City firms cut secretary support as lawyers prepare to return to the office

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By Aishah Hussain on

Dechert joins the likes of Clifford Chance and Linklaters in reducing secretarial roles in London

Dechert is the latest law firm to reassess its secretarial function, offering a “small number” of secretaries in London voluntary redundancy.

The firm said in a statement this week it is restructuring its secretary support function in London to a hub model which will include more “specialised skills” to better support its lawyers and clients.

“The new model will facilitate a cross-practice approach and will ensure our workforce can work flexibly to fit evolving working practices,” the statement continued. “It will offer our secretaries new development and career progression opportunities.”

“As part of the initiative, a small number of secretaries have been offered the option to apply for voluntary redundancy on enhanced terms.”

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Many City law firms have trimmed the headcount of their legal support teams, with secretaries in particular bearing the brunt. Covid has accelerated existing IT trends which were threatening legal support roles, and forced changes to working practices which have seen lawyers carry out their own admin such as printing and photocopying, as they continue to work from home.

With a return to the office on the cards for the majority of firms in the coming months and most allowing their lawyers to split their time working from the office and home, it’s unlikely they’ll require the same level of support from legal PAs and secretaries as they did during pre-Covid times.

In April, Clifford Chance announced it will make up to 73 staff redundant as part of a ‘hybrid voluntary and compulsory’ redundancy scheme in London. The staff affected include secretaries, those in document production, and in the mail room. In March, Linklaters offered all 225 of its secretaries voluntary redundancy and, unlike CC, said it had no plans to make any compulsory redundancies. The job cull came just months after Links introduced a new firm-wide remote working policy, allowing lawyers and staff to work remotely for up to 20-50% of their time.

Norton Rose Fulbright announced in January it is making 132 redundancies, of which 111 were non fee-earners, while Fieldfisher made secretaries redundant in October. In November, Clyde & Co, CMS, Gateley and Squire Patton Boggs made cuts of their own.

Yet, only a few lawyer redundancies have been announced so far. The legal industry has fared well over the course of the past year, with many law firms posting strong financial results. Whilst some trainees may have had their training contract start dates pushed back by a few months, there’s been no reports of firms cutting rookie intakes in response to the pandemic. What we have seen is several firms begin to wind back the trainee/NQ pay cuts introduced last year, while others pay back furlough money, and in some instances, thank lawyers and staff with special bonuses.

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