Solicitors hold a privileged position in society.
Our clients entrust us with knowledge that sometimes even those closest to them do not know; they rely on us to handle sensitive matters which can greatly impact them.
That privilege, of course, brings obligations as well.
Those obligations extend to the people we employ, and it is our duty as solicitors to ensure that our staff are worthy of trust as well. We need to know our staff and their history to ensure that they can also be trusted.
Yes, getting this level of knowledge can be uncomfortable, especially if there are issues in a person’s background that need exploring, but it is far better to have an awkward conversation with a potential staff member up front, than to have a serious conversation with the Legal Services Commissioner down the track. More than one solicitor has run afoul of the regulators due to the deeds of a staff member, and as always the buck stops with the principal practitioner.1
These concerns have become even more acute as technology increases the pace of practice. Staff members can affix e-signatures of solicitors to correspondence, transfer money instantly and utilise keys to various platforms to facilitate electronic conveyancing and the like.
The damage that can be done by an untrustworthy staff member has been exponentially multiplied by our increasingly digital world. Making sure that you hire the right people, who can be trusted, minimises these concerns. That means when hiring staff, firms need to be careful and thorough. You should consider:
- examining the history of employment to note the period of time with former employers and the distance between unemployment
- asking for the candidate to sign an authority so that enquires can be made with regulators
- asking questions about why gaps may exist in the employment history
- calling referees – yes, that sometimes means having to hear a former employer wax lyrical about the candidate, but sometimes the person listed has not always agreed to be a referee. People with impressive job titles and qualifications always look good on a resume, and a candidate with a poor moral compass might take the punt that you won’t check their references.
When we employ staff at a firm or in-house team, we are trusting them with our reputation, and how those staff behave will reflect on the employer. A reputation can take a lifetime to build and a moment to destroy, so putting some real effort into recruiting staff is very much worth that effort.
For those practitioners who are insured with Lexon, they should also consider the Employee Risk Awareness Pack which provides a list of questions that can be considered when hiring a colleague and a checklist for new employees.
Shane Budden is a Special Counsel, Ethics, with the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre.
1 Legal Services Commissioner v RJ Gould  QCAT 533; Legal Services Commissioner v J Mould  QCAT 440.