May 11 2022
Here comes the Next-Gen: Flex Legal's Future Lawyers Report
In December 2021, Flex Legal, in association with the O Shaped Lawyer, carried out a survey with the legal industry’s next generation of lawyers. To conduct this survey, we spoke with 418 individuals at the beginning of their careers across a variety of legal roles - helping us to gain an insight into how future lawyers feel about the legal industry currently and what change they want to see.
We’re overwhelmed by the response to our survey, and thank you to all who took the time to complete it. By sharing the results, both Flex and the O Shaped Lawyer aim to raise awareness of the mindsets of the next generation of lawyers, and advocate for positive change to make our industry more human for all.
At Flex Legal, we’re passionate about supporting the next generation of lawyers and place this mission at the heart of everything we do. This survey represents just a small part of the work we undertake. As well as providing thousands of interim work opportunities for paralegals and lawyers, we’re delighted to have launched our innovative Flex Trainee programme last October; supporting individuals from socially mobile backgrounds to qualify in-house via the SQE route.
The O Shaped Lawyer’s purpose aligns strongly with Flex Legal’s mission. Founded in 2019, the O aims to promote a cultural change in the legal industry, placing human behaviours at the heart of a more modern, progressive legal profession. The O Shaped Framework has been designed to lead a shift not just in skills, but in mindsets and behaviours too. By putting people first, O Shaped believes that sustainable change can be achieved in the education and ongoing development of lawyers.
Sophie Gould, Head of Learning & Development at Flex, and Dan Kayne, Founder of the O Shaped Lawyer
An industry in the throes of changeThe past few years have been anything but “business as usual” for the legal profession. The pandemic threw the idea of normal off the rails, requiring reflex-quick adaptation on the part of legal employers. On the whole, they weathered the initial upheaval; it’s what happened next that might have the most significant long-term impact.
Demand for law firm services improved dramatically in 2021, with some practice areas – such as M&A – hitting record levels. However, while demand soared, so did employee attrition, increasing the pressure on the profession.
The Financial Times, citing data from Leopard Solutions, reports that 32,217 associates left law firms globally in the first nine months of 2021 alone. The result of this imbalance is a war for talent, fought with pay rises, perks, and substantial bonuses. At Clifford Chance, for example, “a freshly-qualified lawyer… will now earn £107,500 after a pay rise in October, matching rivals at Linklaters.”
But is money enough? The pandemic changed outlooks for many, hence the advent of the Great Resignation in the first place. Firms are falling back on traditional talent acquisition strategies – understandable, especially with their coffers plumped by a record-breaking 2021 – but it’s hardly sustainable long-term, even if money was the only deciding factor for juniors.
As part of our commitment to inform, guide, and support our clients, we set out to better understand how firms can improve their retention and acquisition of junior talent. We went directly to juniors to get their insights into the industry they’re stepping into, and glean their perceptions on this rapidly-changing, fiercely competitive marketplace. We hoped to answer, in essence, what does the next generation of legal talent, armed with their fresh perspectives, really value?
“I'd like to work for a company that lives and breathes their values, and doesn’t just put them up on the wall.”
How do juniors today see themselves?Asking the juniors to rate their skills and experience on a scale of 1 to 5 revealed a generation that is reasonably sure of themselves and their abilities, rating themselves highly on attention to detail, accountability, problem-solving, and time management. Understandably, for professionals at the beginning of their careers, they feel there is room for improvement with regards to knowledge and self-confidence.
However, it was revealing that, when asked to rate their resilience, almost half of the respondents ranked themselves at the top end. They consider themselves tough. But at this early stage in their careers, do they feel like they’ve been through the wringer already?
“It's really interesting to see junior lawyers rating themselves as resilient which is in contrast to more senior lawyers' perceptions of them being needy, and that working conditions are generally better now than they were in the past.”
