A buoyant sector, with that bringing its own pressures on fee-earners and demands on managers: the picture that emerges from the Journal Employment Survey 2021
Illustration, the cogs of work in motion with line drawing characters taking notes and checking in virtually

Some solicitors have never been busier. Some are desperate for extra help. Some, in legal aid in particular, are simply desperate. Most would probably agree that 2021 has presented unique challenges, which will prove more than just short lived. What, then, can we learn from the Journal Employment Survey 2021?

Memories are still fresh of COVID-19 resulting in redundancies and solicitors on furlough, yet reports of being busier than ever are common – sometimes due to a struggle to recruit enough staff. Judging by survey comments, however, some firms have emerged from the restrictions with much greater credit among their fee-earners than others. Contrast “Overall I thought they dealt with the pandemic exceptionally well and really looked after their staff”, with “My firm handled the reduced work/pay arrangements during the pandemic badly.”

Firms that pay insufficient attention to fee-earner morale are likely to see a drain on talent, given the number of positions available elsewhere. “There have been a record number of staff leaving. A lot of unhappiness at current working conditions and low morale,” was another comment. Likewise those who ask extra, perhaps much extra, of existing staff, for little additional reward, as in “My firm have made record profits but have still frozen pay in my department. Morale is at an all time low.” One public sector in-house solicitor reported: “I have been offered a day off once a fortnight.” All credit, then, to firms and organisations who are seen as having looked after their people well during the pandemic, or who are now appreciated for attempting to make up for any perceived unfairnesses that occurred.

Better outlook

In late November, the Society issued its own survey findings, indicating that the majority of private practices appear to have overcome the economic impact of COVID-19. It found that almost half (49%) now have more work than before the pandemic; 44% predict an increase over the coming year, and only 10% a decrease.

Of the respondents to the Journal survey, 23.3% believe the economic outlook for their firm or organisation has improved over the previous 12 months, slightly ahead of the 21.7% who consider it has got worse. (The remaining 55% see little change.) The gap is more like 37% to 10% in bigger firms; and the Journal figures are partly influenced by public sector employees, particularly in local government where 65% take a negative view and only a handful a positive one.

Looking ahead 12 months, there is a somewhat more optimistic view overall, as 26% expect the outlook to be better by then as against 16.8% who answered worse – helped by improving sentiment among the in-house private sector, if not the public sector.

Stress on the rise

Busy times, with or without more people, can mean more stress. The survey supports the common perception that legal practice has become more stressful since the advent of COVID-19. While the responses on whether people feel they can handle the stress of the job, or whether it presents a problem for them, show just a small shift towards the latter, fully 50% agreed that their stress levels have increased over the last 12 months: more so for women (55%, as against 42.5% of men).

Comments indicate that overwork related to staff shortages may be a significant factor; and some admit to a negative effect on their health. There are also those who believe firms “talk the talk” about mental health without actually taking necessary action; and at least one sole principal who feels unsupported in trying to cope with the constant managerial pressures.

No clear pattern emerges as to whether stress is more prevalent in any particular type, or size, of employer. But men are clearly less likely to speak to others about it: just over 60% of men, compared with 45% of women, answered either that they don’t generally feel very stressed at work, or that their job is stressful but they feel they can handle it. At the other end of the scale, nearly 17% of men, compared with 12% of women, say that stress is a problem and they don’t know who to turn to.

Hybrid is in

Nearly two thirds of respondents (64%) now prefer a hybrid working pattern – partly in the office and partly from home – while just over 15% would choose always in the office and 20% always from home. The majority of employers appear to be obliging, with almost 80% of respondents saying they have the choice, albeit often within parameters. (The Society found that two thirds of private firms are implementing or continuing with hybrid arrangements.) Stricter rules continue to apply for a minority – including a number who are still required to work from home, and say they are being left in a state of uncertainty as to their employer’s future policy.

Discrimination: a trend?

The latest picture as regards discrimination and harassment may present some qualified good news: 87% of respondents said they had not witnessed this in the last 12 months. That means a lower percentage did witness such treatment than in previous surveys, most recently the Society’s Profile of the Profession in 2018.

These are not directly comparable, as they recorded experiences over a longer time frame; on the other hand, they found a higher percentage who believed there was a systemic problem in the profession, and who could be expected therefore to have witnessed recent instances.

But it remains the case that women are more likely to have experienced or witnessed these kinds of bad behaviour, not surprising given that discrimination based on sex or gender was the most frequently cited, taking up about half of all instances. And where there is a problem, it may involve any of the protected characteristics, occasionally in combination. Race was the second most commonly mentioned, followed by disability. It may be worth noting that discrimination and harassment are about as likely to occur in the public as in the private sector.

There were also individuals who believed they had been discriminated against as someone not working full time; as a Scot working in England; as the only male in an otherwise female team; and as a defence agent (with discrimination coming from the bench, the Government, and the court service).

Although the survey saw a lower number of more junior lawyers taking part than previously, there is no indication that those who did were any more likely to have witnessed recent discrimination or harassment than their more senior colleagues.

The need for sensitivity when dealing with individuals is shown by one person complaining that despite childcare responsibilities, they had been expected to work on during the schools shutdown; and another aggrieved at having to do more to “plug the gap for people with children not being at work during business hours”. Both respondents were female.

Legal aid in decline

Difficulties facing the legal aid sector have been well publicised this year, with regular reports of solicitors leaving for better paid work elsewhere. Our respondents included 6.8% at least half of whose work is legally aided, and 4% with a lesser amount, but also a further 5% who used to do legal aid work but find it no longer viable. Of those who still keep it going (35% of whom engage in criminal defence), 62% earn less than £50,000 a year, compared with 42% across the whole survey, almost as many report no change or a decrease in earnings over the past year (compared with 43% generally), and problem stress with no one at work to talk about it is more than 40% more common.

