I was made redundant yesterday, along with about half of my colleagues. Redundancies in the legal profession are increasingly common but what’s rare about them is that both the Coalition and Labour bear responsibility for them. The economy has taken its toll but the Legal Services Act has been running alongside the economy in parallel. The upcoming LASPO and Jackson reforms won’t have a dramatic impact on my firm but only because we’d long ago given up on trying to break even doing most Legal Aid work and personal injury. We resented successive governments for putting us in a position where, for example, I once had to tell a client asking where his very elderly neighbour might find free legal advice that the nearest place for her problem was London. We’ve all given loads of free advice over the years but she needed advice on something none of us really knew about so there was little we could do.
As soon as restructuring was announced, I knew I was at risk (in a pool of one) and guessed who else would be. If you’ve read my blog before, you may know I’ve looked to leave before. It was always going to be a wrench. I’ve been a permanent employee for 12 years (a third of my life) and temped there for three summers from the age of 19. Others have been there far longer, and some since they were even younger. This isn’t our first round of redundancies since the sky fell down in 2008. I sincerely hope it’s the last. Because of the restructuring, our office has closed its doors. Those who still have jobs will be leaving behind friends, colleagues and memories.
The night before my formal at risk meeting, I dreamed of my grandparents. I was walking around their home, one street from where I was born. It was all wrong. Every room differed from reality. It doesn’t take a psychologist to interpret this one. Nothing lasts forever. What shocked me though was the conscious reality that met me the next day. When I came out of the meeting, I recognised my response. I hadn’t felt it in over a decade, when I heard my grandad had died. Bile, rising in my throat. Concerned colleagues stopped by one by one, some about to be in the same boat as me, some safe. “It’s not like I didn’t see it coming,” I said to a man I’ve known for nearly 17 years. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
I do though. We’re family and it’s the nature of the firm to feel the historical ties that bind us. Another person who’s redundant said that we’re all institutionalised, as we chatted about the ghost in the building, the sites of my many accidents in it, the people who went before us. We talked about the future too, what we do next. We all huddled together during the redundancy process, lost and aimless, drifting from one activity to the next. It wasn’t until everything was decided that we shook that feeling off. What I’d give to draft a really good contract right now, just to take my mind off it, I said. When a client asked me to draft a contract urgently a week before my last day, after they’d refused the buyer’s terms on my advice, I did leap at the chance. Proper work was an escape.
There were so many “are you ok’s” from the “safe” people who suffered, as I have several times before, from survivors guilt along with the same pangs over the loss of our home, our family. Of course, there was also speculation about the future for those left after the restructuring. The truth is, I’m happier than I would be if I was in their shoes.
In the mornings, we talked about sleepless nights. I was only half joking when I suggested maybe we should keep a bottle of recue remedy in the office kitchens.
Reassuring each other was important. We’ll be ok. We’ll get through it, move on, maybe move up. But so was venting. There was anger, how could there not be, at some of the decisions being taken but realistically I know our management were no happier with what was happening than us. They were subdued during the redundancy process, although I could still get laughs out of my department head. It was only after the pressure of being on the other side of the table during that process was over that their feelings started to come out. I had quite a long chat with our managing partner about my future. She came to see me as soon as I’d formally accepted redundancy. I’m not sure who was reassuring who. It was good to be told they knew what they were losing. We talked about the steps I was taking, the firms I was looking at, the interviews I’d already scheduled.
There was a lot of laughter. Isn’t that always the way at a wake. Funny old stories. New jokes about our situation. Inevitably, some at the expense of the outsiders involved in the restructuring. Some of the laughter was free and genuine, some bitter, some tinged with sadness but at least it was there.
There was a stubborn determination from some of us to put our best foot forward. We wanted to go out with our heads held high. We wanted, in a more civilised fashion, to pull up our tops to a cheating ex and say “yeah. Take a good look. You’ll miss me when I’m gone but maybe you weren’t good enough for me anyway.” It’s easy to feel worthless when you’re made redundant but we weren’t going out like that. It’s not easy to get things done in that kind of atmosphere and with so much running through your mind but we had standards. A recruitment agent commended my loyalty for pushing on with my work through it all. Apparently, that’s not a normal response. I said that my clients weren’t the ones laying me off and deserved my best as usual but also that the partners were hardly gleeful about it and I don’t have it in me to do things any other way.
We talked about the clients. Those people we served for years. My mind kept returning to the thought that I’d miss them too. It may sound odd but I’ve had a lot of good times acting for my clients. They know I love working for them. They know I love the law and care about them. When the time came to tell them, my clients stunned me. I knew they were happy with me but their responses to the news were the best testament to my years at the firm I could ask for (one client immediately just said “bastards”. I couldn’t reply straight away because this was a client I’d never pictured swearing in any circumstances!). Several offered me a reference. Solicitors on the other side were stunned into silence by the news.
My secretary and I even talked about the books. All those books. What would happen to them (the law reports went to charity)? The thing which nearly undid me one day was looking at my copy of the Companies Act 2006 sitting on the floor. It sounds so silly but me and that book have history. I’ve had good times with it. When our managing partner told me I could take the specialist equipment I have for my disability, I asked if I could take my Companies Act too. She knows me well enough to know why I asked and immediately said yes. When the day came that the books which couldn’t be given away were being skipped, I dodged between people, rescuing books and jokingly heckling them about being book murderers. Nobody found it easy though.
The fact that we were restructuring didn’t bother me. It’s happened plenty of times over the life of the firm but leaving that building was harder because it’s so representative of our history. Back when I was newly qualified, I had the unenviable task of applying for first registration of a property with deeds going back to the 16th century. The Land Registry insisted on being sent all of the deeds so I had to list them (for the first time GCSE Latin had a purpose for me). Tucked in among what I called the plague deeds was an invoice from us from the 19th century. With the exception of the cost of an overnight stay in London, it looked remarkably similar to the invoices we were still sending out in 2002. That history runs deep for us.
In the final few days ex-employees and partners came in for a final look at the building. One told me her first day of work there was 57 years ago. One person said she found it easier knowing the remaining staff were moving but I found it harder and I think most people did. Knowing we would never step foot inside that building again felt a lot like leaving my grandparents’ house for the last time, knowing it would be sold. When one colleague came to say goodbye on my last day, as he stood in the door to my office, I had a flashback to being 19 when that was his office and I was working for him.
It’s easy to see job losses as nothing more than statistics. It’s easy not to see the people behind them. It’s easy to disregard the emotional impact on the redundant people and on others. It shouldn’t be. I hope I’ll have a new job soon. I’m getting interviews. Rationally speaking, I absolutely believe what I’ve been telling everyone. I think I’m better off this way than if I stayed but it is painful, not because I feel let down or unwanted but because I will miss the people. There’s a human cost in situations like ours that comes from emotional ties and it affects everyone involved, employees and clients. The media can keep their numbers. The Government can stuff its nasty rhetoric. I’m not a number. We’re not numbers. We’re people and that has messy, emotional implications. Our clients are people too. Our clients aren’t just files that can be shunted around without an impact. Despite the best efforts of the Legal Services Act, they don’t want call centres and impersonal file handlers. They want relationships with their lawyers. They want people who know them and who they can trust. They want people who care. I did. We did. I will in my next job, wherever I end up and I will never, ever call them customers.
The last words I said to my boss of 11 years, as we stood in front of my car, with him reaching for words, on my last official day? “It’s ok. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Today is tomorrow. Today I finish clearing my stuff out. Today is going to hurt. Tomorrow it’ll be ok though.