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Out, but not down

17 August 09

Some experiences of solicitors and trainees who suffered redundancy or cutbacks due to the recession, and how they have pulled through, or moved on

by Sue Lennox

The Journal has maintained coverage of the recession and its impact on legal firms across Scotland since the beginnings of the “credit crunch.” If you type in the word “recession” into the Journal’s online search engine, you are rewarded with (to date) 77 results. We have all seen the figures and heard the anecdotes which indicate that this is the worst recession the legal sector has seen in Scotland. Whereas once upon a time (in a land far, far away) the legal profession was undoubtedly seen as a “safe bet” when it came to job security, this is no longer the case.

What are the personal stories and experiences behind the gloomy statistics? How are those who have been directly affected coping with the impact of the recession, and what are their plans for the future? I spoke to a number of people who shared their experiences with me. All names have been changed.

Part time, back home

Laura previously worked for a medium sized firm in Glasgow. She trained with the firm and was offered a newly qualified solicitor’s position, in the commercial department. However within a few months of beginning her new role, she noticed that there was very little in the way of fee charging work for her to be getting on with.

“It was a difficult time because I really wanted to get on with my career – I always wanted to go on to specialise in IP/IT work and that was the type of work I had been a bit more involved with in my traineeship. But when I qualified it was just a case of bad timing – there just didn’t seem to be much work for me to do. The department was pretty quiet and you could feel the tension between the rest of the team.

“Suddenly senior members of the team were trying to keep pieces of work to themselves whereas previously they would have been happy to get me involved and delegate work to me. It was not an enjoyable experience, and when I did have something to do my energy levels from not being busy all day completely affected my motivation. I felt really drained from doing nothing! I felt like I was not really learning anything, and I couldn’t go on any training courses or anything like that as I was told there was no budget for it. Training junior members of staff suddenly felt like it was way down there on the list of priorities. I began to feel like a nuisance.”

Within five months of beginning her new role, Laura was made redundant. She has since had to move to Aberdeen, where she hails from, to move back in with her parents.

“In a way I was lucky – I didn’t have a huge mortgage to keep going in Glasgow. I was renting a small room in a flat in the south side, so it was a case of giving notice on my lease and that was it. My parents have been really supportive but I can’t help but feel a bit useless that I’ve had to move back home at a time when I’m meant to be standing on my own two feet and actually beginning to support myself.”

Laura is now working part time in a firm in Aberdeen, in their private client department. “The firm is a good one and I am grateful to have a job, even if it is a part time job, but it was not really the way I had envisaged my early 20s. When I look back on the job I had in Glasgow and the lifestyle I was enjoying, it makes me determined to try to get back into that area of law and to move back to Glasgow or Edinburgh at some point in the future. There’s no one really around in Aberdeen for me to socialise with other than a few old friends from school and I feel a bit in limbo. But I know I have to count my blessings that I’m still working and have nice parents to help me survive financially!”

Marking time for a year

Trainees and newly qualified solicitors are certainly bearing the brunt of the recession, as firms find that they are not able to honour their traineeship contracts.

Suzanne had a traineeship at a large Edinburgh-based firm lined up. However in March of this year she was informed that the firm was simply not able to take on all of the trainees they had planned to. Her traineeship has been deferred to 2010.

As she says, “I have to say, hearing that I was not going to be starting my traineeship this year was really frustrating. Some of the friends I made from the Diploma are in the same boat and they have decided to go off round the world and go berry picking and that kind of thing, but it’s not something I really want to do. I did my first degree in psychology and then did the accelerated law degree and then Diploma, so at 28, I feel I’m a bit old to get the backpack on. I have done a few months of travelling in America and that was enough for me. I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into the job and earning at least some money after years of scrimping and saving.”

Suzanne has decided to work on an unpaid basis for the citizens’ advice bureau, as she feels that volunteering in this way will help enhance her CV and also hone her skills in dealing with the day-to-day legal problems facing members of the public. She is enthusiastic about this work. “It has exceeded my expectations and I am enjoying it – it’s good to feel that you are helping people in some way, and at the moment a lot of people are just not able to afford a solicitor. I hear that all the time and I know a lot of people are struggling to see a legal aid solicitor as well when it comes to debt problems and family breakdowns. In a way it helps me put my own problems into perspective.”

In her spare time Suzanne is working part time at a theatre in their bookings office. “It’s not a bad job and I can’t say it’s not interesting sometimes, but it is not what I imagined doing when I was sitting all those exams at the law faculty. There’s no getting away from the fact that I’m overqualified for the job.”

