Generally speaking, today’s law firm associates are disillusioned with law firm life. And attrition is at an all-time high. 20+ years ago, the average seniority of an associate who left his/her law firm was between 8-9 years out of law school. And the primary reason for such a departure was…failure to make partner. Today, the average parting of the ways between associate and firm has plummeted to an astounding 2-4 years post JD. A problematic trend indeed – but a state of affairs that has been in the making for years.
So what gives? Why are scores of associates leaving the prestige and big money to pursue other ventures? Below are the biggest contributors to today’s associate exodus:
1. Younger Generation…Way Different Values.
The Millennials. These lawyers want more meaning in their lives. So they seek careers that provide more personal time, inspiration and fulfillment. And they value their time dearly. So much so, that they’re willing to trade off money for more of it. In addition, they aren’t driven by the prestige of a law firm partner title. It might be nice, but there’s a high price to pay…with no security. This value system does not square with how law firms are run today. A mismatch. And the firms remain behind the curve in addressing the changing needs of this constituency. So until a major law firm paradigm shift occurs, associates will continue to flee.
2. The Lack of Law Firm Job Security, Flexibility & Opportunity.
The struggle for existence. The tension between law firms and their clients. The commodification of law. And the rise of the in house legal department. These are factors that are turning law firms into bottom-line entities where no one is safe…except those with the most paying clients. Consequently, associate job security is at the mercy of the economy, law firm profits and proper firm management. If any one of these verticals goes south, the associates are the first to go. And they know it. In addition, an increasing number of associates aren’t willing to work the grinding law firm hours required by their employers. They want and need more time…for a life. But finding any meaningful flexibility in the firms still proves challenging. Finally, associates aren’t optimistic about long-term career prospects in the firms. Making partner requires a Herculean effort with a heavy dose of luck. And the political jockeying is at a fever pitch. Even if one makes partner, there are no guarantees. Consequently, the brass ring of making partner looks more like tin to many of the new generation of lawyers. So they simply don’t care. How’s that for leverage?
3. More Career Options.
Associates today have a treasure trove of career options compared to years past. The growth of the in house legal market has opened the opportunity floodgates for associates seeking to transition out of law firm life and into a more “meaningful career” with big financial upside potential. Other legal…and non legal career paths exist as well including: entrepreneur, business role, legal recruiter, sales, marketing, HR, non-profit, going solo and alternative law firms…to name a few. And transitioning to one of these career paths is far easier than it used be. As the profession has evolved, it has become less judgmental and more accepting of lawyers who walk in different directions with different shoes. So associates feel greater emotional freedom to pursue them…and they do.
Associate attrition is currently in the stratosphere. And the exodus will continue until law firm management can truly understand what drives these young professionals – and implement a solution where everyone can win. Some firm leaders are working hard at cracking this code, while others still have their heads in the sand. But whether pioneer or ostrich, one thing is clear: There is a general disconnect between past, present…and future that must be reconciled if the law firms are to retain their allure—and best talent for the years to come.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The LW career feed for priority access to premium content on topics like compensation and title trends, career development, foolproof salary negotiating, goal achievement…and much more. It’s quick and free. Click here: Sign Me Up Julie!