Working from home has been a blessing for some, a curse for others – but many are searching for the best balance. We report on the 2020 Journal employment survey, which lifts the lid on lockdown

2020: a landmark year in people’s minds as it approached – and the year no one expected as it turned out. A year of startling change, much of it enforced; and one of sharply contrasting fortunes, dealt by the lottery of life. Much has been written about its impact; what new light could this year’s Journal employment survey shed?

Home comforts?

It is no surprise that this year’s experience looks set to have a dramatic effect on working patterns, but the scale of the change is notable. Pre-COVID, only 18% of our respondents routinely worked from home, whether all (less than 2%) or part of the time, and three quarters of the latter will do so more in future. Nearly 64%, however, did not previously work from home but are likely to continue doing so, with up to 25% saying this will be full time. Fewer than one in 40 say they cannot work from home, but some employers are still insisting that people go back to the office as restrictions lift.

Inevitably, homeworking suits some better than others – and more so in some respects than others. Survey responses show:

  • Better work-life balance? Yes, 57.8%; no, poorer: 17.3%.
  • Easier to concentrate? Yes, 34.8%; no, harder: 29.1%.
  • Fewer interruptions? Yes, 52.7%; no, more: 15.5%.
  • As easy to contact others through IT?
  • Yes, 49.8%; no, better being in the same location: 39.3%.
  • Better for your physical and/or mental health? Yes, 26.4%; but outweighed by the 33.5% who said not so good.
  • Overall, do you work more efficiently and effectively from home? Yes, 29.6%; no, less so: 25.8%; it makes little difference, 27.5%.

It is striking that one in five of those who felt homeworking gave them a better work-life balance, also believed their mental or physical health was suffering. Your comments indicate that many are now searching for the right balance between home and office. The main reason is the effect on mental wellbeing of feeling isolated at home, and missing the interaction with colleagues that comes with office life. Some also feel the lack of administrative support, and/or the difficulties of managing, supervising and developing staff.

As for home circumstances, whether or not the kids are off to school can make all the difference. And at least one person got on less well if their partner was also using home facilities. Some rejoice at not having to commute; for others it helped demarcate the working day.

“Apologies for the conflicting answers,” one associate wrote. “Some days I wish I could go into the office and other days I’m glad I don’t have to. I think some time in the office and some at home is the most optimal way to work going forward.” Another explained: “I have selected both better and poorer work-life balance as whilst I can have a better balance I also work longer hours and in the evenings as a result of being at home.”

Other comments included:

  • “Each day varies to be honest, some days I am incredibly motivated and other days very easily distracted.” (In-house solicitor)
  • “Not commuting makes a huge difference to wellbeing.” (Another in-houser)
  • “Working from home is making me severely depressed.” (Non-equity partner)
  • “Certain things are easier to do at home but the lack of variation (just sitting in front of a screen all day) is relentless.” (Non-practising position)
  • “When technology fails it is harder to resolve matters quickly from home.” (Senior solicitor)
  • “Everyone working from home is very inefficient, and very depressing.” (In-house solicitor)

Business impact

How has the pandemic affected employers? As table 1 shows, respondents reporting redundancies at their workplace have almost doubled, from less than 18% to nearly 34%, while those reporting headcount growth (28%) dropped by two fifths. Although only 12% had personally been furloughed, 43% stated that some solicitor colleagues had been, and 58% said the same of non-solicitor staff. Almost a third (31.5%) were subject to a pay freeze (up from 6.6% last year), 25% have taken a cut (7.8% last year), and more than 27% are on voluntary or compulsory reduced hours.

Most employers do appear to have tried to preserve jobs. They froze pay, or cut it temporarily (usually by 20%), if not working hours, rather than lay people off. Vacancies went unfilled. At least one firm gave the choice of a pay cut on the same hours, or the same pay for extra hours. Some are now restoring pay cuts, and even reinstating missed salary rises or bonuses; and while there are still some fears over redundancies, fewer than 7% of respondents admitted to having these. One not-for-profit introduced a voluntary exit scheme in the hope that would suffice.

