Why young lawyers have had enough

When the fresh-eyed graduate eventually walks through the doors of a private practice, they will often be expected to work around the clock – in exchange for a salary between $60,000 and $110,000, depending on the firm they choose and where they live.

In many cases, the junior lawyer will have no choice but to trade in their work-life balance and overall well-being to manage demanding workloads and billable hours. They understand there are always more young professionals than opportunities, and that law is an incredibly hierarchical profession.

The situation is only aggravated when management refuses to compensate them for their toil, and they are faced with an impossible choice: “put up and shut up” to advance or resign.

And with a conga line of graduates ready to take their jobs when they leave, the vicious cycle continues, over and over, resulting in capable young lawyers now battered and bruised leaving private practice for good.

Pandemic shift

The main drivers of this movement started long before the pandemic began. COVID-19 just brought them to the surface.

Harsh lockdowns and the ability to work remotely have allowed young lawyers the time and space away from the office to re-evaluate their careers, work conditions and what matters most to them in their lives.

Now they are more fired up than ever to drive change and have more leverage than ever as well.

Law firms know the new generation of legal professionals is not scared to move firms or professions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to move jobs every six months to two years – and for law graduates to do so after 12 months at their first firm,

In February, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Australia had its highest job mobility rate (9.5 per cent) since 2012. This is off the back of some of the lowest job mobility rates Australia has ever seen in its history (since the Second World War) only 12 months ago.

Retaining the next generation

There are simple ways for partners in law firms to keep their young talent happy.

Pay people what they are worth, and have greater transparency when it comes to remuneration and rewards.

Partners should also ensure that senior stakeholders and decision-makers offer proper mentoring and learning and development programs, and that there is a real investment in mental health and wellbeing. The reality is that many firms talk a big game in this area but do not deliver.

They should embrace flexible working arrangements and remote working. It is the silver lining to come out of the pandemic that would have taken law firms another 20 years to embrace. By trusting junior staff, loyalty will be earned.

At the end of the day, law firms that look after their people will always come out on top. They will retain the best talent who will be advocates for the firm and, given the right opportunities, potential future leaders.

Stefanie Costi is a lawyer at Garland Hawthorn Brahe.

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