Designated responsibility: the supervisory duties of a law firm principal

It is a breach of the Solicitors Conduct Rules to allow an employee to have conduct of a matter without reasonable supervision. This article considers two matters relating to the duty to supervise.

The Legal Profession (Solicitors) Conduct Rules 2015 contain an express duty for solicitors with designated responsibility for a matter to exercise reasonable supervision over all employees engaged in the provision of legal services for that matter. This is a non-delegable supervisorial responsibility.

Allowing an employed solicitor, clerk,paralegal, or any other employee to have the conduct of a matter without reasonable supervision breaches that rule and, depending on the seriousness of the failure involved, may constitute unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct, especially in financial matters.

Supervisors’ duties

Kelly v Jowett [2009] NSWCA 278 (4 September 2009)

This case was an appeal from a Family Provision Act matter where an employed solicitor handling the matter in the first instance had, among other things, deliberately and consistently flouted the Court’s orders and directions, and had failed to file affidavit evidence in the matter. The Court of Appeal considered whether there had been a failure by the firm to supervise the employed solicitor.

The employed solicitor signed a notice of appearance as the solicitor on record. During the conduct of the matter he failed to keep the client appraised of the progress of the matter, failed to comply with undertakings to file affidavit evidence
within defined times, gave the clients 20 minutes’ notice of a Court ordered mediation (which the client was unable to attend due to the late notice), and had failed to inform the clients of the hearing because he had told them he would be seeking an adjournment. The employed solicitor appeared at the hearing, without the clients, and gave submissions.

In short, the carriage of the matter was left entirely to the employed solicitor. The partners of the firm did not take any direct role in supervising the employed solicitor’s conduct of the matter. This remained the case even after the partners knew of the employed solicitor’s unreliability and his serial delinquency in complying with the Court’s directions. The partners told him “This file is your mess, clean it up”.

By the time of the Appeal judgment, the employed solicitor was no longer practising. Other solicitors within the firm described the employed solicitor’s conduct in intra-firm communications as “woeful”.

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First published in Ethos.