Many firms have had a better than expected year, but the business outlook remains negative, and money worries are common among individual solicitors. We report on the 2019 Journal employment survey

A better year than expected for business performance, at least in private practice, but many forebodings remain over the still-to-happen Brexit. At an individual level, not a great deal has changed in terms of the gender pay gap; but wellbeing matters continue to turn up interesting case studies.

These are among the headline findings in the 2019 Journal employment survey, which after last year’s special focus on experiences of physical assault, took a broader look at personal wellbeing (including financial) as well as collecting the usual valuable data on pay and career patterns.
Better or worse?

On the business environment, it is notable that when comparing predictions a year ago of whether things were likely to get better or worse, with views of what has actually happened since then, for all sizes of private practice except the largest firms, the outlook has been a bit better (more positive or at least less negative) than expected, but for the in-house commercial sector the outturn has been markedly worse (table 1). A year ago, the Government was insisting that Brexit would be done by March, and since there has been no change since previous surveys in the strongly negative predictions of the effect that Brexit would have, that may have increased the pessimism last time round – but it doesn’t explain the poorer experience this year of the commercial sector, unless it is more immediately affected by the general economic slowdown.

For the coming year, whether or not Brexit related, employees in all types of organisation are more negative about the outlook than previously, except those in medium sized firms (between six and 20 principals) – though with smaller samples completing the survey than with some other categories, the figures may not be as representative.

That said, the biggest changes in the table 2 indicators of business performance are the 7% rise in those reporting headcount growth in their organisations, and the 8% fall in those with a pay freeze. The latter feature is not evenly spread, however – nearly half of those working for small firms reported no change in their pay in the past year, and a further 12% saw an actual decline, around twice the proportion of those in larger firms (public sector scores were 10-15% no change and 4-7% seeing a decline).

Moving ahead

Overall, the pattern regarding pay and prospects looks familiar. As can be seen from tables 3 and 4, even when those working part time are excluded (and that accounts for 30-40% of women above 10 years’ PQE, compared with 5-8% of men), there is a general tendency for men’s earnings to rise faster than women’s. For example, 57% of men with four to 10 years’ PQE had earnings of £50,000 or above, compared with 38% of women; breaking down their job titles, there is no clear pattern of more rapid advancement, or of men changing jobs more frequently, though a slightly higher percentage of women are in unpromoted posts, whether in private practice or in-house, and/or have stayed in post for the longest times.

Across the board, 7.9% of women, but 22.3% of men, had earnings in the six figure brackets; and of those with more than 20 years’ PQE, 51.7% of women, compared with 32.8% of men, earned below £60,000.

Wellbeing matters

This year for the first time the survey asked about personal finances and their effect on people’s wellbeing. For about 41% of respondents, their finances never or rarely cause them stress; but 40% answered “sometimes”, over 15% “frequently” and a further 3% (26 individuals) answered “constantly”. Lack of money was the most frequently cited reason for not pursuing a personal financial plan (36%), followed by lack of time (28%) and lack of knowledge (19%); lack of need scored just below 10%.

Some individual comments on not saving long term are interesting. While many cite low salary, or too many other commitments – mortgage, other debts, housing and living costs, childcare/school fee/university costs etc, there are those who just enjoy spending what they earn, or do it anyway (“compulsive” in one case; “coping mechanism for stress” in another); and those who admit to poor budgeting or lack of willpower. Different individuals’ circumstances also embrace “being forced to retire”; “lack of willpower”; “husband terrible with money”; “love of travelling”; and “expensive gardening habit”.

Work-related stress continues at similar levels to the last two years – though while the 11% who say they don’t generally feel very stressed are slightly fewer in number this year, so are the not quite 3% who have a problem but don’t know who to turn to. Nearly half (47%) say their job is stressful but feel they can handle it, with or without colleagues.

Lessons for employers

Good/bad employer practices can influence whether people stay. While there are those (about one in seven) who have chosen to suffer stress in silence, and others who have complained but have not seen any action taken, one person illustrated the difference support can make: “I left my previous firm because of work-related stress. I was signed off work by my GP due to work-related stress and exhaustion there. At my new firm, while my job is the same role and remains stressful, the improved support means I can handle the stress at the moment.”

