A lawyer’s progression from associate to partner is no cakewalk but a journey fraught with bumps, peaks and valleys. One graduates law school magna cum laude; gets hired by a top-rated law firm; enthuses the first paycheck but most times masks disappointment on the twenty-fourth. With intense competition, mounting workload, long hours and all-nighters – lawyers tend to be an overworked and underpaid lot.
The IBA’s ‘Young Lawyers’ Report’, which identifies young lawyers’ priorities and concerns and whether employers are addressing their concerns finds that a lack of work-life balance forms the major concern for more than 60 %. In a 2021 survey of millennials, by AboveTheLaw and recruitment firm MLA, most associates expected to quit their jobs due to a skewed work-life balance whereas in their 2019 survey most aspired to be partners.
In this article, we bring to light vital areas where law firms and practitioners need to focus to secure loyalty and obtain maximum productivity from their human resources.
Mentoring and Coaching
Young lawyers often lament the lack of guidance and mentoring at the start of their careers. Senior lawyers simply lack time to groom and mould juniors.
Senior lawyers should realise that mentoring satisfies the firm and its employees’ requirements. To associates, mentoring provides much-needed coaching and guidance while for the firm, mentoring not only acts as an effective tool to build a productive talent pool but also helps create employee loyalty and retention. The 2022 Thomson Reuters Institute pulse survey (‘TRI Survey’), listed mentoring and coaching among the top 5 factors that encourage employee stability.
Recognition and appreciation
Another key factor identified by the TRI Survey that forces lawyers to leave was the lack of appreciation. Seniors and supervisors must take a cue from this and appreciate and acknowledge good performance as it not only boosts confidence in young lawyers but also helps arrest attrition.
Work Assignment Bias
A common practice in the legal industry is that associates holding a good relationship with partners are assigned premium quality work. The issue with assigning work in this manner curbs career development and creates bias. Law firms should ensure that associates are assigned work as per their expertise and technical skills. One way to achieve equitable distribution of work is to allot “blindly”, a method successfully rolled out by Ashurst Morris and CMS.
The TRI Survey reports that career advancement opportunities topped the charts in what motivated associates to either stay or exit a firm. In the current business model, only one end career goal exists – partnership. However, the timeframe to make a partner has increased and the bar set much higher. Firms should therefore consider other incentives and options for career advancements.
Associate performance is typically evaluated on hours billed and a “star performer” is one who clocks a set target of billable hours to generate extraordinary revenues for the firm. Lawyers maintain long hours at the cost of their health and personal well-being.
In a 20-21 research ‘Life in the Law’, UK charity LawCare, found that lawyers were “at a high risk of burnout with participants aged between 26 and 35 displaying the highest burnout scores, the lowest autonomy, lowest psychological safety, and highest work intensity score.” The research suggests that these concerns may be alleviated by regular interactions and appraisals, mental health policies and well-being training to help “bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety”.
In the U.S, the American Bar Association’s study on mental health concerns and the prevalence of substance use among American attorneys prompted it to roll out a campaign for improved employee well-being. Acknowledging the impact of long hours and stress on employees, many U.S. law firms pledged to adopt the ABA framework and offered modified work schedules, sabbaticals and therapy.
Toxic Work Environment
The TRI survey and another report from the Georgetown Law-Thomson Reuters Institute titled “Law firms competing for talent, 2022” echo the same. These reports identified that associates give preference to the firm’s work culture and not compensation while choosing their employer.
A law firm’s culture is its hallmark and a good firm culture promotes work ethics, employee welfare, loyalty and retention. To achieve this, all members of the firm – partners, associates and support staff should perform as a team. To inculcate a team spirit, firms may consider seeking employee input and onboarding all employees in key decision-making.
Diversity and Inclusivity
Excluding Australia, where women lawyers outnumber men, women enter the legal profession post-qualification in droves but they either hit a glass ceiling or discontinued due to its occupational hazards.
In the UK, at senior positions with 20 or more years of experience, only 18% of barristers, 33% of solicitors (partners) and 70% of Chartered Legal Executive partners were held by women in 2021. To combat this beast, UK law firms are promoting more women to senior positions. Additionally, women of colour currently hold both the presidency and vice-presidency of the Law Society of England and Wales, with its next president slated to be its first Muslim, first Asian and its 7th woman president.
While U.S. law firms are offering fellowships and donations to law schools in a bid to promote diversity in the legal industry. In the UK, an inter-firm diversity network, NOTICED, aims to encourage diversity and raise awareness about issues faced by ethnic minorities in their progression within the legal profession.
Ring out the old, ring in the new
Up until now, the top priority for law firms is profit, with the least priority on employees’ welfare or work-life balance. However, good tidings come in the aftermath of the pandemic. Workplace rules of engagement must change giving way to an employee-centric culture. Law firms have finally realised the importance of creating a conducive work environment that would benefit both.
Recognising this, Australian firm AF Legal Group, whose team mainly comprises those aged between 25 and 39, “tailored” its work policies and entitlements to offer paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements, personal and professional development plans and access to training courses. “We want to offer the best employment environment in the market to attract and retain valuable staff members,” stated CEO Stace Boardman.
The ultimate aim of talent management is talent retention and enhanced productivity.