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Becoming a partner at their law firm has long been the prize for young lawyers. Along with high pay, it was the enduring incentive to work gruelling hours and perform mundane tasks. But a generation of trainees want something different; the partnership track has ruptured.
Many millennial lawyers are tired of the 24/7 work culture and are inspired by the gig economy, exemplified by the likes of ride-hailing app Uber and room-rental website Airbnb. Income may be more sporadic but earning it will not involve being tied to a desk during fixed hours.
This philosophy is borne out by a report from consultancy Deloitte, which says millennials are more interested in people than in money, prefer collaborative working structures and value being able to work irregular hours as it suits them. Millennials in the law are rebelling to demand a better work-life balance— and influencing those more senior to them too.
One millennial, who quit her job at a Magic Circle law firm to become a ski instructor, described her work as a trainee solicitor as unsatisfying and seemingly pointless — a feeling that was made worse by the long hours. “You get left alone to do mundane stuff a lot, literally in a small room on your own, surrounded by boxes of documents to sort out,” she says. “You are, of course, well paid, so among junior lawyers and trainees there is the feeling that we’re well paid for a reason — ie, to be in the office whenever needed.”
The pay is indeed high. The Financial Times reported in August that newly qualified British lawyers working for US firms in London could start on £135,000. Even a typical Magic Circle starting salary is £85,000, more than three times the national average UK wage.
High pay for the sake of it apparently leaves millennials cold, however. Nico Beedle, a young partner at boutique law firm Merali Beedle, says he disliked the lack of financial incentive at his previous employer, an international law firm. “Lawyers are risk-averse; in most firms you sit at your desk and you get the same salary whether you do badly or whether you do well,” he says.
The firm Mr Beedle now works in employs its lawyers on a consultancy basis, which allows employees to have full control over the hours they work in exchange for a fluctuating salary. The trade-off, he says, is between the safety of a fixed wage and the freedom of flexible working. “Is it more important to you to get more life in exchange for more volatile pay, or do you want to give more of your life to a big firm and get a straight-up stable salary?” he asks.
Consultancy EY has found that millennials may be more likely to choose the former option — they prize flexible working more than any other generation — and traditional law firms have begun to take note. Indeed, they are filtering this millennial-attractive approach throughout their business.
London-based employment law specialist Lewis Silkin has created Rockhopper, a low-cost legal advice service. It is staffed by lawyers who have opted for a better work-life balance than is usually demanded by the firm, in exchange for a cut to their pay. The firm says it has proved exceptionally popular with staff.
“It surprised us that some of our great lawyers asked to move to the Rockhopper programme,” says James Davies, joint head of the firm’s employment law practice. “We thought, ‘Hang on, you’re one of the people who will advance very quickly in our conventional structure.’”
The set-up allows some lawyers to live a life away from the hubbub of London. Senior Lewis Silkin lawyer Denise Tomlinson works remotely from the south of France. She describes “a big attitude shift” in legal circles and a newfound respect for those who are — in the millennial style — “not motivated by status or money”.
“It used to be that if you were a senior lawyer of 10 years-plus who hadn’t made partner, you were seen as a bit of a failure,” she says. “Whereas now there’s a bit more of an understanding that not everybody wants to be made partner.”
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