Employee survey reveals support staff dissatisfied

The Lawyer’s first employee engagement ­survey, conducted by YouGovCentaur, shows a chasm between lawyers and business services staff, with the latter feeling undervalued, underpaid and out of the loop.

Employee survey reveals support staff dissatisfiedThe ;Lawyer’s first employee engagement ­survey, conducted ;by YouGovCentaur, shows a chasm between lawyers and business services staff, with the latter feeling undervalued, underpaid and out of the loop.

An ;overwhelming ­majority of business support staff – 64 per cent – did not feel that non-fee-earning roles are valued at their firm.

Nick Woolf, a partner at headhunter Sainty Hird, who recruits lawyers and senior non-fee-earners, says: “It’s a shame, but I’m not surprised. Law firms are dominated by fee-­earners. Unfortunately a lot of firms view support staff as just that – lackeys to ­support the real business of generating fees.”

Woolf’s view is shared by fee-earners. One senior non-fee-earner at a top 10 UK firm says: “There’s a fairly well-established ‘us and them’ divide. Support staff who are embedded in the practice areas rather than centrally have much less of an ‘us and them’ problem. It’s support staff based in central functions that are much more invisible to most lawyers.”

One City partner says: “Unfortunately, I don’t think many lawyers understand what these people do. I expect to see a rise in non-lawyer managers who might better understand these functions.”
Internal communication was identified as a critical area for improvement, with many business support staff seemingly unsure of their role within the firm.

Just 41 per cent of business services personnel agreed that the firm communicated how their role contributes to overall firm strategy. That makes fairly depressing reading, but even worse are the career development prospects.

Only 16 per cent of ­business services people felt that there are good ­opportunities for promotion within their department or practice area. And only 25 per cent of support staff believe that people are given clear messages about their future potential.

“There’s an increasing focus on career development – for example, some firms have four or five grades for secretaries – but it could be better. There’s a single ladder, and you either go up it or you don’t, or you leave,” says one business development manager.

Career development is also a crucial issue for lawyers. The employee engagement ;survey ­reinforces the findings of The Lawyer’s January 2007 YouGov survey, which revealed that only 64 per cent of assistant solicitors across the profession were aiming for partnership. That figure slumped to just 37 per cent among firms with more than £250m turnovers, which is roughly equivalent to the top 10 firms in the UK.

If anything things are ­getting worse. The ­employee engagement survey revealed that only 46 per cent of fee-earners were aiming for partnership in their own firm and only 40 per cent believed it was an ­achievable aim. ;Despite ;gloomy ;­partnership prospects and a rise in alternative career paths at some firms, only 28 per cent of fee-earners agreed that their firm ;­provides a good ­alternative to partnership.

“But that’s right, isn’t it?” comments Woolf. “Not everyone ;becomes ;a ­millionaire. The best will get partnership. It can only be for those of the very highest calibre.”

Analysis of the statistics reveals four critical areas where improvement is ­needed for fee-earners: career development and career structures, partnership opportunities, work-life balance and reward.

Despite ;spiralling salaries in recent years, only ;48 ;per ;cent ;of ­respondents are satisfied with their basic salaries; only 32 per cent are satisfied with their bonuses; and a shockingly low 21 per cent believe that bonuses are ;calculated ;fairly throughout their firm.

These figures are ­boosted by fee-earners, who feel much more fairly rewarded for the work they do than business support staff. Fifty-four per cent of business support staff said pay would be the most likely reason for them to leave. Among fee-earners the biggest single factor was work-life balance, with 42 per cent saying that this would be a reason to leave. Of all employees, 41 per cent are less than satisfied with their work-life balance.

The survey is the first ­census of the UK legal sector to cover all employees, including fee-earners and all business support functions, such as HR, business development, secretarial, IT and communications.

Employee engagement sits at an average of 62 per cent for fee-earners across all firms taking part in the survey, but less than 49 per cent of support staff are fully engaged.

Employee engagement surveys have replaced old-fashioned job satisfaction surveys because research suggested ;that ;job ­satisfaction is a passive measurement and did not translate to profitability.

“There’s a much stronger link between engagement and productivity. If you have engaged employees, they’re likely to be more profitable to the firm,” says YouGov associate director Matt Roddan.

More ;than ;4,000 employees at 11 firms were surveyed, providing a range of responses across the legal market. The 11 firms ­represent a cross-section of the market, ranging from international giants to smaller regional firms.