Young lawyers are falling apart
After a repeated recommendation of a friend, last Tuesday I finally watched the first episode of ‘Industry’. Industry is a British television drama-series produced by the BBC. It premiered November 2020 on HBO and BBC-Two. The series follows a group of young graduates competing for a limited set of permanent positions at Pierpoint & Co, a fictitious London Investment Bank. I cannot say that I particularly liked the episode, but it depicts the reality of entering the competitive world of Investment Banking quite well. Talented young graduates seek to pursue a career that elevates them into the well paid realm of high-pace high-flying dealmakers. It is not about the work, it is about being part of that world.
The same holds true for most young graduates that want to pursue a career in Big Law. It is not just about being deeply interested in legal stuff. It is probably even more about becoming part of the world of high-end law and all that comes with it. For talented young graduates, Big Law is an appealing place to work. Offices are glamourous and on prime locations in major cities. Big Law lawyers are smartly dressed, go out for lunch in fancy restaurants, and have all sorts of perks like a gym or dry cleaning service in the office. The world of Big Law is an aspirational lifestyle for many.
Compared to most other organizations, law firms also have a relatively young population. Thanks to the pyramid system, the average age of the lawyers hovers around 30. You will not find that at a bank or a large corporate.
With many people in the same young age group, law firms are a great place to hang around. Most are not settled with a house and kids, so there is a lot of ‘work hard, play hard’. Joining Big Law is perhaps more buying into a lifestyle, than anything else. Those graduates, who are predominantly content driven, become academics, work at the courts or the legislator, go in-house or join a small law firm.
Now that the lifestyle has gone
Last Friday, it was surprisingly the fourth time since early December, that I was approached for career advice by a senior associate from a Big Law firm. Not that I knew any of them, and also their firms are not my client. It is just what happens if you are well know in the market. Giving career advise is not our business and we do not charge. This however is not the point that I want to make. All four were highly successful and on a clear partner track and all were seriously contemplating quitting their lucrative job and leaving the world of Big Law.
Four conversations in six weeks, that is not a coincidence. This is a clear sign that something bigger is going on here. For every lawyer that contacts me, a total stranger, there must be hundreds more that are going through the same internal doubt and struggle. Any of these could work at your firm today!
The four lawyers are unrelated, as they work in different countries, in different law firms and in different practice areas. What they had in common was that they had been working from home for most of the year. Working from home deprived them of the perks and the lifestyle and had forced them to solely focus on the legal work itself. So instead of going to the office, do some work, have some meetings, go out for lunch with colleagues or clients, discuss some matters, go for after work drinks or to they gym (or both), they were now sitting behind their computer screens for 10 hour per day. After nine months, this had now put serious doubt in their minds if they wanted to be a lawyer after all. If you take away the lifestyle and the colleagues to hang out with, it turns out that being a lawyer is a tedious and boring profession. The pandemic has left the world of Big Law somewhat standing naked. Law firms are at serious risk of losing valuable talent, as it’s the lawyers with a broad interest and above average social skills, which are most prone to feelings of doubt.
So, what should law firm leaders do?
Last Monday, 18 January, was Blue Monday. This is the day that is generally considered the most depressing day of the year. All the end-of-year festivities are behind us. Outside it is dark and depressing, and the New Year’s resolutions have already failed. This time, the situation is even more desperate than usual. Most of Europe is in a harsh lockdown, with the free movement of its people severely restricted. Our political leaders warn us that with the mutations of the virus, even with the vaccine this miserable situation will likely continue to last for weeks or months to come. This may be a totally depressing outlook for most of us, it is especially hard on young people who are not settled with a family and depend on friends and colleagues for their social contacts. Perhaps this year it is not just Blue Monday, but Blue January instead or even Blue Spring (I admit that that sounds like a contradiction, but you get my point). The moment at which things might return to ‘normal’ is being pushed further down the line all the time.
Law firm leaders cannot change the way things are, so like everyone else we have to live with the situation and try to make the best of it. The first thing law firm leaders should do right now is to acknowledge the ‘lifestyle aspects’ of becoming a lawyer. This means recognizing the reality that young people did not join the firm out of a strong desire to develop a deep knowledge of the law. So bring back that feeling of 'glamour', lifestyle and ‘brotherhood’. Sitting at home becomes miserable after a while. Why not support your usual lunch spots and arrange for 'business class lunches' to be delivered to your associates’ homes once or twice a week. To replace after-work drinks, send a bottle of champagne on the Friday afternoon. Offer a personal trainer. Do whatever you need to do to maintain the illusion of a ‘Big Law lifestyle’.
“Send a bottle of champagne on the Friday afternoon”
It is not good for anyone to sit behind a screen for ten hours a day for months. Law firms should 'force' their associates to take a two hour lunchbreak and go out for a walk. Being outside, having some exercise and being away from work will boost morale and productivity. If permitted, associates should be encouraged to take such walks with one or more colleagues (number depending on Corona regulations in your situation). I have taken up daily mid-day walks myself and I can testify that it really works!
“Take a two hour lunchbreak and go out for a walk”
As I have outlined many times before, people are the most important asset of a law firm. For Big Law, human talent is key to survival. What you want are not the introvert legal nerds, but the sociable people with a broad interest that goes beyond the law. It is exactly this group, the ones that you need to keep, that suffer most under the current restrictions. It is time to recognize this problem and to do whatever you can to prevent your talents from pursuing another career.