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20 March 2020

Concerns over two-tier response to Covid-19 with lower paid denied remote working

UK union berates some firms for failing to equip staff for remote working; US document review staff complain of virus hot beds

Pic of New York subway train

The New York City subway: contract workers have complained of being required to commute to work when they could work from home shutterstock

Concerns have been raised on both sides of the Atlantic over a two-tier response by the legal profession to the Covid-19 pandemic with contract lawyers and administrative staff being forced to remain at work for non-essential work while lawyers work remotely.

In the UK, the Legal Sector Workers Union (LSWU), which represents cleaners, paralegals and administrative staff as well as solicitors and barristers, has claimed the existence of a “shocking divide” with partners working from home “while the lowest paid, most precarious staff are being forced to come in to the office”.

It has published an open letter to employers calling for all legal sector workers to be encouraged — and equipped — to work remotely.

And in the US, news site Above the Law has reported ‘many tips’ from contract attorneys working on document review being required to work in cramped offices, described by one correspondent as "hot beds for the spread of this virus".

The LSWU has been using Twitter this week to encourage its members to negotiate remote working procedures with their employers with the focus of its advice being directed at staff at less-well resourced high street law firms conducting legal aid work.

“As we collect data about legal sector workplaces, we are finding a common pattern emerging,” the union tweeted yesterday. “Fee earners (partners, sols [solicitors], barristers) working from home, whilst admin staff are made to come in. The justification? That these roles are ‘location-based’”.

“In reality, workplaces have often simply not invested in or explored the technologies which would allow these workers to WFH. Fee earners need to show solidarity with their admin colleagues here, and put pressure on management to make sure that all workers are valued equally.”

Today, the union highlighted the positive action taken by London firm Birnberg Peirce, with the provision of laptops and phones for workers who didn’t previously have them due to being office based and a rota system to allow the opening and circulation of physical post by workers who can cycle or walk to the office.

Meanwhile, Above the Law published feedback from a number of contract lawyers who were either staying away from work — for fear of exposure — or enduring cramped office conditions.

"We are currently still required to report to work despite there being more than 25 people present in very close working conditions," said one contract lawyer. "This is work that could be conducted remotely and is being conducted remotely by other document review companies. It is irresponsible and many attorneys present have elderly parents or children at home who have been sent home due to school closings.”

Further reading on the Covid-19 pandemic

US businesses 'clamouring' for guidance on fast-moving Covid-19 crisis, survey finds

Staff welfare, supply chain and privacy: the coronavirus-related issues keeping GCs awake at night

'I have realised how powerful technology now is': an Italian lawyer's take on Covid-19

Coronavirus risk may be unprecedented, but the fundamental principles of crisis response still apply

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