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The case for employee screening in the legal sector

12th February 2017

Some legal practices have already found that failing to conduct rigorous employee screening can be a costly business.  The most high-profile legal sector fraudster in recent times was City lawyer Dennis O’Riordan, whose impressive CV turned out to be a work of fiction.

He claimed to have three Oxford degrees and a Harvard Masters and told his employers he was registered to practice at the Bar in New York and Ireland.  The truth was that he only had one degree (from the University of East Anglia) and although he had studied at Oxford University for a Doctorate in Philosophy, he had never actually completed the course.  This dishonesty caused massive embarrassment and reputational damage for his employer – and cost him a three-year suspension from the Bar.

Of course it’s not just senior employees who are prone to being less than honest or to committing serious fraud.  When legal secretary Leanne Harris became concerned about mounting household bills, she started to write false cheques; over time stealing a total of £500,000 from clients.  Her actions caused the family solicitors she worked for to close after 30 years trading, with 36 people made redundant as a result.

These may seem like extreme examples – and of course the majority of staff are honest – but employee fraud is more prevalent than you might think.   According to the 2016 PWC Global Economic Crime Survey, 36 per cent of organisations have fallen victim to some kind of economic crime in the last two years.  Research suggests that 85 per cent of serious fraud is committed by a company’s own staff – often by long-serving employees the business trusts implicitly.

So what is best practice when it comes to screening employees – and what are the pitfalls you should avoid?

Do:

  • Routinely screen all potential recruits to confirm their identity, verify their qualifications and check financial and criminal backgrounds.
  • Consider an enhanced level of screening for employees who have access to financial systems or sensitive client data.
  • Make screening an ongoing process – people’s circumstances change and a previously trustworthy employee may give in to temptation, particularly if they can see gaps in your systems and processes.
  • Question any employment agencies you may be using about the screening procedures they apply to temporary or contract staff.
  • Make sure you use a reputable supplier who is able to tailor their screening services to meet your specific needs.

Don’t:

  • Allow new recruits to access sensitive client information or finance systems until the screening process has been completed.
  • Think that just because a member of staff is temporary, there is no need to go through the screening process.
  • Restrict screening just to those who are in senior positions.  Junior employees can pose an equal risk – and often have less to lose if they get caught.