The Lawyer/YouGov poll: Exit signs

A staggering amount of lawyers have had enough, but they’re sticking around for the money. And it makes no difference if you’re young or old, male or female, in-house or in private practice – the figures show consensus across the board

The revelation that 24 per cent of lawyers surveyed in The Lawyer/YouGov poll – the most comprehensive research programme in the profession – want to quit the law struck a real chord.

“This issue underpins everything and goes to the heart of what the profession’s all about,” says recruitment consultant Mark Brandon of First Counsel.

While it would be easy to think of this as a generational issue (Generation X is just a bunch of slackers), that is not the case. Twenty three per cent of under-35s would like to change career and, perhaps surprisingly, 25 per cent of over-35s also fancy trying something new.

The profession has changed massively since many of those over-35s qualified. The most recent high-profile departure from the law is former Olswang chief executive Jonathan Goldstein, who took a parting shot at the profession when the 40-year-old left to become joint managing director of property company Heron International.

“The notion of [law firm] size is spiralling out of control and is unhealthy,” Goldstein told The Lawyer in February (12 February). “There’s no logic in the argument that you get better quality because a firm’s got 2,000 lawyers as opposed to 200 lawyers.

“The enjoyment aspects are being taken out of the profession because of the drive towards becoming more and more a commodity business and taking away from the business aspects.

“It’s not healthy. It’s a very disappointing trend and I think it will ultimately detract from people joining the profession.”

The profession has also become a lot more competitive.

“Over the last three or four years the intensity has increased,” says Brandon. “The work has become harder and partnerships have been streamlined. There’s a faster pace to the profession than 20 years ago.”

Dissatisfaction is widespread and reaches to the highest levels. In the YouGov poll 20 per cent of partners surveyed would like to leave the law, as would a surprising 30 per cent of general counsel – surprising since in-house lawyers are popularly perceived to be more content with their lot.

Although in-house counsel tend to be more attracted to business positions, not many of them make the leap. US boardrooms are often fully stocked with lawyers, but in the UK those positions tend to go to accountants.

In-house recruiter Naveen Tulli of Lawrence Simon says many in-house counsel are worried about leaving the law.

“Most are worried about closing the door on a profession they’ve trained their whole life for. European lawyers are probably a bit more conservative than their American counterparts,” she says.

Certainly, fewer in-house counsel said money was stopping them pursuing a change than their private practice brethren.

While 73 per cent of partners who said they would like a change said the possible drop in salary was stopping them, 60 per cent of in-house counsel cited this as a reason. Thirty-four per cent of the unhappy in-house counsel said the cost of retraining was stopping them, against only 11 per cent of partners. And an overwhelming 78 per cent of the associates who said they would like a change of career said the drop in salary was stopping them moving on.

Tulli says most of his candidates are private practice lawyers who want to get out. “They see their partners’ lives and say that they don’t want that when they’re older,” he explains.

One former associate who has recently handed in his notice at a magic circle firm to pursue an alternative career agrees. “I can see the career path and it doesn’t appeal to me… business development and going yachting with clients at the weekend.”

Tulli adds: “More multinationals have flexible working schemes… It’s not an easy option, but generally your weekends are your own.”

But that is not the experience of one former in-house counsel, who is reviewing his career options following redundancy. “I think there’s been a convergence between in-house and private practice in attitudes to work-life balance. There are more go-getters working in-house now. The hours are getting longer, you’re seen as a mini law firm and you’re always dealing with something that’s time-critical,” he says.

And he believes that many corporations are merely paying lip service to notions of work-life balance and flexible working.

“You have to look at the culture of working in-house,” contines the former in-houser. “The food industry, for example, has a strong, Northern bluff, lads culture. In sectors such as that and heavy industry, people can’t be bothered with flexible working schemes.”

Those flexible working schemes are often aimed at women, but our research shows little difference between the attitudes of the sexes. Twenty three per cent of men would like to quit and 26 per cent of women. There is absolutely no difference between those who have children and those who do not – 24 per cent of each would like to get out. And the majority of those (69 per cent of those without children and 71 per cent of those with children) cited money as the main reason for staying put.

The Lawyer’s first YouGov survey revealed that an overwhelming 82 per cent of associates thought flexible working schemes were the best retention tool, and firms have been busying their HR departments with all manner of flexible working schemes as the words ‘work’, ‘life’ and ‘balance’ are repeated time and time again.

“There’s a generational difference,” says Brandon. “The lawyers who are 6-10 years’ PQE aren’t prepared to make the same sacrifices that people used to make.”

Many law firms have noticed this and have introduced alternative career paths to the traditional partnership track.

Allen & Overy was one of the first to address the issue, with the introduction of an of counsel role. Although it is possible for of counsel to become partners, the role is broadly considered as an alternative to becoming a partner.

Herbert Smith followed suit and created an of counsel role for senior associates with typically nine years’ PQE. Berwin Leighton Paisner created an associate director role, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer plumped for counsel and DLA Piper appointed its first legal directors.

But the target group for these alternative career paths wants out. Thirty nine per cent of associates with more than 11 years’ PQE would like to quit. The survey would seem to suggest that alternative career paths are not wanted. What is wanted is an alternative career.

But this group does not really know what it wants to do. While one associate told a recruitment consultant that she wanted to bake cakes, 31 per cent of the older associates who said they would like to leave the law do not know of any alternative. Eighty three per cent said the possible drop in salary was stopping them quitting. The latter two statistics are the highest for any demographic.

“That lack of a ready, viable escape route intensifies the dissatisfaction and the money locks them in,” says Brandon. “I think very, very few people ever do anything about it,” says the associate departing the magic circle. “For most people it’s a very cushy position. Pay goes up but the bonus element isn’t big enough. That doesn’t incentivise people.”

He also cites law firms’ lack of transparency as a factor.

“Associates never hear anything internally,” he says. “They read about spiralling profit in The Lawyer and they don’t see any of it. That alienates people.”