A correlation also emerges between the availability (or otherwise) of flexible working hours and stress. Those with flexible working as part of their contract, or who can operate it in practice, are more than twice as likely (13% against 6%) to say they don’t generally feel stressed at work compared with those who have no such arrangements, and more likely (50% against 41%) to say their job is stressful but they can handle it. Correspondingly fewer (11% against 22%) find it a problem which they have chosen not to discuss, or one about which they don’t know who to turn to (2% against 4%).

As for sexual harassment at work, the proportion who have not suffered it or heard of it happening has risen from below 60% to nearly 63%; and of the 16% who say they have been a target, more than half say it related to a previous job, which suggests that victims are likely to move on. But of the seven who actually complained about it, only one was satisfied at how it was dealt with.

The responses

Thank you to all 879 respondents who took part in the survey – fewer than last year, when the extensive investigation into experiences of violence attracted a lot of interest, but almost identical to the 2017 return.

This year’s breakdown is 63% female (up 3%) and 36% male. Just over 30% work in-house, reflecting the profession as a whole, while about one in eight do at least some legal aid work. However, those with more years’ PQE seem more inclined to take the survey: fewer than 18% of respondents have been qualified less than four years.

Table 5, covering the most common employee benefits in the profession, broadly continues the pattern of recent years, with some changes in the table placings. This year we have again included a breakdown by gender of the most common practice areas (table 6): criminal defence no longer takes one of the top placings, perhaps due to more practitioners taking the survey for the violence questions last year.

For the most recent comparable reports, see Journal, October 2018, 16 and Journal, December 2017, 12.

  • Traditional means of measuring financial health in terms of profits per equity partner may be misleading. One partner reported: “My ‘take home’ earnings are less than half of my profit allocation due to poor cashflow of firm. Money needs to stay in the firm to keep it afloat. Paper rich and cash poor!”
  • How bad can working conditions get? One comment: “Stress reported to the head of our human resources department during a period when I’d been having to work on Saturday and Sunday and until late during the week (on occasions until 2/3am). HR said ‘help’ would be found but there was not even a follow-up call or meeting with me, let alone any practical assistance provided or arranged.”

One respondent with bitter personal experience pressed us: “Whatever wider conclusions you take from the entire survey, the Law Society of Scotland must take strong and decisive measures against those partners who bully their staff, including solicitors, as well as firms who turn a blind eye to vicious and domineering behaviour by their partners. Restrictions and even the loss of practising certificates should not be excluded for those who make life intolerable and unbearable for their people.”

Sadly, the best laid plans to promote wellbeing can come unstuck. In one tragic case a solicitor is currently unable to work, having developed PTSD following their work mentor’s suicide.

