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Are lawyers ‘quiet quitting’ their jobs?

Quiet quitting — a new workplace phenomenon in which workers reject the notion of going above and beyond for one’s job and instead do the bare minimum to get by — may also be pervasive in the legal profession.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 15 August 2022 Big Law
Are lawyers ‘quiet quitting’ their jobs?
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‘Quiet quitting’, explained

LOD head of people and development in Australia Sofia Khan told Lawyers Weekly that there are different stages of quiet quitting, based on an individual’s level of engagement with their employer and organisation.

“The recent pandemic caused significant upheaval, and prompted a lot of people (and lawyers in particular) to assess what’s important to them in life and their careers,” she said. 


“Do they want a promotion, do they want to raise a family, focus on their health, or do they want to travel and work overseas? By doing this, many who may have felt that they had given a lot to their employer (and potentially not got a lot back) or seen the path of many they have worked with in their organisation, have consciously or subconsciously started to create boundaries between their work and their personal life which they may not have done without the pandemic.”

“Quiet quitting” may also be enhanced, Ms Khan continued, by many organisations actively recruiting for legal professionals “and existing employees seeing differential treatment or benefits being offered by their employer to employees in a candidate short market”.

Prominence of quiet quitting in legal profession

BerConn Global co-founders and joint managers Jenny Bermheden and Karlie Connellan said that their perception is that quiet quitting is becoming more common in a post-pandemic market, where it was “scarcely previously seen” in the legal services market.

“Lawyers work hard and are high achievers, so to ‘quiet quit’ wasn’t really an option to lawyers in most cases before COVID-19,” they mused.

“Lawyers generally put a lot of pressure on themselves to consistently deliver and meet expectations, and therefore doing the bare minimum, was not a path to choose. If unhappy, they were more inclined to seek alternative employment that could offer the things they were lacking in their current role.”

Naiman Clarke managing director Elvira Naiman reflected that quiet quitting, or variations of it, has been more likely to manifest with legal professionals in part-time roles or those on reduced hours so as to cope with family responsibilities.

“Getting ahead in the top end of town is in some ways anathema to the concept of quiet quitting as salaries are usually tied to billed hours (usually in six-minute billing intervals) and bonuses in most firms are tied to being a certain percentage over budget,” she said.

“We are definitely seeing more candidates looking for greater flexibility and more asking for firms where work from home is a standard practice. Unfortunately, the nature of law is such that there will always be urgent or unexpected things to deal with and the clients’ expectations haven’t yet aligned with a less intense work life.”

How is it manifesting?

Disengaged professionals, Ms Khan noted, is not a recent phenomenon.

“It’s as old as work itself. Disengagement can result from several factors, and we often see in law it results from a lack of interesting work. A Seek survey at the end of 2021 saw 20 per cent of Australian workers look for other work — i.e. disengage — due to ‘uninspiring work’,” she said. 

The mainstreaming of WFH and flexibility has meant, Ms Bermheden and Ms Connellan detailed, that lawyers have more choice over what they do and when, without pre-pandemic levels of supervision.

“They have also had the opportunity to appreciate the balance between work and life outside the firm. Those lawyers seeking a balance, who are unhappy in a high-pressure environment where they may not be well rewarded, are more likely to engage in ‘quiet quitting’ instead of having to uproot and leave for another firm,” they said.

“Those that are high achievers and who comfortably handle the longer hours and pressure that can come with certain firms, are unlikely to ‘quiet quit’ if they are unhappy and instead leave for another firm.”

In many law firms, Ms Naiman submitted, support staff have historically just worked their allocated hours, and her experience is that partner expectations of support staff can be different to expectations of their lawyers.

“Many two-year lawyers now make six-figures plus, so I still think expectations of people making that kind of money is that they are putting in the hours required of the job, which has generally meant long hours,” she said.

“It has always been a debated phenomenon — that lawyers’ contracted hours and actual hours worked are often wildly at odds. That’s just always been the nature of law. Those that want a more relaxed environment and less hours tend to opt for smaller and suburban firms where the expectations of management and clients can be more relaxed.”

Offering proper support

Each lawyer will have different motivations, Ms Bermheden and Ms Connellan mused; however, it can be assumed that there will always be a positive response to being well supported.

“This can be through competitive remuneration and bonuses, flexible work practices, exposure to varied and good quality work, training and development etc., and all this ultimately results in career and individual progression,” they said.

“Firms can avoid quiet quitting by ensuring that there are regular catch-ups, reviews and an open forum to encourage two-way dialogue around individual and team engagement. Output does not always equal satisfaction.

“Likewise, each firm can stay abreast of the market changes in order to be competitive and respond nimbly to market shifts, such as technology advances and remuneration which are often key motivators for lawyer retention.”

Flexibility paramount

While each legal professional will be motivated by different incentives, flexibility is proving popular with almost everyone. As such, Ms Naiman suggested, the best way to get around the quiet-quitting phenomenon creeping into law is to offer as much flexibility as the role can take.

“We know of many senior transactional lawyers working from home nine days a fortnight and one day in the office, or just turning up for physical meetings where necessary. The court system has also caught up with virtual attendance, so in theory, much of the work of lawyers’ can be done off-site,” she outlined.

“This has numerous benefits, not only affecting the productivity of the workplace, which is now a well-accepted effect; but can also help the bottom line-we know of numerous firms which have cut their leasing bill in half as a result of their WFH policy.”  

Other firms, Ms Naiman went on, have adopted a two-three or three-two approach to work from home and in the office.

“Lawyers we have spoken to say that whilst expectations of output have not changed, by saving on travel time and unnecessary meetings, they can go for a walk or swim during their lunch break, put a load of washing on, or deal with other family responsibilities whilst still being available and present for their work responsibilities,” she said.

Meaningful communication

Ms Khan reflected that it is so easy, in many organisations, for staff KPIs to be set at the beginning of a year, but then put away and only dusted off at the end of the year.

“In remote, hybrid working structures that most organisations now have in place, it’s so important for employers to keep the communications up with their teams. Conduct informal pulse checks with your staff — see how they are doing both professionally and personally — any challenges etc.,” she said.

“This way your teams are regularly feeling like they are being heard. Alternatively, you can implement something a little more formal like stay interviews or engagement surveys to have a formal set of questions and actively ask your team about how they find the culture, how do they view the chances of progression in the company, etc., which are again key ways for organisations to see how their teams are doing and what the level of engagement is.

“Legal leaders need to ensure that low-end, routine work is being managed smarter and not overburdening their junior works — a demographic likely more liable to be ‘quiet quitters’.”

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