Realities of Big Law Can’t be Wished Away


There is an intense talent and salary war in the associate recruitment market.

While firms scramble to attract talent with different incentives and perks, money is still the default fallback for incentivising associates to join or stay. While the Solicitors Regulation Authority is trying to positively tackle the issue of work-life balance through the release of its new workplace guidance, the reality is this initiative is unlikely to have the desired impact. It will instead create more red tape.

In the context of any client-centric role, but especially within US firms in the City, clients expect exceptional delivery of services, which in turn creates the high pressured environments the SRA’s guidance nods towards. A recent Major Lindsey & Africa survey shed light on the ongoing wellbeing issues in the industry. More than half of the lawyers surveyed thought firm culture had deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, despite these pressures, there is still an expectation that in paying higher fee rates, and thus supporting salary bumps in the market, a highly attentive level of service and timely delivery is critical. Otherwise, the client can just go elsewhere.

Combine this with revenue-generation pressures faced by the partnership, and the stark reality is that there is a certain level of work required to sustain a place at the top.

There is choice, of course. Smaller firms can offer lower or mid-market work, which often eases some work-life balance issues. However, the client is no less important than the large-cap one and hence these sorts of moves do not always work out. Furthermore, target hours in some overseas offices of NY-headquartered firms can be lower than those given to associates in the lead office, which adds an intensity to targets. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

In a competitive market, people will always be willing to get ahead. Some see the intensity of firm culture as a way to achieve a bigger goal down the line. Others simply see it as the nature of the beast, so why not stay at the top and reap the benefits? After all, US firms do not have an extra day in the week and they have grown substantially over the past few years, offering much more process and support. There is a place for all of these options and more, and associates can choose that type of workplace culture if they really want to.

However, of course, there are some partners at UK firms who feel associates are too inexperienced to command such eye-watering rates. Moreover, the increase in education costs, often self-funded creates more barriers to the industry This should come under scrutiny and adjustments might be worth exploring (dare I say it, perhaps something more similar to a US system, where a bar exam is sat after study).

The solution to ongoing workplace issues is multi-faceted, but policy from the regulator alone will not solve the issue; it simply adds another task to somebody else’s to-do list. Boosting hiring is of course helpful, but there are limitations to what the talent market can provide. Regulators could instead explore barriers to entry, particularly for overseas or diverse talent, to ease some of the pressures the industry is currently facing and future-proof itself in the long-term. Ultimately, the realities of ‘Big Law’ may mean the SRA’s well-intentioned guidance to improve workplace culture falls on deaf ears.


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