Table 1. Better or worse? The outlook for your organisation
Type of employer Change over the past 12 months Predicted for next 12 months
Sole principal 0% (–28.1%) –31.7% (–29.2%)
2-5 principals –11.8% (–15.7%) –27.6% (–18.7%)
6-10 principals +2.4% (–16.7%) –2.3% (–19.1%)
11-20 principals +7.7% (+1.7%) –7.5% (–9.9%)
21+ principals +3.2% (+8.2%) –17.0% (–8.1%)
UK/international firms –14.1% (+5.7) –15.3% (–16.9%)
Private companies –25.3% (+1.8%) –7.5% (–5.3%)
Listed companies –23.2% (+4.1%) –21.5% (–8.3%)
Public sector (national body) –13.4% (–19.4%) –38.0% (–17.7%)
Public sector (local body) –75.0% (–57.6%) –73.5% (–69.4%)
(balance of responses, better v worse, last year’s return in brackets)
Table 2. Has your organisation experienced any of the following over the past 12 months?
% change on 2018
Headcount growth 46.7 7.8
Redundancies 17.8 -0.8
Merger or takeover 17.8 3.6
Bonuses introduced or increased 11.1 -0.3
Bonuses reduced, suspended or scrapped 9.0 -1.3
Benefits introduced or increased 9.0 0.5
Benefits reduced, suspended or scrapped 7.3 1.7
Pay freeze 6.6 -8.4
Compulsory overtime 2.2 0.5
Reduced working hours/days – voluntary 2.1 0.1
Reduced working hours/days – compulsory 0.5 -0.7
Don’t know 21.8 -0.4
(all sectors)
Table 3. Salary spread, in percentages, by years’ PQE: female
YEARS’ PQE < £30,000 £30,000-39,999 £40,000-49,999 £50,000-50,999 £60,000-69,999 £70,000-79,999 £80,000-89,999 £90,000-99,999 >£100,000
0-2 15.2 56.5 23.9 2.2 0 0 0 0 0
2-4 14.6 39 34.1 7.3 2.4 0 2.4 0 0
4-10 3.2 25.8 32.3 22.6 5.4 4.3 2.2 2.2 2.2*
10-20 2.2 5.5 25.3 18.7 8.8 14.3 4.4 2.2 18.7**
>20 3.0 8.1 18.2 18.2 15.2 10.1 7.1 7.1 13.1***
(Full time or self-employed, all sectors)
Table 4. Salary spread, in percentages, by years’ PQE: male
Years' PQE < £30,000 £30,000-39,999 £40,000-49,999 £50,000-59,999 £60,000-69,999 £70,000-79,999 £80,000-89,999 £90,000-99,999 >£100,000
0-2 13.3 40.0 46.7 0 0 4.6 0 0 0
2-4 0 26.7 40.0 20.0 6.7 0 0 6.7 0
4-10 0 11.9 31.0 19.0 11.9 7.1 4.8 0 14.3*
10-20 1.8 3.6 18.2 18.2 7.3 10.9 10.9 5.4 23.6**
>20 5.7 9.0 6.6 11.5 8.2 8.2 10.7 9.0 31.2***
(full time or self-employed, all sectors)

* Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 2.2%F/9.5%M; £150,000-£199,999: 2.4%M; £200,000-249,999: 2.4%M

** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 11.0%F/14.5%M; £150-£199,999: 1.1%F/5.4%M; £200-249,000: 3.3%F/1.8%M; £250,000+:3.3%F/1.8%M

*** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 9.1%F/13.1%M; £150-£199,999: 2.0%F/5.7%M; £200,000-249,999: 1.0%F/4.1%M; £250,000+: 1.0%F/8.2%M

Table 5. Which benefits do you currently receive?
1 More than 25 days' holiday per year (excluding public holidays) (1) 47.7%
2 Cycle to work scheme (3) 39.9%
3 Smartphone/tablet (2) 38%
4 Training support (work related) (5) 33.9%
5 Private health care (4) 33%
6 Pension (defined benefit) (13, when labelled “final salary”) 32.6%
7 Life or health insurance (5) 21.3%
8 Ability to buy/sell annual leave (8) 31.5%
9 Cash bonus (individual performance) (10) 22.8%
10 Employee assistance (15) 21.3%
11 Childcare/crèche or vouchers (9) 20.7%
12 Cash bonus (firm performance) (11) 19.8%
13 Pensions (money purchase)(12) 19.4%
14 Other assistance with transport including season ticket loan and parking permit (16) 18.9%
15 Pension (other, excluding stakeholder)(14) 15.2%
16 No benefits 5.7%
(top responses, all sectors, last year's position in brackets)
Table 6. Which practice areas do you currently work in?
All females Percent All males Percent
Dispute resolution (5) 19.5% Commercial property (9) 25.5%
Private client (2) 19.1% Company and Commercial (2) 24.5%
Commercial property (-) 15.6% Dispute resolution (3) 21.7%
Company and commercial (1) 15.6% Residential Property (4) 20.3%
Residential property (3) 15.3% Private client (2) 20.3%
Administrative and public (6) 14.5% Administrative and public (10) 16.2%
Regulation and compliance (7) 12.8% Regulation and compliance 14.5%
Family law (4) 12.0% Energy, utilities and transport (-) 11.0%
Banking /financial services (-) 10.0%
Media, IT and intellectual property (-) 10.0%
Answers with more than 10% response. (Respondents were able to select all sectors that applied. Last year’s position in brackets)
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