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Published on 7 June 2019
[All names used in this article are fictitious]
A lawyer has been fined $1,000 after his conduct in an employment related meeting was found to be “deliberately aggressive, overbearing and overly personalised”.
The lawyer, Carton, represented an employee at a meeting with her employer. The employer was represented at the meeting by the employee’s manager and an HR representative.
Following the meeting, the employer’s Chief Executive Officer complained to the Lawyers Complaints Service. He stated that Carton’s conduct was “overly aggressive, offensive at times, unprofessional and unbecoming of a lawyer”.
The CEO, who was not present at the meeting, said that as a result of Carton’s conduct the company’s two representatives had felt unsettled and unsafe.
Upon consideration of the complaint, a lawyers standards committee found Carton had clearly breached rule 12 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 and that this constituted unsatisfactory conduct.
Rule 12 states: “A lawyer must, when acting in a professional capacity, conduct dealings with others, including self-represented persons, with integrity, respect and courtesy.”
As well as submissions from the parties, the committee listened to an audio recording of the meeting and read the meeting transcript.
In his submissions to the committee, Carton had stated that the meeting was “not intended to be a disciplinary meeting”. However, after listening to the HR representative’s introductory comments, Carton was concerned that it was indeed addressing his client’s performance as an employee.
He said he therefore suggested that the HR representative relinquish her role at the meeting. He explained that he used “volume, tone and body language in a considered and targeted manner to successfully implement the initiative”.
Most of the meeting, which followed, had then focused on communication issues, not performance, and the meeting concluded with his client and her manager indicating they wished to work together to improve their relationship. That was a successful outcome.
While accepting that Carton had a duty to act in his client’s best interests, the committee said the overall tenor of Carton’s approach, specifically in response to the introductory comments was “demeaning”.
“His tone is aggressive and some of the language used is, in the committee’s view, belittling and overly personalised”.
A lawyer should not, the committee said, “intentionally personalise, belittle, or badger in the way that [Carton] did in the circumstances of this particular case.”
The committee noted that the decision should not be taken as suggesting that “firm and robust debate is not appropriate or otherwise in conflict with a lawyer’s duties of professionalism and courtesy”.
“However, firm and robust dialogue and debate, where it is warranted, should be restricted to the matters in issue and should not, as the committee found occurred in this particular case, transgress into personalised and patronising conduct.”
As well as imposing a $1,000 fine, the committee ordered Carton to pay $500 costs.