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26/08/22-The stories behind the legal sector news

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Welcome to the weekly round up of news from the UK’s legal sector.

Post of the week – Never let yourself be defined by your academic grades

Not getting the A-Level grades they want (and have worked so desperately hard to achieve) can leave young people feeling crushed – especially if a place at their first-choice university is riding on those grades.

This is a feeling that trainee solicitor Venandah Madanhi is all too familiar with – seven years ago, she missed out on a place at her dream uni, the London School of Economics, by just one point in each of her A-Level grades. She was left feeling like her world was crumbling.

However, she ultimately refused to let her grades dictate her future; after going through clearing and finding herself thriving at Aston University and Aston Business School, she is now a trainee at “the best law firm in the world”, Latham & Watkins. In her recent LinkedIn post, Venandah shared words of comfort and advice for young people feeling as bereft as she once did after results day:

1. Dare to apply for things, and don’t reject yourself before you have even given others the chance to give you an opportunity.

2. Don’t let other people’s perceptions of you define you and let your work speak for itself.

3. The best is yet to come!

Venandah is happy to answer questions about clearing, making the most of uni and anything else – find her on Instagram @CoffeeWithVenandah.

Costs rise as the world’s biggest law-firm flotation sinks

It is well over a decade since law firms were permitted to list on the stock exchange – yet few have made the move. And now what would have been the world’s biggest law-firm IPO, with a projected market cap of £750 million, has been put on hold “for the foreseeable future”: after spending £12 million last year on the planned flotation on the London Stock Exchange, Mishcon de Reya had postponed the listing because of poor market conditions.

This is merely the latest of several delays and begs some questions with far-reaching implications. Is it really ‘just’ the market conditions that have spurred the decision to postpone, or does the record fine imposed on the firm in January for its AML failings, its partner departures, and the related slew of negative publicity that followed have anything to do with it? Does “the foreseeable future” really mean ‘never’? Does Mishcon genuinely believe that the IPO will go ahead as and when the market recovers, or has the decision already been made to permanently shelve this plan? And if so, when will the firm go public with its final decision?

We obviously don’t have the answers to these questions. But we would sound a general note of caution to other firms out there with pound signs in their eyes at the thought of going public – the cost, both financial (Mishcon is unlikely to see that £12 million back in its coffers anytime soon) and in terms of potential negative publicity, can be very painful indeed.

Freshfields wants its people back in the office at least three days a week

The Magic Circle firm Freshfields has made a U-turn in its agile working policy, in a story broken by RollonFriday: after announcing last year that its lawyers could work remotely for up to 50 per cent of their hours, Freshfields now wants to “force fee-earners back into the office for a minimum of three days per week” from September, according to an inside source. The decision is apparently due to a lack of “buzz” in its London and Manchester offices, as so many staff are choosing to work from home.

The move puts Freshfields out of step with Magic Circle rivals Linklaters and Clifford Chance, who both offer their lawyers a 50/50 split between home and office, but mirrors the 40 per-cent remote working offered by Allen & Overy and Slaughter and May. Most firms have adopted some form of hybrid approach in the wake of the pandemic.

Freshfields may well find that this latest move (which is apparently only interim and subject to review) proves unpopular with staff. A RollOnFriday poll of over 4,500 lawyers and law-firm staff showed that there is an overwhelming preference for WFH either entirely (43.7 per cent of respondents) or for the majority of the week (26.9 per cent). The obvious benefits include avoiding the need to commute and the ability to spend more time with family.

So where is this pressure to increase in-office working hours at Freshfields coming from? Perhaps the firm’s decision-makers are worried that John Zavitsanos, co-founder and managing partner of US firm Ahmad Zavitsanos Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing, is right in his opinion that “we’re kidding ourselves that workers perform well at home”: his piece in the New York Times last summer stated that his employees “never matched the team creativity and production we had taken for granted at our office” when working remotely during the pandemic.

And what are the implications for Freshfields’ regional hiring strategy? Given that the firm has been busy hiring people in different regions across the UK, will it now face any claims from employees who feel they have been taken on under false pretences? Time will tell.

Of course, in a practical sense, two or three days working in the office is often 40 per cent or 60 per cent. So perhaps 50 per cent never made any sense anyway?

