“If you make a mistake, own up”: life as a professional disciplinary lawyer 

Meet Jon Goodwin, a solicitor advocate who has prosecuted and defended over 800 regulatory and professional disciplinary cases. He talks about his experience defending clients in front of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), what to do if you make a mistake, and how his shyness helped him become a successful advocate. 
Jon Goodwin, a white man with short brown hair, sits smiling and wearing a navy suit, white shirt and navy tie.
Photograph: Jonathan Goodwin

Defending people is really rewarding. Solicitors contact me terrified and fear it’s going to be all over. Often, I’ll make representations that the client shouldn’t be referred to the SDT. That could be personally and professionally life-changing because if they’re struck off, they’ll never be a solicitor again. If I can help to protect their career, they can look to the future with optimism.

For 20 years, I prosecuted for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). In 2016, when the SRA reduced its panel of prosecuting firms from 10 to just one, I could no longer compete for this work and so I started doing pure defence work. My main work is for solicitors, but I also defend surveyors, architects, accountants. Eight years on, I’m busier than I was acting for the SRA.

Our profession is based on integrity, propriety and trustworthiness. The public should expect no less. In my view, being a solicitor is the best legal qualification in the world because of our reputation of being wholly trustworthy and honest.

I’ve found solicitors get themselves in a pickle when they take on areas they don’t understand. Solicitors who view it as a commercial job are the ones who often find themselves in trouble. Being a solicitor is a profession with all the privileges that come with that, but with privilege comes responsibility. It’s a question of balance.

My advice is simple: if you make a mistake, own up. Solicitors are human and make mistakes. I’ve seen many try to conceal their mistake: in extreme cases, they’ve lied to their client or manufactured an email. These days, with metadata, they're going to get caught. Mental health can have a big impact the way people react. If someone goes into panic mode, then it’s easy to make huge errors of judgement. I’ve heard “I just don't know why I did it” countless times. 

Any allegation you can think of, I've probably dealt with it. I don’t pull back simply because I, as a solicitor, am dealing with my regulator. As one happy client said to me many years ago: “You’d rather have him on your side than theirs.”

But I have had upsetting cases. A client in a dishonesty case rang me in the depths of winter and said: “You may not hear from me ever again”. All I could do was signpost him to medical help and say: “We’re working on your case, I can’t promise but hold your nerve and we'll get through it.” He did, and in the end the regulator didn’t take further action. We do lose cases on the evidence, so when we get great victories, that’s the balance.

The best part of my job is when I ring the client after a decision. There’s always anxiety because they think I have bad news. One client was facing several allegations of dishonesty. I rang him and he was really hesitant answering. He started sobbing when I delivered good news. Later, I got a photograph from him with his wife and six children with their thumbs up. Telling the story sends a shiver through me. I just think, how profound an effect has this experience had on his family?

Even though I acted for the SRA, I have concerns about its increasing powers. Before the SRA’s increased fining powers (from £2,000 to £25,000 for individual solicitors and traditional law firms), more cases were referred to the tribunal. A lot of my work now is drafting of representations to the SRA, which is effectively becoming the investigator, prosecutor and judge. I think it’s healthy to have independence.

I’m often asked: “Should I be a solicitor or a barrister?” It's hard to get into any profession, but it’s harder to get into the bar. If you can qualify as a solicitor, it’s the greatest qualification in the legal world: the world’s your oyster. If you’re interested in advocacy, consider qualifying as a solicitor advocate. Advocacy can be written representation or before the tribunal, and I love doing both. The key is to enjoy it.

I am shy and I hate public speaking. If I’m asked to speak at a conference, I’ll do everything to avoid it. But when I’m in the tribunal, I hope I come across as confident because I know my subject and the facts of my case inside and out. What gives me confidence is knowing no matter what I’m asked, I can usually answer it.

Trying to break into this work is hard. How do you get your first case? Who’s going to put their faith in you if their career is on the line for dishonesty? I think the way to get started is with other regulators, like in the healthcare sector. Once you’ve prosecuted, whichever profession, you can defend.

But I always believe in luck and right place, right time. I knew when my principal offered me the opportunity to work with the Solicitors Complaints Bureau all those years ago that this was a fascinating area of law that was going to serve me well.

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