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Different kind of legal aid

When it comes to belt-tightening and crisis management, it has definitely ceased to be one law for you, one law for me. As commercial property deals have dried up and house prices plummeted, many legal firms long used to dealing with redundancy issues on behalf of their clients now find themselves uncomfortably close to the action on a totally different level.

One Edinburgh recruitment consultant says that the job losses in property teams are frightening.

"It's hard to see when it's going to recover, " he says. "There are so few growth sectors in the Scottish economy. How do people who are used to earning GBP50,000 to GBP60,000 deal with retraining and getting another job and at what level?"

John Denholm, managing director of recruitment consultants Denholm Associates, agrees that it's a difficult situation. He says that many lawyers who have come into the profession fresh from university are at a loss when it comes to handling redundancy.

"This is the first time the professional services, the middle classes, have really experienced this type of recession, " he says. "We're speaking to legal firms and finding that the people affected have probably never been in the situation before."

"As a result, they genuinely don't know what to do. Yes, they are highly qualified and highly trained, but when it comes to the basic issues of preparing a CV and marketing themselves, they are in alien territory."

What the victims of redundancy appreciate, he says, is practical advice. "People are looking for basic help and one problem is that, except for the larger firms, not many are marketing-orientated, " Denholm says.

"The marketing ethos has caught on relatively late in the legal sector compared to others, so some firms have been slow to understand the need for redundancy and outplacement advice. They still don't grasp the importance of the brand and brand reputation."

Denholm says law firms have panicked into letting people go without appreciating the need to provide proper support to those being made redundant, and this may be creating more trouble:

He says: "This recession will lift at some stage. These people will be in demand again, and those who have been let go in a lessthan-sympathetic fashion will remember that. People have long memories and the legal profession needs to recognise the need to give them proper advice, to soften the blow and get them out into the market feeling more confident, positive and better trained in self-marketing."

Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, agrees that the legal profession, like every other business sector in Scotland, is feeling the effects of the economic climate, especially firms which have had an emphasis on domestic conveyancing.

"The Law Society has been offering practical advice to solicitors, and organised a conference in November specifically to help high street practitioners manage their businesses in difficult circumstances, " she says.

Lorna says a survey of Scottish legal firms at the end of last year revealed the extent of redundancies among solicitors and support staff: "At the moment we estimate 10per cent of those working in the legal sector have been affected."

She says there is evidence that more staff will be working reduced hours, which could cut the likelihood of full-scale redundancies.

"Firms are taking a longer-term view, recognising the need to retain the talent, skills and experience of their staff, which will be vital in the recovery from the recession "The impact of redundancy on anyone is huge, and the society is concerned about individuals who may have lost their job or are facing redundancy."

The Law Society offers support to those with cancelled traineeships and faced with redundancy, and is guiding employers who have never been in the position of having to make staff redundant.

Adam Gordon, head of marketing and communication at recruitment firm Rise Group, says there has been a significant move of lawyers into the public sector, and has also noted a reduction in working hours, especially in property.

"We know of lawyers who are working part-time in retail jobs to make ends meet, " he says.

Like Denholm, who believes that this may be a good time for lawyers to completely reassess their career options, Gordon says their abilities can be readily applied to other industries.

He says: "They typically have excellent leadership, communication and report-writing skills, but many of them need to be more flexible on location and salary."

While activity in areas such as litigation and insolvency are benefiting from the effects of the credit crunch, the view of recruitment companies is that corporate openness about redundancy and individual flexibility about expectations can only be a good thing.

Firms with a solid client base and enlightened management will be best placed when the eventual upturn arrives.