Working through the pandemic in the Thames Valley

Working through the pandemic in the Thames Valley

Career Advice


Twelve months ago I wrote a blog highlighting why working outside London, specifically in the Thames Valley, could be such a positive move for many lawyers, in terms of work-life balance and wellbeing, as well as making financial sense. As we are all too aware, a lot has changed in 12 months and I would suggest that the draw of the Home Counties and Thames Valley has now become even stronger.

Having worked throughout the pandemic, other than a very welcome camping holiday in Devon in August, I have had regular conversations with many lawyers in the region and also with HR staff who were not furloughed. It has, of course, been a challenging time for us all. There have been highs and lows, but the resilience of the legal sector has been impressive.

As has been widely reported, the revenue of 30 of the country’s highest-earning law firms increased in the 2019-20 financial year and nine of those posted an increase of more than 10%, while the UK economy has of course shrank quite drastically – 20% at its worst in April. The pressures on mid-tier law firms has been immense but nevertheless the 2019/20 year-end also concluded a solid year for the bulk of these firms, with all but eight posting positive growth.

The rate of recovery after our initial lockdown has predictably varied between different sectors, but we are seeing a steady increase in activity from our law firm clients at Chadwick Nott. In fact, at the end of September we were instructed on our highest number of new jobs in 7 days since lockdown and our total live jobs right across the Chadwick Nott business is at its highest since March.

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has had some devastating consequences, but for some law firms it has also given a glimpse of what a different working life could look like and for many lawyers I’ve been speaking to, it has seemed the right time to reflect on their pre-pandemic lifestyle and ask the all too tricky question – is this as good as it gets? Am I at the right firm and in the right location for my career and also for my family or personal ambitions in the long-term?

I live and work in the Thames Valley, where I practised as a lawyer for 12 years, and, although my enthusiasm is bountiful for the region’s fantastic law firms and the quality of work on offer, its historic towns, cities, high performing schools and beautiful countryside, it is often facts and figures that a lawyer likes to hear.

Last year, for the fourth year running, Oxford and Reading were named the top-performing cities according to PwC’s Good Growth for Cities 2019 index and although in this tricky year there has been no updated report as yet, I am confident that they will still be up there. In summary the index measures the performance of 42 of the UK’s largest cities on ten economic well-being factors including jobs, health, income and skills, as well as work-life balance, house-affordability, travel-to-work times and environment.

I only had a brief time in London and it was great fun, but the cost of living and battling on the London Underground were enough to send me running to the open space and countryside around Oxfordshire…and that was well before Covid! During my 6 years at Chadwick Nott, I have worked with a lot of lawyers making the leap out of the City and over the last few months I have, unsurprisingly, been working with many more seriously considering their options outside London.

Salary is always the big question as clearly the differences can be stark. Although in the Thames Valley and Surrey, NQ salaries can be in the £50,000s, this is certainly at the top of the scale. The range is likely to widen with seniority and can be a revelation to some senior solicitors looking to move. This applies especially to those who don’t have a following, as for most firms this will be an obstacle to Partnership. Senior Associates on salaries of £100,000 + in London may be looking at a salary of say £60,000 to £80,000 in the regions and taking a salary “cut” such as this can be hard to stomach. However the track to partnership can be clear and for ambitious entrepreneurial lawyers with good business development skills, it can be quite fast.

A close, hard look at the relative costs of living and/or travelling in to London soon establishes that what is left in the bank account at the end of the month, compared to living and working in say Oxford or Reading on a reduced salary, is not so very different at all. There is no doubt that the Covid pandemic has set a precedent of home working for many lawyers in London firms as well as regional. However, many people I speak to have realised that although some home working is set to continue well into the future, many lawyers and firms do not wish this to be the permanent way forward forever. There are definitely some advantages to office working, especially with a minimal commute.

Cost of living surveys show on average that London is approximately 30% to 35% more expensive than Reading or Oxford and that is taking into account renting rather buying a property. Almost all categories in these surveys, including private school fees, are significantly less outside of the capital. So, for example, £5,000 in London has the same purchasing power as £3,860 in Oxford. Rather sadly the pandemic has made people reconsider school options for children and there has been a surge in private school applications.

The pandemic has played havoc with the growth plans for all cities, but before March Reading and Oxford were doing disproportionately well compared to many places and had of course attracted expansion for law firms including Penningtons Manches Cooper, Freeths, Knights Plc, Taylor Vinters and Winckworth Sherwood. We have live roles on for many of these firms and as previously mentioned, our job bank is growing each month.

So at this time when we are seeing a steady stream of lawyers making big decisions on what they would like the next 5 years to look like, professionally and personally, I would suggest that it would be worth any lawyer having a confidential chat. I would be very happy to outline what opportunities there might be at the many big name or even specialist smaller boutique firms in the Thames Valley region.