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Has furlough been a success for the UK legal sector or has it widened an existing divide?

It's fair to say that a lot of people were depending on furlough back when we first went into lockdown. And while many in the legal sector were able to continue with their jobs remotely, others were unable to work and were placed on furlough. 

With cities across the UK going into local lockdowns, and with the possibility of another full-scale one on the horizon, it's important to understand how the UK's law firms were affected the first time around. 

So in part two of this series on the study we conducted alongside Today's Conveyancer and Practical Vision Network, we'll be discussing the data we gathered on furlough in the legal sector and the impacts seen to date.

Furlough use within the UK legal sector was lower than first expected

The UK government's furlough scheme was incredibly popular, and proved essential in supporting the financial wellbeing of millions of employees. On just the first day, 1.7 million people had registered for it, rising past 9.6 million at the height of the lockdown, costing approximately £34.7 billion. 

Initially, it seemed as though the legal sector would be making heavy use of the scheme, with most firms planning to furlough around 40% of their staff, while some predicted that as much as 80% of employees would be furloughed.

But the legal sector and furlough didn't go together quite as extensively as expected according to our research. 

Due to how successfully law firms were able to transition their staff into remote work (and to a lesser extent, the partners and other legal professionals who remained in the office), just 35% of our survey respondents said their employer was using the furlough scheme, and only 21% reported personally being furloughed during lockdown.

The likelihood of law firm employees being placed on furlough seemed to vary widely by job type. Only around 3% of partners went on furlough, along with less than 10% of will-writers and trainees. Almost a fifth of associate respondents had been placed on furlough, but the most disproportionately affected cohort was support staff at over 60%.

The lack of support for furloughed legal workers

According to our survey, a lot of furloughed employees experienced a lack of support. 

Of the furloughed respondents, 64% reported feeling unsupported or very unsupported by their employers during their time away from work. And just as our findings on working from home showed, there appears to be a close relationship between feelings of support and the extent of communication.

Communication was down for 67% of our furloughed respondents. To a certain extent, this does make sense. After all, as they're not working, furloughed staff have less reason to communicate with their managers and vice versa. But it's important to remember that furloughed workers may be less certain about the future of their position than those who are still working in one form or another. 

A lack of certainty about their jobs is a huge source of stress for furloughed workers, and a significant threat to their financial wellbeing. As such, it's an employer's responsibility to try and keep furloughed employees in the loop wherever possible. As with any business, managers have a duty of care to employees in the legal sector and furlough doesn't negate that. If anything from a staff wellbeing point of view, communicating with furloughed staff regularly is probably more important than with your working teams. 

Perceived job certainty in the legal sector and furlough's impact

With the lack of communication and support for furloughed workers in the legal sector, well over a third (38%) of our furloughed respondents reported that they did not see themselves having a future at their current organisations, which is obviously a huge problem in the long-term. In fact, the respondents who answered yes in the long-term were significantly outnumbered by those who only answered yes in the short-term.

It's worth noting that respondents who reported low communication were much more likely to select "No" as their answer to the question of whether they saw a future at their current organisation. On top of that, 67% of low-communication respondents stated that their answer to that question would have been different prior to COVID-19.

This shows that, even if firms aren't forced to make layoffs, they are already at risk of a sharp increase in turnover. The only way to effectively mitigate this risk in the event of further business shutdowns is by communicating with furloughed employees and making efforts to keep them connected to the firm, such as with a regular check-in that gives them the opportunity to provide feedback. It's important to keep them in the loop on goings on in the firm, support their wellbeing, and show them that just because they're out of sight doesn't mean they're out of mind.

With over 60% of the support staff in our survey having been put on furlough, they would seem to have the most to be uncertain about. As firm leaders discuss what the post-COVID return to work will look like, and as the greater emphasis on remote work helps to scale back-office costs, support staff are likely to be especially concerned with the future of their positions in increasingly decentralised offices.

The return from furlough in the legal sector

On the run-up to the end of the scheme on the 31st of October, firms have been bringing furloughed employees back into the workplace. Less than half of firms have brought back all their furloughed staff, while 15% have brought back half, and 5% haven't un-furloughed anyone.

This makes sense, as firms probably want to make the most of furlough while it lasts. And as more areas go back into lockdown, leading partners may be reluctant to bring everyone back only to have to close down the office again. These findings support The Law Society's coverage of the legal sector's return to work.

Lockdown has been a difficult and uncertain time for the legal sector, and furlough may make a return in one form or another if there continues to be a threat to our physical wellbeing. But for the time being, the current furlough is set to end, and the extent to which firms will support their still-furloughed employees remains to be seen.Next in our State of the Legal Sector series, we'll be looking at how work in the UK's legal sector may be set to change post-COVID-19. So keep an eye on the Weekly10 blog so you can read it first!

The full 21-page report is available free and contains a range of insights, detailed commentary and predictions for the future.