Criminal barristers vote to strike

Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have voted for an uninterrupted strike starting on 5 September in protest at a “recklessly underfunded” criminal justice system. The CBA vice-chair, Kirsty Brimelow QC, called this a “last-resort action” over a demand that will cost less money than it will cost to have the courts sitting empty. The CBA states that its members’ incomes have fallen nearly 30 per cent over the last 20 years and that specialist criminal barristers make an average annual income after expenses of £12,200 in the first three years of practice. This has resulted in 22 per cent of junior criminal barristers leaving since 2016.

The pending strike marks an escalation of the current situation, in which criminal barristers have been stopping work on alternate weeks since June. It also piles further pressure on a government facing escalating industrial action in the rail industry and threatened strikes by teachers and health workers. The implications of the strike – which will effectively shut down the criminal courts in England and Wales – are beyond profound, especially given the huge backlog of 60,000 cases following the pandemic. One aspect that hasn’t drawn much press attention is the impact on business.

Companies are severely hampered in their operations when employees, managers, CEOs, etc. are either defendants or stand accused of crimes and are denied access to a properly functioning criminal justice system. In the case of the accused, the longer the cloud of suspicion hangs over their heads, the more tarnished their name – and, by association, that of their business or their employer – becomes in the court of public opinion. It is difficult to overestimate the reputational damage done when certain accusations become public knowledge, especially if the accused are then denied the opportunity to clear their name in court. And there are, of course, similar frustrations for those pressing charges, employers and employees alike, who simply cannot get justice and thus move on with their professional and private lives or their commercial activities.

It’s too easy to say that there’s a divide between the commercial and criminal side of the law. Our sense is that it’s time for the legal profession as a whole to voice its solidarity with criminal barristers – the wheels of justice must turn for everyone.

Why are so many lawyers choosing consultancy over traditional law firm models?

Recruiter Alexander Dick recently wrote a piece in The Lawyer examining why lawyers are leaving traditional law firms in their droves to become consultants. This phenomenon, which Dick describes as one of the most significant trends in the legal sector so far in 2022, has seen the number of consultant lawyers in the UK increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21 per cent, compared with just 7 per cent for mid-market law firms.

This mass exodus from traditional law firms has been accelerated by the pandemic in two crucial ways. Firstly, during the crisis, lawyers saw their workload skyrocket and many struggled in the face of ever-multiplying work and the huge pressure this caused on their personal lives. Secondly, the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns suddenly normalised working from home for most legal professionals, something that was previously the exclusive preserve of the elite few in top-tier partner positions.

As the pandemic continues to recede, many lawyers now see office work as outdated, impractical and not conducive to a fulfilling personal life. When one then considers the fact that 96 per cent of consultancies offer some form of agile working and that many also offer highly competitive pay, it is not surprising that many traditional law firms are losing lawyers at a rate of knots.

Yet Covid was not the root cause of this shift towards consultancy work, but rather the straw that broke the camel’s back. Traditional law firms have failed to move with the times, not least when it comes to the seemingly widespread yet misguided belief that work done in the office is superior to that done at home.

This failure to embrace the benefits of more flexible working practices reflects what Alexander Dick describes as “a pig-headed and almost contemptible attitude among some top-tier partners towards employees”. Their attitude also simply fails to align with reality, as the rise in WFH – and the resulting boost to employee morale in the absence of long, stressful and costly commutes – has coincided with many law firms reporting their best-ever periods for billing.

In his article, Dick concludes that traditional law firms can still turn things around if they can see the error of their ways and embrace more flexible working practices. Here at TBD, we think that Dick’s article missed many other important reasons why lawyers are drawn to consultancy roles. I have outlined some of the basic economics of what you need to know if you’re considering a move to consultancy. Please take a read here.

… or does The Lawyer magazine actually love CMS?

After last week’s edition, The Lawyer reminded me that many of its recent CMS headlines had actually been positive. They’re right, of course. For last week’s edition, I selected a few that had an edge to them and left out some more recent examples of where the firm’s coverage has been positive. So here are some positive examples:

–  CMS’ global revenue soars by 18 per cent

–  CMS brings bees to UK and international offices

–  CMS adds eight partners to City HQ in record-breaking global promo round

 Nevertheless, the thrust of my original point still stands: it behoves law firms to develop strong relationships with the legal press if they want to avoid seeing too many negative headlines bearing their name.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition. Let me know if you have a story you’d like us to consider.

Si Marshall

Legal marketing expert – I love lawyers, their stories and how they help clients | Marketing | PR | Digital Marketing | Business Development | LinkedIn training | Directories | Awards | Research | #SimonSays

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