Natalie Salunke, General Counsel & Head of Legal at RVU
Expectations vs. realityIn the legal profession, the expectation that juniors work long hours is nothing new. Our data reveals that what juniors think will be expected of them with regards to hours, and what they are willing to deliver, are aligned. They appear to be going in with eyes wide open.
“The hours are more demanding than I expected... and there’s less supervision and support than I expected too.”
However, an awareness of what might be required and a willingness to do it don’t equate to job satisfaction – or an accurate assessment of the current realities of the role. Juniors are willing, but worried. 21% of respondents cite working hours as one of their two biggest concerns about a career in the law. “The hours are more demanding than I expected,” said one respondent. “And there’s less supervision and support than I expected.”
The only more pressing frustration was the time it takes to qualify, according to 33% of our respondents. Many juniors spoke of feeling “overwhelmed”, “frustrated”, and “disillusioned” about this aspect of their career journeys. “Becoming qualified is a long and difficult road,” said one respondent. “It’s hard, we all know this.”
This generation is generally willing, able, and keen to get started. But is the frustration about the time it takes to qualify taking the wind out of their sails? “I’m beginning to think that the time, money, and energy it takes to qualify isn’t worth the stressful job at the end of it,” said one respondent.
“Becoming qualified is a long and difficult road... It’s hard, we all know this.”
Are juniors satisfied with their careers so far?The majority of juniors are falling into the slightly ambivalent middle range with regards to job satisfaction; only a few outliers are either extremely or not at all satisfied.
The majority are “somewhat” satisfied. “I’m relieved to have reached the stage I am now, but the journey was long and sometimes demoralising,” said one respondent. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but happy to have progressed this far,” said another.
Juniors generally acknowledge the achievement of making it to this point – the starting line – of their careers. However, the slightly lacklustre levels of satisfaction might be taking into account not only the tough path to get there, but also the uncertain route forwards. As one respondent put it: “I’ve spent a long time just getting started – and I’m still just at the start of my career. Hopefully it will pick up from here…”
Despite the need for greater career development at the firm level, around 27% of respondents are at least somewhat satisfied with the mentorship and guidance they’re receiving.
“I’m relieved to have reached the stage I am now, but the journey was long and sometimes demoralising.”
Nevertheless, the lukewarm attitude to overall job satisfaction might contribute to the 62% of respondents only seeing themselves staying in one role for two to five years. Just 14% are considering staying longer term (between five and ten years).
“The 2 year stint seems to be just as popular with more senior lawyers. The job market is more buoyant and there is less stigma now around wanting to move to get more varied experience or a better job.”
Natalie Salunke, General Counsel & Head of Legal at RVU
What would make juniors more likely to stay in their roles?Almost half of the respondents could be encouraged to stay in their roles if there was potential for career development. This is significantly higher than any other factor, including company culture and competitive salary, suggesting that this is a major need that is not being met. “I feel let down by my employer for giving me false hope for getting progression,” said one respondent. “Even if it’s slow, some progression is better than no progression!”
When it comes to work/life balance, it seems that future lawyers have very realistic expectations of how demanding legal work can be, with a shocking 0% stating that this factor would have no power in encouraging them to stay in a role.
“I feel let down by my employer for giving me false hope for getting progression.”
In the current climate of high demand, are firms so fixated on getting bodies through the door to do the work that they’re neglecting to nurture them once they’re part of the team? “I feel as if firms don’t value their trainees,” said one respondent. “They expect us to meet unattainable targets and KPIs right now, while not taking our own personal career goals into consideration.”
Indeed, despite many firms relying on pricey offers to lure talent, money is not the main driving factor for this generation of legal talent; only 17% of respondents cited money as one of the most important motivators in making career choices. The most significant motivators for the majority of respondents are career development and a good work/life balance.
Essentially, juniors are leaning towards a longer-term view, with many valuing career development over financial compensation. They don’t just want a flashy offer from firms — they want commitment.
“Firms expect trainees to meet unattainable targets and KPIs right now, while not taking our own personal career goals into consideration.”
