Work and home life collided swiftly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies faced the question of how to pivot office-based employees to an entirely remote workforce. The work-life balance became more muddled and put additional strain on professions in which that balance was already complicated pre-pandemic. The legal profession felt this strain acutely. While the pandemic may have highlighted the imbalance, the pressure on young lawyers to churn out billable hours without meaningful support is not a new issue. This pressure, along with other factors, continues to influence a quiet exodus in the legal profession where more young lawyers are leaving for careers removed from the law entirely.
The International Bar Association (IBA) defines “young lawyers” as aged 40 and under. In a study published in January of this year, the IBA surveyed 3,000 young lawyers worldwide and found that “fifty-four per cent of survey respondents…were ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘highly likely’ to move to a new workplace, 33 per cent wanted to switch to a different area of the legal profession and 20 per cent were thinking about leaving the profession entirely.” Those percentages are startling for a group of individuals who are just at the front end of their professional careers. With these statistics, why are we not hearing about these movements more? Arguably the most significant reason is that there is still a fresh supply of new lawyers to fill the spots vacated by their predecessors. A labour shortage only registers as newsworthy when the flow of qualified individuals stops. That is not the case in this legal community exodus, but it is no less deserving of our attention. The supply is not unending and it is in the best interest of the profession to take notes on why it is happening and what we can do to address it. it. It also costs time, energy and money to replace and train employees.
One of the biggest changes in the culture of law over the last several decades is the heightened focus on billable hours. The expectation to bill an ever-increasing quantity of hours puts an inordinate amount of pressure on young lawyers to “make their mark” at a firm based on hours alone. While quality of work is still valued, there is a stark difference in the importance placed on the time spent to do that work than there was in previous generations. Time is the currency of today’s legal profession and there is a perception that a lawyer’s worth is tied closely with their billed hours stats. This was not the case thirty to forty years ago. While we hope that professions grow in positive ways from prior periods, the emphasis on billable time is an unhappy development in the legal culture. In the same IBA study, over 60 percent of young lawyers cited a lack of work-life balance as a concern. Time billed in the office (traditional or home setting) is time taken from other areas of their life.
What can we do to shift the tide? It is going to take a movement, which will consist of small changes at the individual level. Culturally, the idea of being a leader is often valued above the “follower” identity. An alternative take on these two identities is the perspective that a leader’s influence is in direct correlation to the strength of their followers. In the kind of shift the legal culture needs, being “the first follower” may prove more powerful than leading alone. For the partner who makes dinner with their family a priority every day, be the first follower to join them in prioritizing a personal commitment of your own. For the lawyer who just found out they are going to be a first-time parent and advocates for an extended parental leave package, be the first follower to offer your supporting voice, whether that package is applicable to you or not. These are just two examples of thousands where the act of following holds incredible power because it inspires that chain of support to continue.
The amount of study and resources required to even become a practicing lawyer is perhaps only rivaled by the requirements faced by medical students. For a young lawyer to commit to the profession and secure employment, only to leave a handful of years later is a red flag. These are not isolated incidents, but, rather, a trend that continues to build momentum. It is not all doom and gloom, however. Changes are occurring at an incremental level. The IBA’s move to conduct the survey speaks to a growing awareness of the issue. The firms that lean into the feedback of their young lawyers will be more successful in retaining lawyers who feel fulfilled. Look for the helpers, look for the leaders, and, when the opportunity arises, be the first follower for the things that matter.