“Overall I’m satisfied that the firm acted prudently and I’ve been rewarded for my hard work,” said one senior associate who was given a deferred lump sum and bonus payments instead of their annual rise. An associate commented: “I think [my firm] has tried its best to be open, transparent and honest with us all... Across the board we all took a pay cut and as of November it will go back to 100% pay. I expect there will be job losses in due course but it is doing its best to avoid this.”

One public body is making a small weekly payment over winter to all homeworking staff for additional heating costs.

Some were more equal than others. “The firm furloughed as much staff as they could... the people who were not furloughed were working on an increased workload for less pay,” one senior solicitor recorded. Such situations were compounded, another respondent observed, if those kept working on reduced pay still had to incur childcare costs. And one associate has a definite grievance: “My pay was reduced by 33% for six months, and I was expected to work full time hours during this time, on 66% of my usual part time pay.”

Some have fallen between stools when it comes to support. Fee paid tribunal chairs had no work during lockdown, and no earnings because they were not classed as employees – but being paid through PAYE were not eligible for self employment support either.

Some, of course, have been exceptionally busy, including property solicitors since the market restarted, and Government lawyers.

Legal aid troubles

In view of the difficulties facing the legal aid sector, we analysed their experiences this past year. Only 10.5% of respondents take on legal aid cases to any extent, the most common areas being family (55%), dispute resolution (37%), criminal defence (32%), mental health (27%), and housing (19%).

Of those working full time, one in six (16%) earn less than £30,000 a year, and five out of eight (62.5%) less than £50,000, compared with below 44% across the whole survey. At 19%, they were as likely as most in private practice to have been furloughed, and 45.6% have seen their earnings decline over the past year while a further one in three (33.3%) have seen no change (whole survey showed 23.2% and 35.9% respectively). Stress figures were higher than average, though not markedly so, but 27.6% admitted to frequently or constantly having money worries, compared with 11% overall.

Still unequal

Has the gender balance been affected? The Next 100 Years project reported that women fared less well than men through the lockdown, finding themselves taking on more of the additional childcare and perhaps more likely to be put on furlough. On our survey, 8% of women, but 5% of men had been on furlough for up to three months, but equal numbers at 5% had been on longer furlough. And more men than women (32% against 22%) had seen earnings decline over the year, though the balance was the other way among those reporting no change (40% women; 29% men).

Across the board, among full time earners 8.5% of women, but 20.9% of men, were in the six figure brackets, and of those with more than 20 years’ PQE, 41.1% of women, compared 25.5% of men, earned below £60,000: tables 2 and 3. The gaps are down slightly on last year.

While some respondents specifically pointed to the COVID situation as having increased their stress levels, overall percentages for problem stress have not changed much – but women are almost twice as likely (27.4% against 14.7%) to have discussed their problem with someone else, and men more likely (14.3% against 10.5%) to have chosen not to, or not to know who to turn to (4.9% against 3.6%).

Round the corner

Are things likely to improve over the next 12 months? The balance of sentiment is negative, but much more so in the public sector, where hardly anyone expects an improvement and around half a further worsening, as compared with private practice where the balance is around 10% negative in small firms (though with more don’t knows) and 6% in large. The commercial in-house sector manages to take a more positive view, despite forebodings about Brexit, with 6% more who foresee an improvement than a deterioration. We can only hope the optimists are proved right. 

For some more individual comments, see Viewpoints.

Table 1. Has your organisation experienced any of the following over the past 12 months?
% change on 2019
Non-solicitor (or support) staff on furlough 57.6 N/A
Solicitors on furlough 43.1 N/A
Redundancies 33.8 +16.0
Pay freeze 31.6 +25.0
Headcount growth 27.8 -18.9
Bonuses reduced, suspended or scrapped 26.2 +17.2
Reduced working hours/days – voluntary 15.9 +13.8
Reduced working hours/days – compulsory 11.4 +10.9
Benefits reduced, suspended or scrapped 7.2 -0.1
Merger or takeover 4.5 -13.3
Bonuses introduced or increased 4.3 -6.8
Benefits introduced or increased 2.6 -6.4
Compulsory overtime 2.6 +0.4
Don’t know 7.4 -14.4

