Dropping out of the legal profession is seen by many as a symptom of Gen Y, but is there something else behind it? Claire Chaffey investigates the reality biting young lawyers in law firms.
Law students have the world at their feet. Brimming with idealism, the pursuit of law school as a means to make a difference and save the world seems a more than reasonable ambition. They study hard, analyse intricate legislation and case law, take part in heated tutorial debate about law reform and human rights, and moot with all the youthful zest and vigour they can muster.
Then fourth year arrives and things change: they begin to wonder how exactly they are going to launch their brilliant legal careers and where they will do it. Often, they will navigate a careers fair, pick up bags of law firm paraphernalia touting endless prospects, as well as the numerous testimonials of graduate lawyers who declare the benefits of "work/life balance" and "firm culture".
With the many options presented, law students remain blissfully unaware of the absent mention of billable hours, lack of autonomy, endless administrative tasks and the mountains of documents awaiting discovery.
No, law students are on top of the world and nothing can dampen their idealistic fervour. Until, that is, they become lawyers.
No sooner does reality hit than young lawyers start dropping like flies. And, while post-GFC statistics are hard to come by on the rate of young lawyers leaving the profession, anecdotal evidence suggests that many firms continue to struggle to retain them. Retention is undoubtedly a serious issue in the legal profession and one that has sparked a nationwide attempt to take action.
"This is an issue that really is plaguing various parts of the junior lawyer ranks, for different reasons," says Pouyan Afshar, president of the New South Wales Law Society Young Lawyers Association.
According to sources contacted by Lawyers Weekly, a common theme as to just what is behind the trend of young lawyers leaving the profession early in their career appears to come down to a great divide between expectations and actuality.
"Retention rates are an issue because ... people have high expectations or wrong expectations. They don't appreciate the type of work they will do and they get disheartened," says Afshar.
Sally Hardy*, senior associate in a mid-tier firm, agrees: "You have this idealistic view that you are going to be saving the world, and in the end it is actually quite mundane. Some people can be quite disillusioned by that, and other people just say, 'Well, this is it' and get on with it."
So why do so many young lawyers fall victim to skewed expectations?
Former lawyer turned recruiter, Jason Elias, of Elias Recruitment, believes he knows one reason. "I call it the Ally McBeal theory," he says. "People who don't know what law is like in practice rely on popular media. They have certain expectations, and when they get into the legal environment - particularly private practice - if it doesn't match those expectations, they leave."
While pop culture certainly has its place in the proliferation of unrealistic expectations, it is doubtful that all lawyers-to-be aspire to emulate the shallow and neurotic characters in Ally McBeal.
Former lawyer Caitlin Sharp*, now a corporate writer, suggests another explanation: there is a gaping chasm between what one studies at university and what one actually does in a law firm.
"The study of law is really quite different to the practice of law and that is an issue. There is quite a mismatch," she says. "The study is really intellectually stimulating ... [while] a lot of tasks [I did as a junior lawyer] were administrative. You feel like it's a step down."
The personality predicament
So while pop culture and legal study must take some of the blame for creating wayward expectations, surely some people have an idea of what they are getting in to. So what is their problem?
Lisa Pryor, law graduate, journalist and author of humorous corporate case study novel The Pinstripe Prison, believes that while it may come down to the fact that many junior lawyers must undertake mundane tasks during their first few years in practice, such tasks are not exclusive to the legal profession. However, she concludes that personality affects how young lawyers cope with the reality of such tasks.
"No matter how many qualifications you have, you start at the bottom of the ladder. You do work that is ... boring. It can feel like a real let-down," she says. "Maybe it hits law students harder because [they] have a natural arrogance ... You think you're hot shit and then suddenly you're being treated like a gofer. It's pretty crushing to your ego."
Elias also believes young lawyers are ill-equipped to deal with occupying the bottom of the proverbial heap.
"The way technology has changed, [Gen Y] has a need for immediate gratification," he says. "They have gone through school as high achievers; they expect things to happen quickly. To say to them that in five or six years time they might get to senior associate can seem like a very long time to someone with a shorter expectation span."
Another consideration, cites Pryor, is that many people who end up in law firms do so not by making an active career choice, but rather because they don't know what else to do and see the law as occupying a particular facet of the professional world into which they fit.
"The big firms in particular ... are squeezed between careers which are either more fun or more lucrative," she says. "It used to be the case ... that corporate law paid an amazing salary compared to just about anything else, whereas now, if graduates are really cut-throat and money oriented, they will go into banking. If they are interested in fun and work/life balance, they go into journalism or marketing [or something else] ... so why go into a law firm?"
Anything you can do...
Anecdotal evidence also suggests there is a more sinister reason for why many choose to enter the legal profession.
"[University] is such a competitive environment and people think they should apply for a [graduate position] to see if they have what it takes. When they get one, they feel they should be grateful for it ... it's not the best motivation for going into a job," says Sharp. "I didn't sit back properly and think, 'Is this really something I want to do?' It seemed like the thing I had to do."
Pryor reports a similar experience: "There is pressure to get in with one of the big firms ...You know what people are like at law school; they got into the course because they were competitive and driven and were always looking ... at what mark the person next to them got so they could go one better. It's really hard not to fall into that trap," she says.
Whether a symptom of Generation Y or otherwise, it seems that today's young lawyers are unlikely to stay long term in an unsatisfying career.
"You do work very long hours, and to spend that much time doing something you're just not that in to is a big commitment," says Sharp.
This is perhaps understandable, given that law degrees are becoming increasingly popular and are seen as a highly valuable and flexible qualification.
"Having been out of the law for a couple of years, I realise that [doing a law degree] wasn't a waste of time. It's actually very adaptable and almost gives you an open door into interviews," says Sharp.
Elias agrees: "The skill set of analysis, writing, being able to communicate - all those things that you learn in a law degree - are eminently transferable ... and that's why people say, 'Hey, this is not what I want'."
And as Elias sees it, the decision is simple: "You only have one life. You want to be doing something that you are passionate about."
Taking the two-way street
While it is difficult to pinpoint the poor retention of young lawyers in the legal profession on one particular factor, it must be acknowledged that choosing a career in law is ultimately the choice, and responsibility, of the individual.
However, it must also be acknowledged that this decision is heavily influenced by current economic factors as well as the business environment and law firms must take some responsibility.
Such responsibility, believes Afshar, may require law firms to re-think their marketing strategies which so effectively lure law students with unrealistic dreams into their offices. "Unfortunately, the image that goes out [to students] is inconsistent with what actually happens when you're a grad," he says.
However, for many law firms this will be an unrealistic option due to the difficulties associated with making discovery, billable hours and other general tasks of a junior lawyer attractive. Coupled with the reality that a constant stream of new young lawyers is ready to step into a disgruntled graduate's shoes, the prospect of any changes to recruitment techniques is slim.
More feasible, however, is for firms to ensure that those lawyers who do join them, for reasons misguided or otherwise, are well looked after.
"Firms are doing a really good job at reeling people in, but in terms of keeping them ... they can do it by emphasising family-friendly policies and decent working conditions," says Pryor. "They can't compete with the banks on salary and they can't compete with the alternative career paths in terms of fun, so the only option they have is to improve working conditions."
Lawyer Leon Shohmelian, who shifted from a top-tier firm to a suburban one, agrees: "Principals have a responsibility to look after younger lawyers. You hear of countless numbers of young lawyers ... who suffer depression. These are some of the most amazing minds ... and when they're not being looked after and helped through what is already a difficult process ... the consequences can be disastrous," he says.
Law is not for everyone, and plenty of graduates will continue to make career choices they will later realise they were simply unsuited for. But a lot of heartache could be prevented - for both lawyers and firms - if a more open and honest approach was adopted in relation to what life as a young lawyer is really like.
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of these sources