Suzanne is optimistic that she will be taken on next year, but knows that nothing can be confirmed and it will be a case of waiting to see what happens. “I think that’s the hard part really – if someone told me that I would have to do this for the next year, but I would have a job next September, I could cope with it fine – it’s more the uncertainty of knowing how things will pan out that I find hard.”

Not well handled?

Others have found the way in which their redundancy was handled very difficult to cope with. Karin had moved to a large firm based in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, after working several years in-house. She had wanted to experience a more commercial role in private practice, but within a few months of moving to her job, the credit crunch hit.

She is unhappy with the way the firm handled things. As she says, “A few months prior to the second round of job cuts I had asked, during my appraisal, whether there was enough work to keep our department going. I was assured that there was enough work for at least another year, and then about a month and a half later I was called to advise that they were cutting jobs in our department!”

These assurances had meant that Karin decided to stay put and not look elsewhere for work, at a time when she feels there were more vacancies in the job market. At the time she remembers feeling angry and disappointed by the way the firm dealt with this issue. She also wondered if there was another agenda behind some of the redundancies at her particular firm.

“I felt that the economic climate was being used as an excuse to get rid of certain people. I had personally felt sidelined for a few months prior to the announcement and had vocalised my concerns. I felt discriminated against for a number of personal reasons, including my colour and felt that I was consequently being pushed out. I later raised these concerns at consultation meetings and I did feel somewhat vindicated when the partner in charge apologised.”

Her personal feelings about the redundancy were mainly those of embarrassment. As she explains, “Many non-lawyers could not comprehend why a lawyer would find themselves redundant, as the perception is that a lawyer has a job for life. I therefore initially chose not to tell many people about my plight. I also felt embarrassed about claiming jobseekers allowance, and chose not to do so until I felt I had no alternative. Walking into that jobcentre for the first time was really upsetting as I have worked since I was 18 years old. Even when I was studying at university I worked three part-time jobs, and so I felt ashamed at having to claim benefits.”

In what was obviously a tough time for Karin, what kind of support did she receive? She says: “I have to say that I am concerned about the lack of support available from the Law Society. In light of the current crisis I believe they need to be more proactive and at the very least sympathetic to certain issues faced by redundant lawyers. I have received reminder letters regarding the payment of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission levy of £275.

“Despite my advising the Society of my position and the fact that I have been redundant for the past four months, they just advised that I required to pay as I had a practising certificate in place. They acknowledged that other redundant lawyers had expressed similar concerns, but the rules were the rules and if you have a practising certificate you require to pay. In times when people are struggling to pay outgoings I think it is disappointing that such an organisation refuses to be sympathetic to members of the profession facing hard times.”

Her friends and family were the people she feels helped her through the experience of redundancy.

On a positive note, Karin has recently secured a new job after a few months of job hunting. She comments: “Ironically my new job involves more responsibility than ever before and has resulted in my returning to an area of the law that I thoroughly enjoy.”

Short hours, but still there

For others, their working lives may not have changed quite so dramatically, but they are still navigating uncharted territory. Working a four day or in some cases a three day week is a development that they could never have foreseen a year or so ago.

Andy works for a small firm in central Edinburgh which has a strong residential and commercial property focus. He has been working four days a week for the last few months, after all employees of the firm were consulted about the falling workloads and how best to deal with them. He says he and his colleagues felt it best that everyone had their hours reduced slightly, rather than have some face redundancy.

“When my hours were first reduced, it felt very strange. When you’re manically busy, you crave that day at home, reading the paper, getting out into the garden or whatever, but when it’s a regular thing, suddenly you just want to be at work and busy.

“The plus side for me is that it has meant that I’m able to take my three year old daughter on my day off each week as she was previously in nursery. It’s good to be able to spend that extra time with her. But financially it’s not great and the reduction in my salary represents the money I used to save every month. My wife and I have really cut back when it comes to spending – we’re not planning any holidays abroad or anything like that, and things which we were planning to do to the house have been put on hold. Suddenly a new kitchen just does not feel like a priority.

“We are lucky as my wife has a steady job in the NHS, which is at least quite reassuring. It does make you reassess your priorities in life and reconsider plans. Previously we had always planned for our daughter to be privately educated, but at the moment that feels like a luxury we just cannot afford.”

An associated positive that Andy identifies is the feeling of camaraderie at the firm, which has increased since the recession. “It feels like everyone is in the same boat and there’s a feeling of the firm drawing together to get through the lean times. We are all hopeful that things will slowly start to pick up and that we can get back to full time working hours in the not-too-distant future.”

Back to the land

For others the recession has meant that their lives take a new, unexpected direction.

