News

Law firm partner workloads increase as remote working makes it more difficult to delegate to juniors and trainees, survey finds

By on
13

Many outfits report rise in chargeable hours, especially at senior levels

Partners worked up to 10% harder this year as remote working made it more difficult to delegate to remote working juniors and trainees, a survey has found.

The PwC Law Firms’ Survey 2021, covering 100 UK-headquartered mega-firms, shows that many are experiencing an unexpected boom. Fears of a Covid crash never came to pass, with 97% doing better on revenue and profit than they’d predicted in 2020. Many are enjoying “record profits”.

Graph via PwC Law Firms’ Survey 2021

Some of this is because of partners working harder. Many firms reported a rise in average chargeable hours, especially at partner level. The report suggests that’s because they weren’t able to palm work off on their subordinates as easily.

Secure your place: The November 2021 UK Virtual Law Fair

“[T]his perhaps reflects an attitude among partners to delegate less work in the lockdown environment as non-chargeable activity (e.g. business development) was reduced, and delegation proved more complex in a remote working environment,” it states.

At the 25 biggest firms, partners unable to escape their computer to glad-handle potential clients increased their chargeable hours by 8-10% on average.

Firms reportedly handled the transition to remote working “very well”, and don’t intend to go back. Most respondents said they expected staff to work remotely 40-60% of the time, and “many firms are expecting to reduce their office footprints”.

Workforce challenges loom, though. Bosses worry about “talent attraction and retention”, especially given the “relentless pressure on salaries being generated by US firms”.

The survey also covers diversity. The proportion of ethnic minority partners inched up a bit, but “the pace of change continues to be of concern”, according to PwC. Female partner representation has “plateaued” outside the top 10 firms surveyed.

The 2022 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

13 Comments

Anon

Well it’s not like they get paid over a million pounds for it… oh wait

(95)(0)

Worlds smallest violin

Oh no what shall they do? Poor souls 🙁

(100)(0)

Anon

Isn’t the key issue that the market’s ultra hot at the moment and everyone’s workload has gone up? Demand has risen but supply of experienced lawyers hasn’t, therefore everyone’s doing more.

Most partners should be able to swap some BD (less necessary with demand so high) for more day to day transaction management work. They don’t of course, because they reached such exulted status by being ultra neurotic workaholics determined to horde work for themselves and sacrifice any family life, but that’s their problem.

(42)(0)

Duncan

Oh no, they may be in danger of actually justifying their grossly inflated salaries for once!

(24)(1)

Garrth

Partners (generally) get profits, not salaries.

(5)(8)

Archibald Pomp O'City

Thanks for that, Captain Pedantic.

(12)(2)

Anon

Or because they furloughed junior staff over senior staff so had to do the work…

(12)(0)

Realist

There’s another perspective to this: remote working *does* make it more difficult to delegate, but this is most disadvantageous not to partners, but to *junior* associates. This isn’t a profession which you can learn simply from study, i.e. the LLB/GDL and then LPC/SQE, it requires experience and immersion. Pre-Covid, partners could delegate work to junior associates safe in the knowledge that it would be effectively supervised by senior associates. That’s no longer a safe assumption.

From a junior lawyer’s perspective, I think a lot of the defence of WFH is – whether consciously or otherwise – driven by motivated reasoning. WFH is a terrible experience for junior professionals. There can be no reasonable doubt that it retards our ability to learn our profession. Senior associates, and their equivalents in house, however, enjoy WFH. Everything else flows from that.

I’m not criticising such people: the only people who cares about their lives is them. I completely understand why experienced, highly-independent 6+ PQE individuals who have been working hard for almost a decade (since they began their training contracts) are embracing WFH and eschewing the commute. Particularly for colleagues with small children, they understandably resent losing 2 hours/day commuting (having moved out of Zone 1-3 to somewhere more spacious once they had children, and not have the money that partners have to live closer). I think that it is inevitable however that it will retard junior associates’ development, and for those of us for whom professional development is our top priority (again, without criticism, I respect that other people have other priorities), I’m not sure that the ‘new normal’ in London is that appealing.