(all sectors)

Table 2. Salary spread, in percentages, by years’ PQE: female
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 6.4 61.3 25.8 3.2 3.2 0 0 0 0
2-4 0 46.1 42.3 11.5 0 0 0 0 0
4-10 1.4 21.9 46.6 20.6 5.5 0 2.7 0 1.4*
10-20 3.5 7.0 22.1 20.9 18.6 10.5 7.0 3.5 7.0**
>20 5.9 2.9 18.6 13.7 13.7 10.8 9.8 3.9 20.6***
Table 3. 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 5.9 29.4 29.4 17.6 11.7 0 0 0 [1 response]
2-4 0 26.7 40.0 20.0 6.7 0 0 6.7 0
4-10 2.9 5.9 29.4 26.5 11.8 8.8 0 0 8.8*
10-20 4.9 4.9 9.8 24.4 9.8 14.6 12.2 0 19.5**
>20 3.2 6.4 7.4 8.5 9.6 12.8 7.4 11.7 33.0***

(full time or self-employed, all sectors)

* Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 1.4%F/0%M; £150,000-£199,999: 0%F/2.9%M; £200,000-249,999: 0%F/2.9%M; £250+: 0%F/2.9%M

** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 3.5%F/12.2%M; £150-£199,999: 1.2%F/4.9%M; £200-249,000: 1.2%F/0%M; £250,000+: 1.2%F/2.4%M

*** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 14.7%F/17.0%M; £150-£199,999: 2.0%F/5.3%M; £200,000-249,999: 2.0%F/5.3%M; £250,000+: 2.0%F/5.3%M

Table 4. Which benefits do you currently receive?
1 More than 25 days' holiday per year (excluding public holidays) (1) 49.4%
2 Smartphone/tablet (3) 42.8%
3 Cycle to work scheme (2) 41.7%
4 Pension (defined benefit) (6) 38.4%
5 Training support (work related) (4) 36.2%
6 Ability to buy/sell annual leave (8) 31.2%
7 Private health care (5) 28.5%
8 Life or health insurance, including critical illness cover (7) 27.5%
9 Cash bonus (individual performance) (9) 23.6%
10 Employee assistance (10) 22.2%
11 Cash bonus (firm performance) (12) 20.6%
12 Pensions (money purchase) (13) 15.5%
13 Childcare/crèche or vouchers (11) 14.1%
14 Other assistance with transport including season ticket loan and parking permit (14) 13.8%
15 Pension (stakeholder) (16) 13.1%
No benefits 6.2%

(top responses, all sectors; last year’s position in brackets)

Table 5. Which practice areas do you currently work in?
All females All males
Dispute resolution (1) 19.3% Dispute resolution (3) 28.9%
Commercial property (3=) 19.3% Commercial property (1) 21.3%
Private client (2) 16.9% Company and commercial (2) 18.4%
Residential property (5) 14.2% Private client (5) 16.7%
Administrative and public (6) 13.8% Regulation and compliance (7) 15.5%
Company and commercial (3=) 12.1% Residential property (4) 15.1%
Regulation and compliance (7) 11.4% Administrative and public (6) 13.8%
Family law (8) 10.8% Accident and injury (-) 10.9%
Housing (-) 10.1% Family law (-) 10.9%
The response

Thank you to all 743 respondents who took part in the survey – fewer than last year but showing similar patterns and trends.

This year’s gender breakdown is 65% female and 33.4% male, a slightly wider gap than last year, with six others who chose a different identity. Around 35% work in-house, slightly more than with the whole profession, while at 10.5% legal aid practitioners are down 2% from last year. Again there was a relatively low takeup among new lawyers, with just 17% having been qualified less than four years.

Table 4, covering the most common employee benefits in the profession, shows a similar pattern to recent years, the movements for pension provision perhaps reflecting the higher proportion of in-house lawyers responding this year. Table 5 shows dispute resolution work as the most common practice area for both females and males, with commercial property the closest challenger.

For the most recent comparable reports, see Journal, December 2019, and Journal, October 2018.

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