Not so Sure on Onshoring: The London firms’ regional workhouses
January 30, 2020
2 min read
What's going on here?
A new study has suggested that London firms have been turfing out their “dirty work” to their cheaper, regional offices while charging clients London prices.
What does this mean?
A new study from Emily Carroll (University of Birmingham) and Steven Vaughan (UCL) recently investigated the workload and opinions of those working in global law firms’ non-London offices. The study mentions two models of satellite offices (offices belonging to and controlled by a larger organisation based elsewhere), namely “London Lites” and “Matter Mills”. London Lites generally try to mirror the London offices in terms of work done and solicitor/non-solicitor ratio. Matter Mills, however, deal more with document verification (deciding whether a document is relevant or irrelevant) that has been “unbundled” from the bigger and more complex cases handled in the London office. Matter Mills are populated mainly with paralegal-esque workers who are supervised in groups of 10 by an often-former London office solicitor. While a good proportion of the “dirty work” is done in these satellite offices with lower overheads, clients continue to pay London prices.
What's the big picture effect?
This study should concern law firms for two reasons. Firstly, it has been suggested that law firms are misleading their clients and contravening the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) by not acting with integrity and in the client’s best interest (two of the SRA’s core principles). Further, the study suggested that some location-masking was afoot, with non-London office workers using London phone numbers. However, when asked directly where they were working, employees were encouraged to be transparent.
What is perhaps more concerning for the London-based firms is the satisfaction, or lack thereof amongst the employees working in satellite offices. Many felt looked down upon by the London employees and excluded from the “champagne trolley” at the completion of projects. While those working in these offices were grateful for the advantages of the regional life, namely realistic targets and a better work/life balance, they were clear that this life came with sacrifices. It was generally accepted by the employees that they had little to no chance of career progression within the global firm. For example, one interviewee stated that there was “no corresponding role” in London and so no chance of a move to the city, with most interviewees accepting that movement between the City and the regional offices was almost exclusively one-way. Many employees were also working either on short-term or zero-hour contracts.
Although clients being charged higher fees may be morally questionable, it is hardly an unusual practice. Very few of us would be surprised to hear that American Apparel does most of its production outside of the US. The main issue for clients will be whether they can guarantee London quality outside of the city. The greater issue for these global, London-based firms is how they will manage a workforce outside of London that feels underappreciated and insecure. Ambitious firms would be well advised to provide clearer career paths from the regional workhouses to the glitz of the city, instead of it being a one-way street out of the Big Smoke.
Report written by Luke Hatch
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