The new needs of the new breed

Perhaps we should not be so surprised that according to a recent The Lawyer/YouGov poll, 25 per cent of lawyers want to leave private practice and do something else. In most other areas of employment the idea of a career for life or even a long-term employer disappeared years ago.

Now law firms are having to face up to changing dynamics and are re-considering a career model that has been in place for generations – and it’s all pretty hard for us baby-boomers to understand and accept. Life was so much easier when young trainees arrived fresh from university prepared to work long hours, often on fairly mundane work, in the long-term hope of partnership – the holy grail of a professional legal career. So what does the future hold now?

There is clearly a growing divergence between what firms have traditionally wanted and what associates now demand: a divergence that if left unattended will lead ultimately to an even tighter labour market with demand outstripping supply of talent.

We need to seriously rethink the ‘deal’. If the traditional model of the deferred rewards of partnership no longer works, and associates demand more instant rewards, then they are increasingly likely to be asking themselves: “What am I getting out of my time here? What’s the deal for me?”

The key surely lies in creating a first-class career experience for all and focusing on that, not just on attrition rates. We need to think about length of tenure and reasons for leaving.

At Linklaters we believe in articulating and delivering a distinctive career experience. The ‘deal’ includes more systematic training and career development, work allocation for personal development purposes (not just operational efficiencies), delegating responsibility, giving regular constructive feedback and, of course, providing access to world-class learning and knowhow. And as a global firm it increasingly means some sort of international experience for all.

It also requires greater honesty and more open dialogue about career development and prospects between partners and individual associates. We need to move beyond the situation where associates leave a firm prematurely, either because they haven’t realised how well they were regarded or because they aren’t getting access to the highest quality work.

In too many cases in the past, while partnership may not have been either the aspiration of the associate or the expectation of the firm, an associate will decide to jump ship at just the wrong moment in their career. Or they take a career decision they later regret by not feeling able to discuss the options with a partner, mentor or HR adviser.

Our role should be to facilitate career development, not to keep associates under false pretences or to hold them back from other opportunities of the right type at the right time. If an associate stays that bit longer and gains additional or alternative experience it may make all the difference to their future career options and speed of progression.

In many ways we’re moving more towards the McKinsey & Company ‘grow and go’ model. While some graduates undoubtedly join McKinsey in the hope of becoming a partner one day, others clearly see it as the employer brand to have on their CV – a door-opener for the future.

As a result, the young lawyers of tomorrow will have a much broader commercial skill set, coupled with actively developed personal skills and legal training to boot. There is no reason why they won’t rise to the highest ranks of other organisations in the future, particularly if they are helped to make timely informed career choices.

Jill King, HR director, Linklaters