From the perspective of a junior associate, our City office is back open, and yet few than 10% of our senior associates evince any inclination to return regularly. The pre-Covid norm of:

<>

Has been replaced by:

<>

For those junior associates who have returned to work, we might as well still be isolated WFH, as we’re rattling around in a near-deserted office. Aside from the social impact, it’s a dreadful learning experience, and a million miles away from my training contract in a magic circle firm with a managing associate sitting 3 metres behind me, from whom I could (a) get tasks; (b) get answers to questions; and (c) absorb by osmosis much of what he was dealing with even on matters in which I wasn’t directly involved. It’s the same with trainees: it’s all very well mandating that they attend the office 5 days/week, but if those responsible for training them don’t bother coming in,
the entire training contract* system is undermined. (* and the SQE equivalent which most firms have created/are creating). It’s worse for trainees too, as they’re almost useless at the start of each seat, as they don’t know what they’re doing. WFH increases the existing incentives not to bother trusting them with work.

Market dynamics have changed, so firms are probably unable force senior associates back into the office (because they will leave), but I think it’s dishonest to bullsh#t that this won’t adversely impact junior associates’ professional development: of course it will. We’re creating a generation of junior lawyers who are less capable than their predecessors.

Personally, the trend in London towards WFH is exponentially increasing the attraction of moving somewhere where I will actually be properly trained, and fully immersed in a firm again. That implies overseas locations which, by virtue of being physically concise, have no commuting issues: e.g. Dubai, Cayman, Hong Kong, etc. – none of which I can see adopting WFH. As I say, other people whose priorities are elsewhere will quite understandably feel differently, and I respect that. I think that this article misses the point, though: it’s not partners primarily suffering long-term consequences of WFH, it’s junior associates.

(24)(2)

Realist

Oops. Apparently using certain characters results in the text being omitted. The gaps above, describing pre- and post-Covid should have said:

— Junior associate – senior associate – partner all working together, within 20 metres of each other, with calls to counsel done on speaker phone in someone’s office. —

Has been replaced by:

— Senior associate speaks directly to partner or counsel, on 1-to-1 phone calls, does much of the work him/herself, and occasionally passes on discrete/dull tasks to junior associate.–

(18)(0)

Anon

I’m a 7 year PQE trainee supervisor and I really sympathise. I am one of the rare ones who does go in most days as it suits me.

All I can say is “don’t panic”. This is a time of change, and the skills junior lawyers will need will be different from the skills of more senior lawyers. There are new ways of learning and of doing things and barriers can be overcome. There’s far more online training now, and you might find you get the chance to work with a wider pool of lawyers than you would have, because geographical location – even within a building – is no longer a factor.

It’s very easy to add people to Teams calls with clients or Partners etc and if this isn’t happening – ask your supervisor to include you and to remind the team to do so. Perhaps look in colleagues’ diaries and ask them if you can join x call or y meeting – offer to take a note, or whatever.

Not saying it’s ideal or a substitute, equally though there is still hope and there are things you can do.

(4)(0)

Anon

The only real solution is for partners to lessen the workload on senior associates. Hours have increased during the pandemic, and most seniors are not willing to throw a 1-2 hour commute into the mix while partners decline to adjust their workloads to reflect that people are no longer legally confined to their office 24/7. The real dilemma is for the partners, who wish to both maintain the productivity gains of WFH but insist on a return to the office, which clearly senior associates do not want to accept in the current market. This is why some firms who are insisting on 5 days a week are having to pay large retention bonuses. It’s a lose-lose for the juniors, as if partners force seniors in they will just leave for other firms/opportunities, and there will be no one to train them anyway.

(4)(0)

ClockWatcher

My heart bleeds for them!

(1)(0)

anon.

Accurate.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories