It seems, to me, that more and more young lawyers want to leave the law
From what I can see, many fresh young guns – who once dreamed of making the legal world better – are now opting to leave the legal circus rather than pursue a career within it, writes Stefanie Costi.
In the world of law, something troubling is unfolding.
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Countless junior lawyers have reached out to me in recent months, on the back of my recent opinion piece on workplace post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on such messages and conversations, I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that there could be a groundswell of emerging practitioners who yearn, and/or may be opting for, vocational pathways outside of law.
Such a perceived trend does not just raise questions. It reveals serious problems in the legal profession that are driving these departures.
Let us delve into why so many young legal professionals might be choosing to abandon our noble profession.
Long work hours: Lives consumed by the grind
Many young lawyers find themselves trapped in the endless cycle of work, where the traditional nine-to-five schedule has become a distant memory. They are shackled to their desks, often teetering on the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion.
Sacrificing important life events, personal time, exercise, and their overall health and wellbeing is the norm. Some – in their relentless pursuit of corporate success – work 80 hours or more per week, leaving no room for family, hobbies, or self-care. This is not a life. It is a reckless dash towards inevitable burnout. By the way, juniors, if you find yourself dedicating excessive time to your job at the expense of your meaningful relationships with family and friends, it could be a sign of manipulative overwork.
The culture of bullying and harassment: Betrayal of justice
In a field that should embody justice and equity, the legal profession has astonishingly become a hotbed of bullying and harassment. What is even more shocking is the fact that sexual harassment is happening right under the noses of senior practitioners, too.
These so-called “role model” people managers often perpetuate the very injustices they should be eradicating. They demean, undermine, and even assault young lawyers, treating them as disposable pawns in a sadistic game. The toll on the mental and emotional wellbeing of these budding legal minds is devastating. Unless these managers realise they are, in fact, the problem, not the young staff who leave to escape them, they risk being starved of the young talent they desperately need. It’s as simple as that.
Excessive job demands: The crushing weight of the world
Senior practitioners audaciously burden fresh legal recruits with the responsibilities of experienced colleagues. These inexperienced professionals, barely past the ink-drying stage of their admission, bear Herculean tasks meant for veterans. They are inundated with an insurmountable workload, frequently lacking the essential support and resources necessary for survival.
It is an environment steeped in injustice and unrealism, a milieu for exhaustion, stress, and exposure to aggression, violence, bullying, and harassment. Instead of addressing these nightmarish challenges, many seniors arrogantly preach the virtue of resilience to their beleaguered juniors, who navigate a perilous path where sanity is a rare commodity.
It is no surprise that many junior professionals are actively seeking an escape. In this contest between sanity and this distorted version of resilience, sanity should prevail every time.
Lack of support: Left in the dark
The legal profession frequently neglects to provide the support and guidance necessary for young lawyers to flourish at work.
Senior colleagues, the supposed pillars of guidance, often disappear or are too preoccupied to assist juniors when they need it most. Young lawyers are left to fend for themselves, with scant guidance and support. They struggle to find the information required to complete tasks, leading to anxiety and insecurity. It is not uncommon for them to reach out for assistance, only to be met with indifference or even hostility from peers or supervisors. If seniors want juniors to do their jobs and do them well, they need to be prepared to give them the tools to do it.
If seniors want juniors to excel at their jobs, they must be ready to equip them with the necessary tools. We wouldn’t expect a surgeon to perform brain surgery with a kitchen knife, and the same principle applies to the law.
Unclear roles and expectations: A daily maze
In today’s legal workplaces, young lawyers struggle with role confusion.
Mixed duties, unclear hierarchies, ever-shifting expectations, and uncertain work standards create daily stress. One lawyer told me they feel like they are stumbling blindly through tasks, always worried about upsetting senior colleagues. Another colleague shared they were given the same task as someone else without clear instructions on how to divide it. These situations cause conflicts, misunderstandings, and unwarranted pressure on young lawyers. It is no wonder many are considering leaving our profession for good. Why stay when it feels like fumbling in the dark?
Inadequate organisational change management: Chaotic transitions
The legal industry’s approach to organisational change is often reckless and haphazard. Consultation with those affected is a laughable concept.
Time and again, there is no consideration of how these tumultuous changes might impact the wellbeing and performance of the workers caught in the storm. Sudden shifts in technology platforms, devoid of proper training, result in errors, missed deadlines, and stress-induced breakdowns. Changes are imposed upon the workforce with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, leaving employees feeling adrift, disrupted, and unsupported. It is a heartless game of survival where young lawyers must navigate treacherous waters without a compass while the thunderous winds of change buffet them mercilessly.
Inadequate reward and recognition: The art of neglect
Young lawyers work tirelessly, seeking recognition and fair rewards for their dedication. Yet, they often face an unjust and biased system.
Even when juniors consistently exceed targets and take on extra duties, they are routinely overlooked as senior colleagues prioritise their own interests (luxuries like golf trips, designer bags, flashy cars, anyone?). This neglect leaves them feeling undervalued and betrayed. Feedback, when it comes, often feels like a poisoned blade – biased, unjust, and unhelpful. Young professionals feel unheard, their growth stifled, and their talents ignored, as senior practitioners micromanage even the simplest tasks.
Juniors have bills to pay, and the cost of living keeps rising. Provide fair compensation, or risk being starved of the fresh talent you desperately need.
Stopping the exodus: What can we do?
Addressing this exodus of young lawyers is imperative for the legal profession. The future of the industry depends on creating an environment that respects and nurtures its next generation of legal talent.
To that end, here are some potential solutions:
- Mentorship programs: Establish mentorship programs within legal workplaces to provide invaluable guidance and support to young lawyers as they navigate the complexities of the profession. Experienced attorneys can serve as mentors or buddies, helping to alleviate the feelings of isolation and overwhelm.
- Flexible work arrangements: The days of clinging to a rigid nine-to-five are numbered. Offer flexible work arrangements that allow young lawyers to maintain a life outside the office. Remote work options, flexible hours, and part-time roles are necessities, not luxuries. Individual needs should be accommodated, not disregarded.
- Training on bullying, harassment, wellbeing, and resilience: Educational programs focused on bullying, harassment, wellbeing, and resilience are vital for young lawyers dealing with stress. Such education can equip individuals with the tools and strategies they need to build mental and emotional fortitude.
- Role clarity: Eliminate role confusion by providing clear, unambiguous job descriptions. Senior practitioners should establish reporting lines and define crystal-clear expectations for each position, reducing stress for young professionals.
- Effective change management: When implementing organisational changes, consult with those affected, communicate comprehensively, and provide support. Get some buy-in from the people who your changes will affect. Leaving people to flounder in the tumult only deepens the divide.
- Recognition and reward systems: Ensure recognition and reward are based on dedication and hard work, not bias. When a junior consistently exceeds expectations – acknowledge, and fairly compensate their efforts. Constructive feedback and skill development opportunities are essential for growth and job satisfaction.
- Transparent policies and procedures: Uphold transparent policies and procedures, consistently applied, to ensure fairness and organisational justice. This includes addressing and preventing workplace bullying and harassment, regardless of the perpetrator’s position in the hierarchy. Silence on these matters is complicity.
Stefanie Costi is a lawyer who empowers victims of workplace bullying to take decisive action and educates organisations about its impact and preventive measures. Through her advocacy, Stefanie strives to create healthier and more respectful work environments where everyone can thrive without fear. You can find her here.