“Legal aid has ruined our business”, said one partner who believes they face bankruptcy as a result of firm income being cut to a third of its previous level. “I am just waiting on the inevitable.”

“Not had a pay rise for years and years”, commented a legal aid solicitor in civil work – one who has suffered in the past from serious work-related stress.

In-house: a changing balance

Looking at pay and career progression more generally, one statistic that stands out from our respondents is the changing proportions of in-house work as seniority increases. For those less than 10 years qualified, about 29% of both men and women respondents work in-house. At more than 20 years qualified, the figures are 23% for men but 37.4% for women – and that is only looking at those working full time or equivalent such as compressed hours. Do the reasons lie in more flexible work and holiday arrangements, in the public sector particularly, for those who also have caring responsibilities, and/or ease of returning to work after a childcare break, or the initial availability of part-time work for returners?

It would be worth exploring this in the context of seeking to achieve a greater proportion of women at senior levels in private practice. There was little difference in the number of women compared with men in this PQE band employed at the levels of solicitor or senior solicitor, but 47% of men had reached the level of partner (equity or non-equity) or principal, compared with 26.5% of women. Even so, there were also more men than women (10.5% as against 6.6%) at the most senior in-house levels – general counsel/head of legal/company secretary/senior public service role. The percentage of men earning more than £100,000 a year is also more than twice as high, as tables 2 and 3 show.

Taking this survey and the Society’s survey together, it can probably be said that the solicitor profession as a whole is not likely to see a downturn in work over the short to medium term. The Society also separately reported that there has been a bounceback in the number of traineeships offered, and it is evident that there is likely to be a continuing need for new blood in order to meet client needs and relieve the pressure being felt by many practitioners. At the same time, many employers still have to raise their game as regards fee-earner wellbeing, and this not just a question of money – we can cite various respondents who have improved their lives, and their health, since changing jobs.

See Viewpoints for more individual comments

Table 1. Has your organisation experienced any of the following over the past 12 months?
% change on 2020
Non-solicitor (or support) staff on furlough 44.8 -12.8
Solicitors on furlough 30.8 -12.3
Headcount growth 29.3 +1.5
Redundancies 25.5 -8.3
Pay freeze 25.5 -8
Bonuses reduced, suspended or scrapped 15.7 -10.5
Bonuses introduced or increased 11.5 +7.2
Reduced working hours/ days – voluntary 6.7 -9.2
Benefits introduced or increased 6.1 +3.5
Benefits reduced, suspended or scrapped 5.9 -1.3
Merger or takeover 5.4 +0.9
Reduced working hours/ days – compulsory 4.8 -6.6
Compulsory overtime 2.3 -0.3
Don’t know 11.7 +4.3
(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
0-10* 3.9 26.2 35.0 20.4 5.8 2.9 3.9 0 1.9*
10-20 2.4 9.8 17.1 20.7 14.6 12.2 7.3 2.4 13.4**
>20 2.4 4.9 18.3 11 22 11 4.9 9.5 17.1***
(full time, or self-employed, all sectors)
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
0-10* 2.2 13.3 22.2 24.4 17.8 11.1 0 2.2 6.6*
10-20 0 0 11.9 16.7 11.9 23.8 4.8 11.9 19.1**
>20 7.9 4.5 3.4 12.4 5.6 9 5.6 13.5 38.1***
(full time or self-employed, all sectors)

* About 73% of both male and female respondents in this group were in the 4-10 years’ PQE category. Breakdown of salaries above £100,000 is £100,000-£149,999: 1.9%F/14.3%M; £150,000-£199,999: 0%F/2.4%M; £200,000-249,999: 0%F/0%M; £250+: 0%F/2.4%M.

** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 9.8%F/14.3%M; £150-£199,999: 2.4%F/2.4%M; £200-249,000: 1.2%F/0%M; £250,000+: 1.2%F/2.4%M

*** Breakdown is £100,000-£149,999: 6.1%F/16.8%M; £150-£199,999: 6.1%F/6.7%M; £200,000-249,999: 4.9%F/6.7%M; £250,000+: 0%F/7.9%M

Table 4. Which benefits do you currently receive?
Rank Benefit Percentage
1 More than 25 days' holiday per year (excluding public holidays) (1) 46.3
2 Cycle to work scheme (3) 42.4
3 Smartphone/tablet (2) 38.3
4 Pension (defined benefit) (4) 34.9
5 Training support (work related) (5) 34.3
6 Life or health insurance, including critical illness cover (8) 31.8
7 Ability to buy/sell annual leave 31.1
8 Private healthcare 30.4
9 Employee assistance (10) 24.7
10 Cash bonus (individual performance) (9) 22.2
11 Cash bonus (firm performance) (11) 21.4
12 Pensions (money purchase) (12) 17.7
13 Other assistance with transport including season ticket loan or parking permit (14) 17.3
14 Childcare/créche or vouchers (11) 15.7
15= Pension (stakeholder) (16) 12.2
15= Pension (other)(16) 12.2
No benefits 7.4

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

The response

Thank you to all the 630+ respondents who took part in the survey – a little down on last year, more so among more junior lawyers, which has affected some of our presentation of the results, though without significantly affecting the trends shown.

This year’s respondents break down as 34.5% male and 65% female, with a few answering otherwise or choosing not to say. Around 37% work in-house, above the figure for the profession as a whole, while 10.75% do at least some legal aid work (a further 5% find it no longer viable).

Table 4, covering the most common employee benefits in the profession, shows a similar pattern to last year, with the figures for holiday entitlement and pension provision perhaps reflecting the proportion of in-house lawyers taking part.

For the most recent comparable reports, see Journal, December 2020, 12, and Journal, December 2019, 16.

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