How they got through it.
Several firms won their staff's admiration for their astute decision-making as the Covid crisis overtook the business calendar, but others risked losing the confidence of their people through a combination of bungled job cuts, pay cuts, and comms.
11 firms were scored lower than 50% for management by their staff in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2021 Survey, indicating significant dissatisfaction.
Norton Rose Fulbright (49%) handled its four day week deal, 'Flex', "poorly - it was implemented eagerly", said a junior solicitor. "20% less pay with, in practice, no less work", and "sold to us as enabling them to survive COVID without making redundancies. The small print was that they would then make 5% of the workforce redundant for different reasons..."
"Flex was needed", countered another NRF solicitor, and "recent redundancies were targeted at areas that had been historically overstaffed". Although it hurt, said a solicitor, that they went ahead with the job cuts "during a grim January lockdown when the firm had just announced record success". At least the New EMEA Managing Partner "has got the importance of communication, and is a decent guy".
Fieldfisher (46%) was accused of "Hopeless communications during Covid" by a junior solicitor. "They just didn't read the mood at all and seemed to care more about the Pret economy than their employees' health". Others disagreed: "Michael Chissick continues to steer the firm very well during such a strange year", said one defender.
Freshfields (46%) was the lowest-placed Magic Circle firm. "Management of WFH hasn't been amazing", said a junior solicitor, although "opening in the US is good". "Difficult to deal with", was another junior solicitor's verdict, adding that partners "generally view us as their personal property". Against that, "They must be doing something right if they can keep the £100K NQ salary while everyone else is slashing and cowering", said a trainee.
"When Nick Thomas was running the show properly, the firm was good", said a partner at Kennedys (42%). "A dictatorship, but a benevolent and generally civilised dictatorship. Now that Nick is on his way out, the management has become poisonous". "Now it's just the remaining partners empire building", agreed a colleague. The appointment of a female Managing Partner "has at least helped to give the impression that the firm is listening to us", said a female senior solicitor, "- even though it isn't". The firm "appears to be actually trying to get away from being run by an old boys club, which is positive" countered another senior solicitor.
At Squire Patton Boggs (40%), "management in the USA are not visible and their decisions are not transparent", said a senior solicitor. "Feels rudderless", said a junior SPB colleague, "the firm doesn't know what its brand is, whether to penny-pinch like a true Northern shop, or pretend it's a US-headquartered firm" and "spread the money". That being said, "the Managing Partner seems to be trying hard to make things look ok". A senior solicitor agreed that, "Whilst I have faith in the UK LLP leadership, with the US calling the shots there is little they can do when diktats are made from on high".
Then the bottom really dropped out of the scores, with Knights scoring 27% despite its CEO selling some of his shares in the business for £61 million.
Watson Farley & Williams (26%) "tries hard" said a junior solicitor, although others begged to differ. "Savage cost cuts, outsourcing everything where possible, stealth firings, old boys club, and utterly directionless", said one lawyer. "There's a general feeling that the [two] managing partners don't do a great deal and are very well remunerated for it", said a junior solicitor. But at least "We started receiving semi-regular emails from management at the start of the pandemic, which was welcome". One office head "swings from sociopath to psychopath", claimed a solicitor working under the person in question. "I would categorise it less as management, and more dictatorship. I'd honestly rather work for Donald Trump".
Dentons (23%) received a savaging for its management decisions. "Firms where the PEP has been reported as being £650k per annum or thereabouts should not be racing to hack 20% off salaries and claiming furlough funds at the first sign that it might not be as great a year as last", said a junior solicitor. "I am sure the Partners might just about survive if they received £450k for a single year".
"Clowns", said another furious associate. "Zero time wasted implementing a 20% salary cut. Partners spouting how they have taken a 20% cut in drawings too. Umm, whose pot do you think that money stays in?! Must think the employees are the village idiots"
"We've clearly come through the year financially strong", said a trainee, "but the rather brutal decisions made along the way have left a poor impression - furloughing trainees, looking at a redundancy round for secretaries, pay cut for 6 months, sacking loads in real estate and energy".
"Not happy about being put on furlough for 2 months in 2020", said another trainee. "That's a valuable chunk of my 6 month seat that I lost...I get the business reason for furlough but doesn't feel great knowing that you're the first out the door when shit hits the fan. All ultimately pointless as Dentons decided to pay back any furlough money they claimed from the government".
Golden Turd Slater and Gordon scored 21%. "The CEO told the Gazette 'We don't want to be a law firm'", said a partner. "He didn't say what he does want us to be, but 'sausage factory' seems to be the vision."
"It is a complete nightmare", said another S&G partner, "We have no idea if the business will be here next week, never mind next year. Constant management changes, closing of offices - and this was before the pandemic. Rumours of debt, unrealistic targets, senior staff being made redundant. It is stressful".
"We have a 6th head of department in 4 years!" said a senior solicitor. "They make me want to cry with the incompetence", said a junior lawyer.
"I feel they have come into their own of late", ventured another Slaters junior solicitor. "Certainly I am in a much better position that friends working in other firms who have been told to come to work during a national lockdown to set a good precedent".
Staff at Debevoise & Plimpton (13%) benefitted from fortnightly update calls with the managing partner, said a junior solicitor. "These have been informative and they've given proper data about the financial performance of the firm (all good thankfully), but every time he speaks he does sound like a hostage reading out a script and assuring everyone he is being treated well". "The inmates at Broadmoor are less psychotic than the partners I work for", said a paralegal, one of several colourful responses which accompanied dismal scores.
However, Womble Bond Dickinson took the bottom spot for management, with 11%. Even trainees, usually delighted just to be in a firm, were unimpressed. "It's quite something when management in charge of trainees can't remember your name after knowing you nearly three years", said a WBD trainee. "They really pissed off the trainees by extending the training contract by six months", disclosed another, "saying that was what the rest of the legal market was doing (yes, in that legal powerhouse city of Newcastle) and that it meant there would be more NQ positions available. Then the NQ job list comes out and it's total crap".
One trainee said a partner "suggested it might be very helpful if I said how serious WBD take BLM" in the survey. "Is he serious?!! Just for that bottom mark!"
WBD's strategy was a puzzle to its people. "The firm's tie up with the US seems increasingly strange when many partners (outside London) take a very parochial view of their practice area and don't want anything to do with the US or, indeed, London", said a junior solicitor.
"The management have an identity crisis", agreed another junior solicitor. "They talk about being an international firm then make decisions in step with high street firms".
Communication internally was "very poor and externally often embarrassing", said a senior WBD solicitor.
"No one heard or seen from the board since lockdown", said a junior lawyer. A senior solicitor said, "It's an open secret amongst managing associates that the partner group has fallen out with the management board. Partners see the board as spending too much time worrying about their own personal positions and slagging each other off rather than on running the firm in a pandemic".
Still, "Managing partner and Chair are both stepping down, which is good", offered a senior solicitor.