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Legal candidates may move away from top-tier firms, says recruiter

As burnout continues to be rife in the legal profession, one legal recruiter has predicted that BigLaw firms will start to lose candidates to boutiques in favour of shorter days and increased work/life balance.

user iconLauren Croft 24 July 2023 Big Law
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Burnout is an issue that the legal profession is all too familiar with – and something that nrol director Jesse Shah said was particularly prevalent post-pandemic when speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, in partnership with nrol.

In terms of how firms can practically mitigate the risks of burnout, Mr Shah said employers should “put the employees first” and have open conversations about long hours and work/life balance, as well as what leaders can do to alleviate any stress.

“What are we doing in the legal industry to cap those long hours? What are we doing to not work those long weekends? Are we under-resourced? Is that why our team is overworked? What’s the solution? So, sitting down, not just with your senior partners, but speaking to the juniors who are the ones striving to grow in their careers and reach the rank of partner one day. Speaking to them from the ground up, what are they struggling with, what can be done there? Because it’ll have a chain effect. What you do at the bottom is always going to filter up to the top,” he explained.


“A lot of firms I speak to now in terms of parental leave, they’ve revamped all their policies to help with that stress that comes with being a new parent. It’s all these things. Law firms need to really take a look and maybe use the examples of these tech firms, creating that work/life balance, the hybrid workplace, the efficiency, maybe employing better technology within the firms to alleviate work that can be done with the help of technology. All these measures can be in place.”

Longer hours are a well-known mainstay of the legal profession – but while high work and stress levels may be commonplace in certain firms, Mr Shah said that it’s also impacting law graduates and what kind of work they end up in.

“You’re going to see more junior or training paralegals moving away from law because they’ve seen the workload, they’ve seen the life that their seniors are leading. So that’s going to have a negative effect on the talent flow of firms because if less people are coming through, it’s obviously going to affect it in future years from now. And then if you look at your junior lawyers, some of them are not chasing the bigger brands anymore; they’re chasing the more boutique firms because of that work/life balance,” he said.

“I’m also seeing senior lawyers in the higher tier firms wanting to move away from there as well because there’s lack of support, and they’re being overworked. People are changing direction. If you look at the sector of abuse, it’s now becoming a bit more female-heavy. The male lawyers in that, the stress of handling those cases is getting to them, so they’re moving away. We speak to a lot of male lawyers about abuse, and they don’t want to enter that area. So, it’s impacting everyone in different ways, but ultimately, it’s reducing the talent in law.”

Many firms have also been implementing increased parental leave and wellness policies, although Mr Shah warned that parental leave policies don’t necessarily draw younger lawyers in.

“Those incentives are great to a certain demographic of people. If you look at the age group that those incentives really target, it’s the individuals looking to start families. But this burnout and movement is targeting from your ground up. Twenty-two- [and] 23-year-olds coming in all the way through. Firms need to think across the board, ‘What are we doing for every bracket of lawyers coming through?’” he said.

“But also, what are we doing for our support staff? Without them, the firm is not going to function effectively, especially if they’re under-resourced. So, what are we doing for our support staff? Because, for me, they play one of the most vital roles in a firm. And a lot of them would be students or studying law and doing this as a full-time gig while doing their online classes in the evening. And if they’re not getting the support at that early on and seeing some incentives, they’re going to quit the profession as well.”

Candidates can also take practical steps to ensure they’re making the right choice when it comes to choosing a firm.

“I always tell people, look, yes, it’s great chasing the big brands and these top-tier beautiful names to have on your résumé, but it comes with a lot of other additional stresses and pressures. Don’t just look at the brand name. What are you actually looking for from this career? What sort of work-life or home balance? What additional things do you need to do to live an enjoyable life and keep that passion in this profession alive whilst you grow? Brand names are great, you get great exposure, and you obviously earn equivalent as well, but there’s more to it now,” Mr Shah added.

“And with the world the way it is, the boutiques are also coming to the table with salaries. They are coming to the table with a lot of additional benefits. And we’ve seen that change in other markets, where in technology, people used to go for the big tech brands, whereas now most candidates prefer going to the start-ups. We’ve seen that in digital and marketing, same thing. The big marketing brands are not attracting top talent; the smaller agencies are. So, I’m sure we’re going to see something similar in law as this problem is not solved. And if this problem does get solved, then obviously, we’ll get the balance again. It’s a critical stage at the moment.”

However, Mr Shah also emphasised that for candidates, their own mental health should be their “number one priority” and will play a massive role down the track.

“What you do now is going to affect where you are in 20 years from now. If you decide to just go after the money and go down that route, are you going to last in this profession for 20 years? Are you going to be happy in 20 years?” he asked.

“These are things that you need to consider early on. And if you are already midway through your career and you’re losing a bit of passion for law, instead of giving up, my first advice would be first having a look around that. Are you in the right place? Because there are other options, there are other firms offering options and solutions.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Jesse Shah, click below: