Lawyers erupt at Stephenson Harwood’s 20% homeworking pay cut

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How does your firm view office workers v remote workers?


Fierce reactions have greeted Stephenson Harwood’s offer to staff to work from home 100% of the time for a 20% pay cut.

The arrangement, which seeks to address the preferences of WFH-loving lawyers, was revealed by RollOnFriday last week. ROF’s story was picked up by everyone from the Times to the Beeb to Jeremy Vine to NBC, serving as a lightning rod for discussions about the future of office life after two years of remote working.

Split-week schedules are now so embedded they have acronyms *. However, Stephenson Harwood made a splash with its clear line on totally remote working.

A spokesperson for Stephenson Harwood told ROF this week, “Like many law firms, and other businesses, we have made no secret of the fact that we see value in being back in the office regularly – from the positive impact on workplace culture and teamwork, to the training opportunities it provides. We also recognize the importance of flexibility; that’s why we have introduced a hybrid working policy which gives our people the option to work remotely for up to 40% of the time, and salaries remain the same “.

“From my perspective, this policy is a total game changer”, said a Stephenson Harwood lawyer who applauded the ‘100home80pay’ option. They joined the London firm during the pandemic on a remote basis, and now “I get to live in Bath and work for a City firm” earning more than at their former, regional firm “even after the 20% discount”.

“There is also absolutely no suggestion that this set-up will affect my career progression – if that was the case I would never have joined because I would like to progress all the way”, they said. “The best bit, though, is that I can be a better dad to my daughter and a better husband to my wife. For context, I work in the PE team and spent the last week working hard to get a transaction over the line but I did not miss a single bath time – neither my daughter’s nor my own! “

Another SH lawyer took the opposite view. “SH is out of touch”, they said. “My billable hours have increased while working at home and saving time on a very long commute. I can balance commitments as a parent and often log on in the evening to get the work done”.

“It doesn’t feel right that there will be a 20% difference in pay for a colleague who is at the same level as me and billing the same amount but who doesn’t have the commute or family duties”, they continued. “If I decide to commute to the office to secure the full pay it will mean I will be less productive at work (and for the family) and it will cost more to the firm in salary and overheads. Lose Lose”.

“Not just parents”, said another commenter, “this will disproportionately affect disabled people”. And non-lawyers, said others. It “seems harsh” on business services staff “taking home circa £ 60k who live outside of London because house prices are out of reach”, said one. “If they can work effectively from home, as proven over the last two years, why not allow them to continue to do so without penalizing them?”

Mums could also be disproportionately disadvantaged, it was suggested. “I suspect a driving force behind WFH will be childcare”, said one. “Inevitably, women will be attracted to WFH. If that’s the case, there could well be a discrimination case down the line if firms are penalizing lifestyles evidentially preferred by a specific gender”. “Disgraceful approach – of course this will disproportionately affect women / working parents”, agreed another person.

Many agreed that Stephenson Harwood’s partners were “having their cake and eating it”, because “Working from home generates MORE money for the firm – less travel time, more billed time, more likely that associates log on in the evening and at weekends with the home / office distinction removed “. Homeworkers “should get a raise rather than a pay cut”, claimed one.

“Do they think their lawyers are idiots – more profit for the equity, no reduction in targets”, agreed an SH employee. “It is purely bully boy tactics. Time to move on” and “get paid fairly for the work I do”, they fumed.

However, a source claimed that Stephenson Harwood was locked into an expensive lease in London which meant its savings from homeworkers freeing up space in the office might be negligible. The firm “put itself in a nightmare situation” after management “foolishly” signed up to an extension to 2030 of its circa £ 12m / year Finsbury Circus premises before the pandemic, they said, and now believe “they need the building ‘buzzing’ for business “, or” they need drastic savings elsewhere “. A spokesperson for Stephenson Harwood said, “Extending the lease as we did – at a time when we had the opportunity to either look elsewhere, or commit to staying until at least 2030 – allowed us to negotiate very favorable terms, making significant savings over the lifetime of the lease from rent free periods and other incentives “.

The 20% cut was “clearly just a deterrent”, said a critic. Fine, said another person, because, “This career is more than just logging in and doing your 8 billable hours from your basement”.

Others rather liked the sound of Stephenson Harwood’s proposal. With rail season ticket savings, said one, “the real deal is more like taking a 5-10% pay cut … and I reckon a lot of people would consider that as a good deal”.

“The catch”, they added, “is that you are immediately signalling you’re not really a team player, you will miss out on client meetings and events, and won’t be seen as a full member of the team. So progression and future pay rises are likely to be limited but that might not be a problem for some “.

“Not sure I completely agree with the naysayers”, agreed an envious onlooker. “Most firms tend to be pushing for 3 days a week mandatory. The option to work wherever you want in the UK for a 20% cut however could be pretty attractive … Pretty sure if I asked my boss if I could move to the Scilly Isles and never come into the office again he would be a bit reticent “.

“20% haircut to never see colleagues again seems ok to me”, said another. Factor in no commute, “possibly no need for private schools and the fact that top rate tax is close to 50% now and net disposable could well go up as a result”.

“I would be much better off under this type of option (not offered by my firm)”, said a jealous lawyer. “I could lose the nanny in favor of nursery, and remove commuting and office costs. I would be more relaxed and quids in!”

However, it “clearly” can’t work for any firm with regional offices, pointed out a commenter. “Associate A is employed by regional office on regional salary (and has to go into office to get that), Associate B is employed by London and gets London minus 20%, and gets to work from home. Associate B inevitably still taking home more . There must be all kinds of employment claims in there “.

One person wanted the policy abandoned for their own selfish reasons: “Get back to your swanky offices you big cry babies, and stop pushing up the house prices in the nice country and coastal areas for local provincial types. Want London salaries? Work in London “.

Hundreds of people upvoted comments which said the remote working mindset was here to stay, and that firms should not penalize them. “There will be a divide between progressive firms that allow staff to choose and those that insist on presenteeism like Stephenson Rees Mogg”, said one reader. “I’m struck by the outpouring of anger against SH here”, said another reader after digesting the comments and seeing the story go viral. “It shows that something fundamental has changed as a result of C19. The message is simple. We love WFH. However, the Masters of the Universe who run our firms don’t. A clash of wills is now happening. I hope the pompous , outmoded dinosaurs lose. Let’s see Law Firms recognize that the world has changed “.

Some managers, though, think Stephenson Harwood has got it just right. “The SH MP / CEO has just emailed all staff giving himself a pat on the back for the media attention this has received”, said a source.

* Staff attending the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are known colloquially as ‘TWaTs’, for example. Readers are invited to name other combinations in the comments.

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