After closing offices, furloughing staff, cutting salaries and suspending partner pay earlier this year, the legal profession has begun to relax its coronavirus measures. However, as firms forecast a difficult year ahead, the future for hundreds of solicitors remains uncertain.
International firm Osborne Clarke said all 83 of its furloughed staff returned to work at the start of this month. However, managing partner Ray Berg said the rest of the year ‘still looks unpredictable in terms of recovering from the pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period in December’.
Meanwhile, Withers originally had 57 members of staff on furlough and 21 have now been brought back on a permanent basis. The firm recently announced a bumper set of financial results, saying its clients are ‘very active in volatile times’.
Less than 15% of staff at Shakespeare Martineau were furloughed during lockdown and their salaries were topped up to 90% between April and June. 47 returned in some capacity in July, however some staff will remain on furlough in August and September.
Watson Farley Williams has brought back 29 employees, having furloughed 49 staff members in April. Earlier this year, the practice also asked some staff to work reduced hours as a result of ‘operational requirements’.
City firm Hogan Lovells did not make use of the government retention scheme, but said it had ‘furloughed’ staff in the sense that they were not required to work (their salaries were still paid by the firm). A ‘small number’ of UK staff have yet to return to their roles.
At Gowling WLG, some employees remain on furlough and their return dates will vary depending on their role and business needs. Everyone returning over the coming weeks will be home working as the firm’s UK offices are not yet open.
All staff who were furloughed at Slater and Gordon are now back at work. However, the firm is due to move out of its London office next month in a move to full-time remote working.
Magic circle firm Allen & Overy did not furlough staff and said it is entering the next phase of its London reopening on 7 September, with people having access to the office on alternate weeks. Meanwhile, Freshfields’ Fleet Street office is now open to a small number of people who cannot work from home. It has been reported that a wave of staff will move into the firm’s new premises, 100 Bishopsgate, in September.
Elsewhere in the City, lawyers at Ashurst began returning on 2 July and CMS began a ‘limited and voluntary’ return to its offices in London, Manchester and Sheffield on 13 July.
Regional law societies have warned that solicitors could face redundancy once the government’s job retention scheme ends on 31 October.
In Leeds, the majority of high street firms furloughed between 30% and 40% of staff in the first two months of lockdown, according to comments made by Leeds Law Society at a recent Gazette roundtable. Managing partners have now started to bring staff back to work and the figure has shrunk to 10%. However, solicitors fear those who remain furloughed could lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, Birmingham Law Society’s new president, Inez Brown, told the Gazette that she is already being told that there will be job losses after 31 October.
‘Firms need to be careful they don’t make their high skilled solicitors redundant because when things improve in six months’ or 12 months’ time and the economy is doing much better they are going to need to start recruiting – and the very skilled people they have made redundant will have gone elsewhere,’ Brown warned.