Remember when you started out as a young lawyer straight out of university? Well, I certainly do. Most of us have been incredibly lucky. We graduated at a time when the legal industry was experiencing unprecedented growth. Basically, when we started, everyone with a ‘decent background’ and a law degree, could make it as a lawyer. The demands back then were way lower than they are today. Law firms have professionalized and grown over the past 25 years. Partner incomes today are much higher than anyone would have thought possible back then. Anyone who is a partner at a law firm today has in a way had a tremendous tailwind when making a career.
These days the reality could not be more different. Many more young people acquire a college degree in Law. October 24 The Economist published an article stating that each year America produces some 25.000 “surplus” lawyers. Please let that number sink in for a moment. Universities are churning out more graduates than the market can absorb. Over 30% of British graduates are “overeducated” relative to their jobs, according to that same article. Having a ‘decent background’ and not being a ‘total idiot’ is no longer enough to make it. The tailwind all of us experienced, has turned into a headwind. Many of us probably would not succeed if we had to do it all over again today. I hope this insight will make us somewhat humble.
On Friday 23 October I hosted a Virtual Roundtable with a number of international experts on education. This is a topic which is close to my heart and I am deeply worried by how we (the haves) are robbing a generation of their future. With large parts of the world now deep into the second wave, education of the future generation is severely hampered. While this time governments are trying to keep schools open, schools themselves are struggling because of teachers falling ill or having to self-quarantine. Large numbers of schools have switched to blended-learning, a combination of in-class and on-line. For those students who are in vocational education, the situation is particularly bad since on-line education is not an option and also traineeships at companies are extremely hard to find right now.
We are not only robbing the young from their right to get a decent education, but we are also depriving them of their social and emotional development. The journey from childhood to adulthood is not only about acquiring knowledge, but also about social interaction and learning to stand on your own two feet. It is impossible to learn how to function in a job if you have had your education largely alone at home behind a computer screen. Perhaps you are familiar with the film ‘Being There’ (1979) directed by Hal Ashby and with Peter Sellers playing the lead character, a gardener who only learned about the real world by watching television. Having acquired virtual knowledge and wisdom, he turns out to be socially and emotionally inept.
The problems do not stop here. Also the opportunities to find a good job after graduation are fading fast. Thanks to governments’ response to Covid, we got caught in the worst global economic crisis in living memory. Many SME are going out of business as a consequence of the forced closures and mandatory lockdowns. Millions of jobs will disappear and the damage does not stop here. Also large multinationals that still make a more than decent profit are shedding jobs. On 29 October Royal Dutch Shell Plc reported $955 million of net profit over Q3. This beat even the highest analyst estimate. The company reported lower net debt and strong cash flow. Still 9000 jobs at Shell are to disappear and Shell is not exception, they are just an example.
Please remember that it will be the future generation that has to repay all of today’s government debt created to support the economy. We are spending their money, we are depriving them of a good education, we are denying them a normal social life and are blaming them for being young and careless. It goes without saying that this is all not black and white. But the contrast between the ‘baby boomers’ who are now in power and who’s career path has essentially been a-walk-in-the-park, and the future generation who will have far less opportunities and is facing an uphill battle, is pretty stark.
What you could do to help
I am aware that all this is not your fault and that law firms have little or no influence on government measures, education and the economy. Still there are a couple of things that you could do to help:
Do not stop recruiting, but hire more trainees than you would need. Sounds stupid? Look at it from this way: most tier-1 law firms will likely have a bumper year. Revenue over 2020 is typically on-par or up from 2019, while the costs are down at the same time. This would allow for being generous while hiring. Even if you already know today that you do not want to keep all recruits after three years or so, you can still give them now a valuable education that will enhance their job opportunities further down the line. So take your social responsibility and become a mini-training center helping young people on their way.
Develop a purpose made training program for your young lawyers. Due to work-from-home guidelines, there is limited or no opportunity for lawyers to work from the office. This is especially bad for those who are fresh from university now starting their professional career. Remember how your own start as a lawyer was back in the days? Remember how much you had to ask and how much you learned by simply observing how the partners operated and behaved. We at TGO Consulting are right now helping our clients to develop tailor made training programs for their trainees (and associates) to teach them important skills and the firm culture along the way.
Team-up with the universities. This is something we are doing ourselves: we reached out to universities and are offering free guest lectures to help bridge the gap between the theoretical education and the real-world needs in (tier-1) law firms. We would encourage law firms to do the same. Try to pull some of the training you would normally do within the firm forward and offer it to students. This should not be about the law, as universities have this already covered, but it could be about drafting, negotiating, how to divide risks and how to communicate with clients.
I mentioned the roundtable with international experts on education that I hosted on 23 October. It goes without saying that the experts are deeply worried and raised a lot of concerns. At the same time, all of them had confidence in the ability to adapt and the resilience of the young generation. Having two daughters myself, I think this is true. At the same time I feel that it is our (the haves) duty not to be selfish and to do whatever we can to help. Only by actively reaching out we can avoid that the future generation will become those who ‘have not’