tribunal. He talked quite openly about his client’s chances of success (they were low), his reasoning as to why (the client was a liar), as well as some severely disparaging comments about his opponent firm (actually I don’t think I’ll disclose this tidbit).
Then, just a few weeks ago, I listened in on two lawyers from different firms, which shall also remain nameless, discussing the pressing issue of ‘trainee talent’ and how they were looking forward to seeing what was “on offer this year”. I say ‘listened in’, there was nothing surreptitious about my spy game as I was sitting directly next to them. It was hardly a James Bond– secret-microphone-in-my-watch moment.
Besides which, most of the rest of the carriage could discern what the pair were really getting at. The lasciviousness emanating from these two was palpable to say the least. But while they might not have been behaving in a way that would see them stand before the SDT, they certainly didn’t do credit to their firm or the profession.
Of course, it is not just solicitors in the proverbial dock of this blog post. Barristers don’t get away without criticism, either. Though rare, it is possible, on occasion, to observe learned counsel hunched over papers that are spread out on the chairs next to them; their solicitor’s instructions and other privileged documents clearly visible to anyone.
And then of course there is the barrister’s best friend, the clerk. They say that if you want to find out the latest gossip then speak to a clerk. The rumour mill of chambers life means they often know everything before anybody else does. This was certainly the case when on a train last year I overheard one clerk explain to another of his brethren (again over the phone) how Michael Mansfield’s Tooks Chambers was going “belly up”. This was in early June, weeks before stories started to swirl around about pupillages being withdrawn, a quintet of barristers jumping ship, reports of mergers and cancellations of mini-pupillages.
So there we have the full range lawyerly behaviour on the UK’s public transport network. Boasting, gossiping, misogyny and breaches of client confidentiality. Some of you might be wondering why I have not named and shamed the above individuals. For starters, I don’t consider myself to be a gossip columnist and I want SJ to be considered a publication beyond mere titillation. Schadenfreude is a powerful tool but there are other ways to tell a story. Besides which, there are other publications out there if that is what you are into.
This post, if anything, should act as a warning to those practitioners who are incapable of turning on their internal mute switch leaving the office. You never know who is listening. You might find yourself in the crosshairs of a legal reporter more desperate for a few website hits than yours truly.
This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 27 November 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.