The lived experience of the newest BigLaw mid-levels—the class of 2020, in particular—has given them whiplash. Having concluded law school and entered the job market during the tumult of the first year of the pandemic, they were thankful to have achieved their dream jobs. In the following years, as firms offered multiple salary increases and COVID bonuses, associates felt their jobs were secure and their efforts valued. The war for talent brought an onslaught of recruiter attention. To compete, firms dangled record signing bonuses, the prospect of working from home, the possibility of relocation, the opportunity to pivot practice areas, and other goodies. Associates cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the asymmetrical leverage in their favor and assuming the gravy train would never end.
These external forces gave them a sense of control over their careers and pushed their expectations sky-high. But then the economy started to slow in 2022, and the dynamics dramatically shifted.
The news of deferred first-year classes, attorney layoffs by the wealthiest and most prestigious firms, and other cost-cutting measures pierced the perception that a career in BigLaw was all upsides. The downturn exposed the myth that doing great work and developing relationships with key partners was enough to protect them from being cut.
Associates are now worried that they will be next on the chopping block. They feel commodified like client service-providing widgets. The billable hour requirements and other demands weighing on them leave associates little time for a personal life, which is a primary driver for millennial and Gen-Z lawyers. They are also questioning the culture at BigLaw firms and fear that most BigLaw environments are unpleasant, punishing, and even harmful places to spend time. Negative anecdotes about unpleasant partners and harsh practice groups proliferate faster and wider than positive ones, just look at the conversations on Fishbowl. They no longer feel valued and wonder if it’s worth it.
The vanishing perception of the BigLaw career also affects law students and junior associates. While more than one-third of respondents (35.8%) to MLA’s 2023 Millennial Survey said that in 10 years, they see themselves as partners at their current firm, only 39% of law students would like to join a BigLaw firm (e.g., AmLaw 200) in the first place, according to our 2023 Gen-Z Survey. Too many view BigLaw as a temporary means to make a high income and plant a brand name on their resume before the toxic nature of the industry dissolves them. The negatives are stacked too high, and ballast is needed.
The demand for elite legal services will return—as will the need for intelligent and dedicated associates who believe they can have a long-term place in BigLaw. But if law students and young associates fear there is no place for them and their values in BigLaw, law firms will find themselves desperately in need of talent when that rebound occurs.
Law firm leaders have a chance to recast the public perception of law firm associate life. But how?
No. 1: Firms need to prove there is a path of progression for young associates and the necessary professional development support available to help them get there. Associates do not want to feel like they are merely workhorses and easily disposed of. They want opportunities to learn and grow and visibility into what it takes to climb the ladder (and how long). When Gen-Z was asked what would make them stay in BigLaw long term, the resounding front-runner response was opportunities for advancement. Young lawyers want to be great at their jobs, want to feel like they are developing, and want to see the path to partnership and, for a select few, firm leadership—give them that path.
No. 2: Law firm leaders need to show they, too, value the importance of work-life balance. While compensation remains important, many young lawyers resent the dominance of work in their life. Many seek more free time, flexibility, better health and parental benefits, and more training. More than half of all respondents to the 2023 Millennial Survey said they would trade a portion of their compensation for more time off, and over half of the female respondents said they would give up some of their pay for a cut in billable hours. Gen-Z echoed a similar sentiment, with 62% of respondents saying they would trade a portion of their compensation for more time off; a flexible work schedule came in a close second at 60%. They are focused on a life filled with family, friends, and adventure and are highly conscious of their mental health. Respecting that they can deliver quality work—which is all they ultimately want to do—but within reasonable confines of time will be critical to retain talent for years to come.
No. 3: Associates want to feel like their work is essential. They seek purpose and articulating the firm’s mission matters. Firms as institutions should celebrate occasions when they live up to their mission and be transparent about falling short. Associates understand the firm’s impact beyond their practice group and feel it reflects on them as individuals. It is equally important for supervising associates, counsel, and partners to recognize and commend efforts that align with client objectives. Reinforcing why their work is significant to clients and colleagues will motivate associates to bring their best.
The dwindling prospect of a sustainable career in BigLaw threatens its pipeline of top-tier legal talent. Firms need to demonstrate a focus on their people being a priority and align their brand with the values of today’s associates. Research has shown that compensation does not equal satisfaction for associates. Changing priorities requires changing perception.