New Zealand Law Society - Former lawyer censured and ordered to engage in rehabilitative measures for altering emails

Former lawyer censured and ordered to engage in rehabilitative measures for altering emails

Altering an email chain has led to a finding of misconduct by the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) in respect of a former lawyer, Mr G.

While the conduct caused no harm to the client, the Tribunal noted the conduct fell well short of the honesty and candour expected of a person privileged to be an enrolled, practising lawyer. The Tribunal noted that Mr G was new to practice at the time and was only being given limited supervision. The Tribunal cautioned the profession to ensure that inexperienced lawyers have access to meaningful support and guidance (while noting that junior lawyers are not absolved from their own professional responsibilities). In terms of penalty, the Tribunal adopted a rehabilitative approach and Mr G was censured, ordered to be supervised on specific terms for 12 months and ordered to undergo professional development.

The background to the conduct was as follows. In April 2022, Mr G began his first legal role with firm. The directors of the firm were only physically present two days a week, but were otherwise available by telephone or other electronic means. Initially, Mr G had guidance from a senior solicitor, however this lawyer left the firm in May 2022. Following their departure, Mr G was given 50 of the lawyer’s active files to manage on top of his existing workload. As a measure of oversight, Mr G was required to copy in the supervising director, Mr M, to all significant emails. Mr G had previously been reprimanded for failing to comply with this policy. On one occasion, the employer accepted that he lost his temper and swore at Mr G, but then apologised later that day.

In July 2022, Mr G completed a transaction for a client but failed to copy in his supervisor into the emails relating to that transaction. He made “the very poor decision to alter emails to disguise this oversight”. The emails were altered to reflect that the supervising director had been copied in, that the transaction had been completed on a different timeline and some improvements to language were also made. Mr G said he altered the email because he feared that he would lose his job if it was discovered that he had not complied with “the copy in” policy.

The client noticed the discrepancies and raised the issue with Mr M to make sure that nothing was amiss with the transaction itself (which there was not). When this raised with Mr G, he immediately recognised his foolishness and resigned. He has not sought to work as a lawyer since.

Before the Tribunal, Mr G admitted that he had misconducted himself by altering the email chain. The Tribunal considered that an aggravating factor of the conduct was the risk of the profession being brought into disrepute since it was a client who received the altered emails. In mitigation, the Tribunal considered that as a newly qualified, inexperienced lawyer, Mr G was unable to access much needed guidance and his experience of earlier reprimands deterred him from approaching his superior. It noted that the transaction did not involve any deceit or risk to the client and Mr G immediately admitted is error.

In determining the appropriate penalty, the Tribunal noted that Mr G demonstrated considerable insight and remorse for his actions. Mr G fully accepted his wrongdoing, cooperated with the Standards Committee investigation and, at an early stage, admitted the charge brought at the most serious level rather than seeking to minimise his actions. The Tribunal considered these factors relevant in assessing Mr G as fit and proper, worthy of rehabilitation and further support to return to his career. With further education and mentorship with a senior practitioner, the Tribunal did not consider he might pose any risk to the public.

The Tribunal considered the disciplinary process, finding of misconduct, Mr G’s absence from the legal profession since the offending together with the further orders imposed sufficient deterrent to further offending.

Mr G was censured, ordered to be supervised on specific terms for 12 months and ordered to undergo professional development within 12 months. Further, for a period of two years, Mr G is required to disclose his disciplinary history to any prospective employer.  He was granted permanent name suppression (as was his former employer and firm).

Noting the lack of supervision provided to Mr G, the Tribunal cautioned that “It is the duty of every principal in a firm which employs new graduates, to provide meaningful support and guidance in their early years. This should include accessibility, in a real way, to the senior, whenever the junior lawyer seeks guidance.”

In turn, the Tribunal added that the junior practitioner is not absolved from their responsibility, noting: “The junior lawyer must also be diligent in file management, following client instructions, and open to receiving some criticism and help. She or he must also be conversant and compliant with the rules governing conduct.”

The New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa is committed to supporting lawyers to take positive steps to actively care for their health and wellbeing. There are a number of initiatives available to practising lawyers on the Law Society platform here.