What do juniors think about current working environments?Juniors recognise the pros and cons of both the office and home working environments, valuing the social, collaborative, and training opportunities afforded on-site, as well as the lack of commute, the increased flexibility, and better work/life balance when they’re at home.
Juniors are drawn to the possibility of getting the best of both worlds through hybrid and flexible working moving forward. “Now that I’ve seen that working at home can be effective, any future roles I look for would need to incorporate an element of that,” explained one junior lawyer. “However, it would be good to get to go into the office as well.”
Another junior agreed, adding: “Remote working would be the biggest improvement to my work/life balance. While not all companies offer remote or hybrid working, it's now one of the main factors I consider when applying/searching for roles.”
“Remote working would be the biggest improvement to my work/life balance. While not all companies offer remote or hybrid working, it's now one of the main factors I consider when applying for roles.”
Anonymous Junior Lawyer
What do they want from their employers and the industry at large?The juniors we spoke with want to work for employers with genuine values and employee-centric attitudes. “A company that lives and breathes their values, and doesn’t just put them up on the wall,” suggested one respondent. “The values my current firm says it has are completely at odds with my experience so far. I work until 1am, barely sleep, and have almost no time to exercise or see friends and family. Looking ahead, it doesn’t seem to improve with promotion and it doesn’t seem worth it.”
They may be at the bottom of the ladder right now, but they don’t want to be stepped on as they climb – if indeed they get the opportunity to climb. They want to feel valued. “There are generations of lawyers who aren’t breaking the cycle of treating juniors like errand boys/girls. Just because you were treated like that doesn’t mean you should treat the next generation like that,” a respondent stressed. “The lack of respect wears you down more than you could ever imagine.”
Another added: “I want to work for a company with a positive, collaborative, people-oriented and ethical culture that provides good work/life balance and truly values its employees.”
Across the board, when asked about what they look for in an employer, juniors used words like:
Juniors are hoping for more changeAsked to comment on their personal experience of the legal industry, several respondents highlighted that it “isn’t as diverse as it claims” and is “slow to change.”
“There are still too many barriers and assumptions that prevent people from qualifying and progressing,” said one respondent. With race, class, sexual orientation, gender, and socioeconomic factors at play, “it’s not a level playing field.”
“I think the legal industry is aware of the changes that need to be made,” one respondent suggested. “Many are talking the talk, and some are putting in the work… but firms need to be held accountable for their promises. These are real changes that need to be thought out and properly executed.”
Juniors also want to see greater adoption of technology. This is a generation who are natively tech literate: 92% of respondents, for example, look online when searching for jobs.
However, when they get hired, they encounter resistance. “The law is an industry that's highly tolerant of people who aren't IT competent, which brings additional challenges to implementing solutions that fee earners will have to use,” asserted a respondent. “It's not an ideal situation for new people coming into law – to work with people who don't know how to use Excel or open a PDF file.”
“Many are talking the talk, and some are putting in the work… but firms need to be held accountable for their promises. There are real changes that need to be thought out and properly executed.”
The next-gen have spokenIt can’t be denied that the expectations of the next-gen are surprisingly well-aligned with the reality of the legal industry we operate in; including an awareness of the working hours often required, an earnest understanding of their abilities and where they need to improve, and an appreciation for both home and office working.
However, it’s also clear that the new generation of legal professionals want more from employers. They want more guidance and support, as well as more ways to grow and develop. They want greater diversity, and more authentic action.
“The respondents’ desire for career progression is something that will be difficult for private practice to fix when it continues to focus on pay. In-house can certainly think more creatively about how to nurture talent with our wide range of development opportunities.”
Catie Sheret, General Counsel at Cambridge University Press
The results of our survey suggest that it’s not that juniors don’t want to stay in their firms – they just don’t feel that staying would be in their best interest.
If firms and companies want to future-proof their talent pool, they have to look beyond talent acquisition. They need to start thinking long-term about providing an ecosystem that nurtures juniors throughout their careers, offering a clear path, and adequate support, for career development.