Graeme had returned to his home town in the Highlands after seven years of working in-house in Aberdeen, in the oil and gas sector. A “country bumpkin at heart”, he had relished the chance to move back home and enjoy the rural lifestyle. He was working for a small firm which mainly offered property and litigation services, but the impact felt by the cooling of the property market meant that he was made redundant only 18 months after moving back home.

He recalls: “It was very difficult to accept that there just was not a job for me. I felt I had ‘done my time’ in working for a big company in Aberdeen and I had enjoyed my time working for a smaller firm. It was just a different lifestyle and you did feel like you really got to know the people you acted for.”

After some soul searching, Graeme decided not to seek a new job elsewhere and began to help his father run the family farming business. It is a decision he does not regret.

“Whilst I sometimes miss the problem-solving nature of working in law, and the good days where you feel like you’ve achieved something for your client, I am really enjoying what I’m doing now. I’ve never been more tired in my life with the early starts involved, but it’s very satisfying work and I feel I am really learning a whole new set of skills. My legal background does come in useful in issues relating to the business as well. I am glad I didn’t do what would have been the easier thing by trying to get another job in law in an area I was not interested in at all. In a way the recession has been a good thing for me.”

Time to plan ahead

Nicola is another who has made a break with the law. She worked for a large firm in Edinburgh, and two weeks before she was due to return to work after her second period of maternity leave she was made redundant. Her husband works for a firm in Edinburgh but the couple have decided to move to the Borders to begin a new life.

Her husband now commutes to Edinburgh and Nicola is busy settling the children into their new home. “In a way, we always talked of moving out of the city and moving to the countryside, but if I had carried on with my job I don’t know when we would have done it. Down here we can afford a three bedroom house with a garden, which equates to a small two bedroom flat in Morningside, where we were before.”

Nicola does not have any definite plans as to what area of work she will go into in the future, but has always been interested in the hospitality sector. “My parents ran guest houses on the estate I grew up on and that is something I have always been interested in. I don’t know if it will be a café or a bed and breakfast but I now have time to plan and think what I could do.”

She is philosophical about being made redundant. “It was awful at first when I heard the news – it’s just not something you expect as a lawyer, but you do only have one life and I now feel more excited about the future than I have done in years. I may go back into the law in the future when things pick up, or try to combine working part time in law with doing something else. Who knows, but it has given me some time and space to really think about what I would like to do.”

The strongest theme which stands out was the psychological impact felt by those affected by a redundancy or changed work structure. All seemed to feel that “this should not be happening to me”, which is a strong indicator of how secure the solicitors interviewed had previously felt in their careers and in their profession as a whole.

Financial and lifestyle considerations were also of course a factor, though did not seem to feature quite as highly as one might have expected. The way in which their redundancies or altered working conditions were dealt with was a key factor in their attitude to the situation. For some, there was a feeling that the firm had dealt with it as well as they could have; for others a feeling that they had not been treated fairly by their employer.

For a few, it provided an opportunity to explore other avenues. Whilst most cited friends and family as being a real support to them in their hour of need, the Law Society of Scotland was not somewhere most looked for support or advice, and there were concerns raised that more could be done to assist solicitors affected by the changes prompted by the recession.

It will be interesting to monitor whether the undermined security of the job title of “solicitor” will have an impact on the numbers electing to study law in the first place, and whether more will be attracted to jobs still considered “safe” – such as medicine… or plumbing.

Sue Lennox is the pen name of a practising solicitor

 

Member support: the Society comments

There is no doubt that, as a nation, we are going through a tough recession and that the legal profession is bearing some of the brunt of that economic hardship.

We recognise the challenge that many of our members face and will continue to offer practical support and advice where possible. The Society has implemented a number of support strategies to help redundant solicitors. Our Education and Training Department and Professional Practice team have given support and advice to hundreds of trainees and members of the profession in the last few months and continue to do so on a daily basis. Our recruitment website launched last October is one way in which the Society has offered practical help to its members, but of course those jobs are created by firms and other organisations.

However, the Society is constrained by legislation over collecting the levy fee on behalf of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. We have communicated with our members over the payment of the levy in the monthly e-bulletin, in the pages of the Journal and directly by letter, explaining who will be liable to pay and when. We explained in all our communications that if a solicitor has a practising certificate on 30 June 2009, they will have to pay their portion of levy. To date, 97% of members have paid the levy to the Society, and we thanked them for paying on time in last month’s Journal.

Any member who has a query about their practising certificate and the levy should contact the Society’s Registrar Department on 0131 476 8179 or email registrar@lawscot.org.uk .

James Ness, Deputy Registrar

 

 

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