A choice of career or lifestyle?

Ravinder Chahal sets out to discover whether today's young lawyers are more concerned with lifestyle than income. Ravinder Chahal is a freelance journalist.

If the 1980s were characterised by sharp suits and savage ambition, then the 1990s have been all about self reflection and quality of life.

Indeed there has been a gradual recognition of the fact that most young trainees would rather downshift their career aspirations than become married to their jobs.

The Lawyer sought out the opinions of law graduates entering the profession to see if firms have really mutated from lean, mean, billing machines to caring sharing environments, and whether their trainees were more interested in tie-dying than in suits and ties.

It soon became apparent however, that few trainees were actually prepared to be interviewed and fewer still wanted to speak on the record. So much for the supposed return to the 1960s atmosphere of free speech and shared emotion.

One trainee, with a place at an extremely prominent firm, who was initially very keen to take part, pulled out at the eleventh hour, saying: “I just can't risk it, if my name ever came out, my contract could get ripped up.”

Another graduate, currently at Nottingham Law School, would only be interviewed if he was not identified.

At 23, Harry (not his real name) is a serious young man with a bright future at a top five firm mapped out in front of him. He says: “Nottingham is very geared towards producing corporate lawyers for City firms. Most of my friends on the course are on the corporate programme for the rest of the year opting for M&A, corporate finance and corporate commercial as their three elective choices.”

Harry, who originally comes from Nottingham, has a good 2:1 law degree from Cambridge and says that he has had a “yearning to be a lawyer since the age of 15”. In true legal tradition he says that he is prepared to work hard, play hard and travel abroad in order to take his career “as far as it goes” down the path towards partnership and perhaps beyond.

He says diplomatically that he fully expects to “compensated well” for the time he puts in. Somehow it is hard to envisage Harry giving this all up for a life of contemplation in an obscure ashram in Poona.

Jenny Dyson is 24. Currently on an LPC course in London, she has slightly broader horizons. Unlike most students, she did not mind being directly quoted because she sees a future which is less rigid and open to alternative directions. Her background is slightly different too, having done a French degree at Queen Mary & Westfield college in London, then a CPE conversion, before taking her current place on the LPC. She too has a training placement, but took a deliberate decision not to apply to a City firm. After six years in London, she is returning to Brighton to join a small firm, Aldrich Crowther & Wood.

“I will get a broader based experience, which will be more direct and hands on, and I will be able to work for private clients rather than corporations,” she says.

“Being with a smaller firm will also appeal because I will be more of an individual, rather than another number who is expected to do masses of dull work with little recognition.”

Her thinking has not been well received at the College of Law: “Most of the students are very geared towards life in a City firm. They see it as being top of the list and have their entire careers mapped out ahead of them,” she says.

However, despite obvious differences, she does share a lot in common with students like Harry, in that she chose the law because it offers a “solid base”, with the potential for overseas work. And she is also unapologetic about making a good wage, saying that personal injury work interests her the most because it is “forever changing, and because I could make a lot of money if I make a name for myself”.

Kiran is a classmate of Jenny's who also stands apart from the rest of the pack at the College of Law. She has a place at a medium-sized, general practice in London and her reasons for not following the City path echo Jenny's. “The quality of life will be better at a smaller firm – in fact, when I was first interviewed for my firm, I was asked what I would talk about after hours, with the partner saying “not the law I hope', which appealed to me.”

She added: “The big firms are too much like factories and seem too specialised towards corporate commercial work.”

Kiran says people do drop out of the LPC because of the workload or because they realise that the life is not for them. There is also the constant fear of stepping out of line when you have a contract.

“I can understand why people were reluctant to talk to The Lawyer, because so much can go wrong to end your contract. I got my place two years ago, which feels like being on probation for two years. They have two years to change their mind.”

Katie Paxton, vice-chair of the Young Solicitors Group, says the pressure does not ease up once a trainee starts with a firm: “It's true to say that graduates would like to have more time for themselves, but wouldn't everyone?

“The first 18 months can be brutal – you have to keep your partner happy and the workload is huge.”

Paxton says that, in a recent survey, her members were asked to assess their health and lifestyles. Many of the respondents were advised to go see a doctor urgently as a result of their answers.

This helps to explain why lawyers tend to let off steam with one another. Paxton says: “You tend to meet and spend so much time with other lawyers, you end up socialising with them too. Other lawyers know what you going through – the pressure to conform and the workload. The “This Life' scenario may be a caricature but there is more than a grain of truth within it.”

Yet This Life focused largely on life outside the office. For many young lawyers that is a life they will not have.