In the wake of the post-pandemic hiring surge, many Associates are reevaluating the decisions they made during this period and where their priorities lie. With interest in work-life flexibility, holistic personal development, and the desire for varied opportunities on the rise, the traditional legal career path and compensation offered at BigLaw firms are no longer passing muster, and Mid-City firms are capitalising on this shift.
In the last 3 years, the professional world has become more demanding overall. While Mid-City firms are by no means a walk In the park, many have realised that there is an opportunity to fill the gaps where elite firms may be falling short. Despite not being able to match BigLaw salaries, they have long positioned themselves as a route to a more sustainable, longer-term, and more varied career path, which is increasingly being regarded as more advantageous than a brief and draining stint at an elite firm.
There is evidence that this inclination will persist with the next generation of lawyers. In 2020, 59% of law students expressed a desire to join BigLaw firms, whereas presently that figure has decreased to 39% according to a recent MLA Gen-Z survey. So how are Mid-City firms luring fresh legal talent and setting themselves apart?
Quality of training
Many young employees are prioritising formal mentorship and teaching alongside compensation, finding informal day-to-day training to be highly motivating factors when choosing a workplace. For junior Associates who moved to BigLaw firms between 2020-2022, questions have been raised over the quality of training that they have received during this busy industry period.
Conversely, Mid-City firms are attracting talent due to their more structured approach to training, greater access to Partners, and more balanced working hours that allow Associates to invest more time into their learning and development. They are also actively recognising and rewarding entrepreneurial spirit by offering additional bonuses to more junior lawyers to encourage them to learn about and part take in business development early in their careers. Through this strategic incentive, combined with a more substantive team approach, Mid-City firms have tactfully created an environment that is conducive to personal and professional growth, which many promising lawyers find highly attractive.
In terms of facilitating development, another key attraction that Mid-City firms have leveraged lies in the variety of work and exposure they offer. Due to the typical client base of a Mid-City firm being medium-sized enterprises that may lack capacity in their in-house legal teams, these firms are able to provide associates the opportunity to work more closely and directly with senior personnel within their clients.
This opportunity often allows associates to assume quasi-inhouse roles themselves, advising business owners or CEOs directly. This exposure and client proximity enhances the ability to engage in high-level and meaningful issues and play an active role in supporting a client’s business growth and overcoming challenges, as opposed to working on lower value work behind the scenes with large clients that are institutional to the firm.
Opportunities for leadership and decision making
Mid-City firms are also an exciting prospect for senior associates at BigLaw firms who want to take the step to Partner at an earlier stage in their career. We’ve seen a number of Mid-City firms offer first-step Partnership roles over the past few years, and this has encouraged Senior Associates with a client base to explore how such firms could best support their clientele, be it from a fee rate perspective or through cross-selling.
Moreover, both junior and senior lawyers are able to understand their clients' businesses more intimately at Mid-City firms, which positions them to take on leadership roles as client liaisons and problem solvers. By working directly with business owners rather than legal teams, sometimes from the very conception of the business in the case of start-ups, Associates can become increasingly indispensable to their client needs.
Legal talent working at Mid-City firms are also often given greater access to leadership roles and weighing on large decisions for the firm itself. Mid-City firms are typically headquartered in London, and so there is often no direction or influence being handed down from more senior teams based overseas, giving lawyers more control and influence over their firm’s future and creating a greater sense of responsibility, ownership, autonomy, and loyalty in many cases. This contrasts with larger international firms where decisions might be made in other jurisdictions.
Winning on the flexible working front
Mid-City firms view their increased flexibility as a key differentiator from BigLaw. Even pre-pandemic, they were known for providing a more sustainable working culture that enabled employees to have longer, more productive careers. However, the shift in Associate priorities in the age of flexible working has thrown these values into the spotlight and made them even more attractive.
With continuing conversations around flexible working arrangements, and with large firms increasingly pressuring staff back into the office, many mid-level and senior Associates are now re-evaluating whether BigLaw will work for them in the long term. Whilst there is a general sentiment that 2-3 days in the office is completely acceptable, the push from BigLaw back to 4-5 days is becoming a significant talking point among experienced candidates. Many are weighing up their priorities regarding the heightened compensation posed by BigLaw verses the work-life balance, and overall more sustainable working environment, that Mid-City firms have to offer.
This particular incentive holds even greater appeal among graduate candidates. In MLA’s recent Gen-Z survey, 60% of respondents said they would trade a portion of their compensation for a flexible work schedule, finding work-life balance and working from home opportunities to be more important than salary. They also highlighted long hours and frequently working nights and weekends as strong motivators for leaving a BigLaw job.
Utilisation rates providing stability
Given the recent redundancies across BigLaw, there has also been a renewed interest in the security Mid-City firms can offer. Their consideration of utilisation rates while hiring, which strategically ensure justification for expansion, can help alleviate concerns regarding workload fluctuations and the potential for redundancies.
Hiring with a greater focus on “team fit” and “culture”, Mid-City firms are viewed as sustainable environments that take a more holistic approach to wellbeing and personal development. Indeed, utilisation rates can also be used to balance out workloads if certain employees are being overstretched.
By plugging the gaps BigLaw firms are leaving, Mid-City firms have the opportunity lure top legal talent and are doing so with increasing success. It is up to the elite firms to consider revitalising their traditional career paths and culture to maintain their desirability to both old and new generations of lawyers.