Joining a large law firm has long been considered a lucrative and desirable career path, giving a degree of certainty over career progression and high earnings. However, our recent Gen-Z survey suggests that junior lawyers are increasingly seeking alternative career paths earlier on, including in-house positions that they believe offer a better work-life balance.
This should ring alarm bells for law firm leaders, who must adapt to the changing needs of their young talent if they want to retain them, particularly given the up-front financial and time investment by the law firms in their careers. However, these young lawyers feeling burnt-out by law firm life should also consider that their idealised picture of working in-house may be more myth than fact and will involve an adjustment to their ways of working.
Gen-Z lawyers deciding to explore other opportunities beyond law firms should know that despite common misconception, the in-house route is not necessarily an easier one but a different one; it calls for unlearning some skills from private practice, while developing others.
The first and most important of these skills is getting past risk aversion. Transitioning from a law firm to in-house is akin to going through the ‘bends’ of a deep-sea diver. Whereas an associate will tend to be more risk-averse and is used to advising on the law with caveats before leaving the client to decide, non-legal members of staff will be looking for the lawyer to input directly into decision-making. They are expected to spell out options and choose the optimum solution, balancing between being commercial and compliant.
The second change is developing a more commercial mindset to deal with a more entrepreneurial and nimbler environment. In-house lawyers are expected to fix problems, even if it not legal in nature, exposing their problem-solving thinking. If they don’t know the answer, they must advise how they will look for it, calling for an understanding of the roles and needs of different stakeholders. In-house lawyers must quantify their contributions and get comfortable with KPIs and metrics, or risk being outsourced or replaced in favour of a more efficient alternative.
All of these skills require relinquishing the need to strive for perfection, usually drilled into young lawyers. They need to leave behind the billable-hours mindset and avoid sweating over the small stuff, since the pace of corporate life does not allow for this luxury. After all, a corporate world is more diverse than the law firm, so interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are paramount, and are a gateway to integrating into the company’s goals and finding one’s place.
Lawyering with a company enables in-house counsel to see the whole life cycle of a transaction and the real impact of their legal work on the business. However, associates should be mindful that in-house lawyers are not guaranteed a 40-hour week, sometimes working as many hours as law firm associates, and a move in-house actually calls for careful due diligence.
Given the in-house role is becoming ever-more diverse and challenging, what is the attraction for young lawyers? Principally, this is being driven by feelings of burn-out in private practice. The pandemic has only served to exacerbate this, as open dialogue and being always contactable has left many lawyers working longer hours. As a result, many young lawyers are seeking alternative career paths that offer more flexibility and a better quality of life.
Indeed, our recent Gen-Z survey found that for 45% of the respondents, partnership is not a path they are considering, deciding that it is not worth the pressure and stress. This is not surprising given the demanding nature of Partnership, but it should give pause to leaders thinking about their attrition and succession planning.
Many junior lawyers can make good money early on in their careers and having found stability, leave for their desired career path. This is not sustainable for law firms building a talent pipeline for the future, who should instead focus on delivering flexibility and autonomy, with incentives and benefits that are more tailored to their junior talent.
There is plenty of opportunity here to develop creative, new approaches that meet the changing needs of young lawyers. The pandemic has proved that remote work and flexible schedules can be effective, and law firms should be willing to embrace these changes to attract and retain talent; younger lawyers haven’t always been keen on return to office policies. However, flexibility alone is not enough. Deliverables such as mentorship, training, and development are essential for young lawyers who are looking to develop their skills and advance their careers, even if they look to leave – they could turn out to be a future client.
While perks are nice, what truly matters for millennial and Gen-Z lawyers is mental health support and the opportunity to create their own version of work-life balance. Law firms that can offer a supportive and nurturing work environment will be able to attract and retain the best talent and build a reputation as an employer of choice in the legal profession. A change of culture must take place if young talent is to continue to see private practice as a long-term career option, whilst those who have jumped ship to the in-house lifestyle in search of a slower, more flexible pace of life might have a shock.
Those considering the move must decide if they are ready to adapt and learn a new skillset.