The number of young lawyers reconsidering their career choices should give the industry pause to look at ways to retain these key professionals.
Around 1 in 5 lawyers under the age of 40 plan to leave the legal profession in the next five years, according to a new survey by the International Bar Association of more than 3,000 young lawyers, mostly in Europe, in Latin America and Asia. (IBA).
What is interesting and alarming is that the reasons behind this line of thinking are not new and correspond to those often cited in other articles on why lawyers leave and stay with their employers in case of labor shortage.
“What is new, however, is that reasons for leaving an employer — such as workload/work-life balance, adverse mental health effects, and harassment — are cited more by those who are thinking of leaving the profession altogether, according to Beatriz Martínez, the IBA lead researcher in the study. This staggering fact should be alarming enough for legal employers that they will consider accelerating long-term investments in their talent to attract new entrants to the profession and retain existing ones.
A mix of factors that determine whether lawyers will stay or leave, including:
Compensation — Money is often cited as a major factor in stay and leave decisions among young lawyers in the legal industry media. However, Martinez and the report paint a more nuanced picture, noting that “attorneys want to learn and grow professionally in addition to being paid well.”
Toxic workplaces — Toxic work environments are another major reason young lawyers leave. It’s no secret that the legal profession, for a multitude of reasons, has a higher than normal rate of harassment and intimidation, many times the level experienced by other professionals in other industries. This harassing and bullying behavior can take the form of angry, shouting and short-talking issues, and is seen even in remote work environments. Lawyers under 40 simply do not want to bear the negative impacts on their personal well-being.
Barriers to career progression — The lack of professional and learning opportunities is another determining factor for young lawyers leaving their employers. Nine out of 10 lawyers said they encountered obstacles to progressing, according to Martinez. This component was especially a driving force for those who worked in corporate law departments. In-house lawyers had higher levels of job satisfaction due to better hours and well-being than those working in law firms, but lack of career progression was a major concern for longer-term retention.
Imbalance between work and life — After salary, one of the top motivations for lawyers under 40 to seek career advancement with another employer is work-life balance, according to the survey. In fact, more than half of IBA survey respondents were drawn to the idea of a workplace that promotes a healthy work-life balance.
Mental health struggles — Unsurprisingly, general well-being is another important factor influencing young lawyers’ discharge decisions. The legal profession is already well known for being stressful due to long working hours and tight deadlines. While these can be difficult to change in the long term, when you add other negative perceptions – such as concerns about compensation, strained cultures due to harmful behaviors and lack of professional development opportunities – it could become the tipping point.
Reasons to stay
The findings of the IBA report also pointed to other common causes as to why young lawyers to stay with their employers:
- Flexibility in where, how and when work is done was cited by 30% of survey participants.
- Opportunities to travel or work abroad were also a notable factor, with 32% of lawyers under 40 citing this benefit.
- A commitment to climate change, human rights, and a diverse and inclusive workforce were also reported as reasons young lawyers are committed to their current employers.
Broaden the definition of success
According to Martínez, the key takeaway from the IBA survey for legal employers is to expand on what success looks like and how it is rewarded. Simply put, the tunnel vision of rewarding success with just money without any other considerations will exacerbate the status quo of high attrition and worrying rates of young lawyers considering leaving the profession altogether.
For example, the idea that reward assessments within law firms might be more effective when diversity and inclusion factors are included was exemplified by the Diversity Lab Inclusion Plan. The Blueprint indicated that companies achieve above-average diversity representation thresholds when:
- partners were asked to describe what they had done to contribute to diversity and inclusion;
- practice group leader compensation was aligned with positive and negative diversity membership numbers; and
- the performance and compensation criteria for partners and associates have been drafted and made accessible to everyone within the firm.
More positively, Martínez highlights the fact that the survey shows that 80% of lawyers under the age of 40 remain committed to the legal profession. And the fact that they are staying is an indication that they hope things will change, she adds. “Pursuing justice with the thrill of winning or losing a case or closing a deal will never go away for lawyers,” says Martínez. “That’s why so many of us entered the profession. We just need to take better care of ourselves along the way.