The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Firm Responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic

5 Minutes

As recruiters, we are uniquely placed to have broad insight across the breadth of the legal ...

As recruiters, we are uniquely placed to have broad insight across the breadth of the legal market. I spend my days speaking to legal professionals from every corner of the marketplace, in house legal teams and law firms of all different shapes and sizes and have been struck by the different approaches firms have taken over the course of the last year, in their response to the pandemic. The use (and in some cases, abuse) of the furlough scheme, homeworking, salary cuts and the key theme that keeps coming up – communication. 

The most common complaint that crops up time and time again is how firms have communicated with their staff. We all understand the global situation we find ourselves in and understand that businesses will need to take measures to protect themselves, but one of the main sources of angst over the last year has stemmed from employers failing to communicate and adequately explain these steps to employees. This has given rise to nervousness (often misplaced) about job security, and we’ve seen some ‘ship jumpers’ off the back of this – moves which could probably have been avoided, had employers been more transparent and maintained stronger lines of communication. 

Use of the furlough scheme was mixed in the early days of the pandemic, with some firms jumping straight on board out of a ‘fear of the unknown’. In some cases, where work streams proved stronger than anticipated, this left ‘un- furloughed’ lawyers working harder and longer to cover for those at home. Some firms managed this well through staff consultation, others did not. 

We have heard tales of firms furloughing Lawyers in March for months on end and getting in touch only by way of occasional email, with some firms making redundancies and not communicating to other staff members that this was happening. We have heard about a law firm sending work to a furloughed Lawyer and then attempting to dismiss that lawyer for working whilst on furlough…. Unbelievable right? 
Some firms cut salaries across the board whilst others, chose to limit this to Partner drawings, on the basis that they ‘enjoy the good times, so must take the hit in the bad times’. Again, the biggest complaint we have seen in relation to salaries is lack of communication, no clear timescales for cuts to be lifted, with them sometimes kept in place despite apparent strong team/firm performance. 
Whilst the stories of poor Law firm behaviour are plentiful, it does feel that there is a lot more to say about the positives. One Sacco Mann client, the North of England P&I Club recognised early on that people engagement was going to be absolutely crucial to the management of their response to the pandemic. They knew they needed to keep people up to date on a rapidly changing situation and give them certainty wherever possible. This carefully managed response which included weekly manager drop-in sessions, wellbeing initiatives such as a step challenge, regular CEO and CFO communication, a whole range of virtual groups and socials and the ethos that ‘leaders must lead like they have never led before’, all backed up and monitored with various staff surveys, actually saw their net employer score increase – which is quite the feat in such a turbulent year. 
There have been some heart warming examples of firms really pulling together and riding this out with a ‘one big family’ approach. I took some time to chat to Craig Burman, Partner at Schofield Sweeney who could not praise his firm’s handling of the crisis highly enough, and with good reason. Their communication with teams has been exceptional, as has the focus on wellbeing and employee mental health. The firm’s most vulnerable were sent home to work, prior to the national lockdown announcement and Craig recalled himself and several others driving around with cars full of computer monitors – ensuring that everyone was adequately equipped with everything they needed to perform their roles remotely. They implemented a weekly magazine, check in and chat calls, increased visibility around the roles of 5 trained mental health first aiders, furloughed under consultation with staff and topped all salaries up to 100%. 
Most firms have adapted well to home working, the major national and international practices were already reasonably well equipped from a technology perspective and the pandemic has really just catapulted the profession forward and ‘opened the mind’ of what has been, for a long time, an industry so very set in its ways. On the flipside of this, we have seen several firms insistent that staff continue to work from the office full time, even when adequate systems are in place to support homeworking, and this has been one of the biggest grumbles we have heard from prospective job hunters. Likewise, it is now a real struggle to drum up interest in a role where homeworking is not going to be on the table ‘post pandemic’, whenever that may be! 
I could write and write on this topic, having had hundreds of discussions with clients and candidates over the months – if you are interested to know more about how firms have behaved, the consensus on longer term homeworking, how salaries are looking etc. please do get in touch! 
Telphone Number: 0113 236 6711