There seems to be no let up in the number of stories concerning lawyers who throw their careers off a cliff to try and cover up mistakes. The most recent, concerns the signing of documents.
In a case reported in Legal futures last week a solicitor had missed a deadline for exchange of witness statements and then went to drastic measures to try and cover up the mistake. Of course, the insurers have used the incident to suggest that lawyers are involved fraudulent claims. In fact that is not the case here. But it is no less serious for that.
Since the decisions in Mitchell and Denton, the exchanging of statements has become a more serious matter than it used to be. The court rules say that oral evidence cannot be called from a witness whose statement is not disclosed or is disclosed late. This is the sanction for the breach.
But it is still capable of resolution. Although there it can be an uphill struggle, there is still a right to apply for relief from sanctions. The worst possible outcome is a claim of the firm's indemnity insurance policy. It can be a difficult moment when a solicitor has to confess to a supervisor that a mistake has been made. There might even be some sleepless nights. But ending a career is a far more serious thing.
In this case the solicitor told a colleague to copy the client’s signature from other documents, trace over them in Biro and remove the date of the statement of truth. All of this was soon found out. The solicitor lost her job and was recently struck off by the SDT. Yet again, we have to ask ... why??
Is it more embarrassing to confess a mistake then to face the Disciplinary Tribunal and its consequent publicity? Is the temporary discomfort of sharing the mistake really worse than the months of anxiety that accompanies disciplinary action?
The poet Steve Turner one wrote –
History repeats itself
No one listens
Here is the lesson for lawyers. If you make a mistake, tell someone. Mistakes can be rectified. There isn’t a lawyer who has never got something wrong. We are human. The sharing of a mistake is the beginning of the resolution. Burying it can mean that your career will be buried with it.
Here is the lesson for law firms. Cultivate a culture of openness and support so that anybody who finds themselves in this situation can be open, honest and assured of support.