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Who supports the support staff?

Sadly, it looks 99% certain that yet another mid-level Scots law firm has succumbed to the pressures of the legal market, and will be entering administration, before being sold off in a pre-pack arrangement to a law firm, or firms.

I have the dubious honour of being the only person who's worked for both the Scottish law firms that have gone into administration in the past two years, one of which collapsed and one of which was sold in a pre-pack deal. I think, therefore, that makes me fairly well qualified to make some predictions about what will happen next in this process, and who will suffer.*

In this case, the original firm, or parts of it, is being rescued by another firm. The first thing that will happen is that the partners will soon start making their moves over to other firms that they've been negotiating with in the background. If they're lucky, they'll be able to take some of the staff in their fee-earning teams along with them. What they're almost guaranteed to be unable to do though, is to take any of the support staff of the collapsing firm with them, unless there are already pre-existing vacancies for their skills in the new firm. So most or all of those support staff in the original firm will be made unemployed.

If the firm collapses rather than merges, the solicitors will have access to the excellent support (both financially, via access to hardship funds, and professionally via access to training courses) of their professional body, the Law Society of Scotland.

The clients are also protected by the Master Policy, and various structures that are in place to protect them and their interests in case of an extreme event like insolvency.

But what help do the support staff have?

In law firms, the term "support staff" covers a wide range of staff: HR, General Office/admin, IT, reception, secretarial support, and, of course, library services. Some of these staff may have a professional body that they could be members of that will support them during life-changing events like sudden and unexpected redundancy. However, most of them don't. That means there are a lot of staff who, if made redundant, have no support. No organisation with hardship funds. No access to retraining or skills development opportunities. They're left to make the best of a bad situation, all on their own.

Additionally, if there has been any misconduct by the firm management, the Law Society actually won't investigate the issue themselves, they await the complaints of members of the public, despite having the power to initiate an investigation. And what member of support staff, who wants to continue working in an industry where the fee earning staff have the power, would start such a complaint, and ruin any chance of being employed in a law firm again?

Some people, when I explain how unsupported these staff are in law firms, say "well, you should join a union!" This is only ever said by people outside the legal sector, that have no understanding of the fact that law firms do NOT like their staff to have this sort of representation, or the ability to defend themselves from possible management manipulation. No law firm I've knowledge of recognises the existence of unions for their staff, or would engage with one which tried to represent support staff. Joining a union is not the answer.

Despite all of the problems and stresses that the support staff go through during the administration and merger process, despite the fact that they are the ones that bear the brunt of all the compulsory or "voluntary" redundancies that firms, these are the staff that are never, ever mentioned in the legal press. The Law Society quotes statistics on the re-employment levels of staff after redundancy, but the staff they are referring to in those statistics are the fee earners. If asked about the statistics on re-employment of support staff however, they say they've not been given those figures. More to the point, they've not been interested enough to find out about those figures - support staff are irrelevant to them. Also, all the legal news providers, apart from Roll on Friday, have ignored the situations that support staff have been left in when law firms go into administration, and how many of them may remain unemployed or be forced to leave the legal sector after events such as this. For them, support staff are totally irrelevant too.

So when you read those legal news stories, saying how terribly the fee earners are suffering when firms merge and go into administration...try and remember that the support staff are suffering too.

The only difference is, the support staff have no-one to speak up for, or look after, them.




*I don't blame most of the staff at my former firms for what happened - many fought hard to protect their staff, but they could only do so much when they had little power to change things.



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