Associates Want In On In-House Life. Here’s What That Means For GCs.
December 21, 2022 | Articles
Law firm partnership has long been the brass ring for young lawyers seeking prestige (and the accompanying seven-figure compensation plan.)
But a new report from Above the Law suggests that associates seeking to climb the ranks at their current firm are now firmly in the minority.
Instead, these lawyers are fed up with law firm life and on the hunt for greener pastures, according to the “Associate Perspectives on the New Normal” report, which drew from a survey of around 500 U.S. associates at firms of all sizes.
So where are they looking for their dream job?
Forty percent — the largest cohort — are planning to seek an in-house position for their next role. Meanwhile, less than a third of respondents plan to stay at their current firm with the expectation of joining the partnership.
Here, we look at this surprising dynamic and consider what it could mean for in-house lawyers.
Advance the Quest for Work-Life Balance
For in-house law departments, creating an environment that addresses the complaints made clear by the Above the Law report will be a key part of attracting and retaining this generation of lawyers.
The survey respondents indicate, for example, that work-life balance is far and away the most important factor in their decision to leave their current position — a full 69 percent said it was their main motivation.
Of course, corporate law departments are facing ever-increasing workloads themselves, to the point that “do more with less” has become an industry cliche in recent years.
But this doesn’t mean these lawyers’ aspirations should be dismissed.
Regardless of its success as a recruiting strategy, any effort to create an attractive, balanced working environment will ultimately benefit current legal team members as well.
One consistent complaint, especially from associates who work remotely, is the blurring of the line between work hours and personal time. Even the anticipation of having one’s personal time interrupted by work can lead to significant stress and burnout, according to a study conducted in 2016.
The study’s authors recommend that managers “establish formal policies and rules on availability for after-work hours, such as weekly ‘email-free days’ or specific rotating schedules that will allow employees to manage their work and family time more efficiently.”
A key aspect of making these policies work is putting the burden of enforcing them on leadership.
“Supervisors — regardless of how close they are to the C-suite — represent the organization at large in the eyes of their teams,” write professors Marcello Russo and Gabriele Morandin for Harvard Business Review.
“They have the power to encourage (or discourage) employees from using family-friendly policies through their attitudes and behaviors, which can signal (or not signal) that there will be consequences for those who prioritize or provide equal importance to family and work responsibilities.”
Listen, Learn, and Act Accordingly
In addition to seeking work-life balance, many associates also say they’re looking for a workplace where they feel heard and respected by more senior team members.
An important (but often neglected or only superficially addressed) issue likely related to that feeling of having one’s concerns dismissed is the near-universal relative lack of job satisfaction felt by women and people of color when compared with their male or white colleagues.
As one female associate put it in the ATL report, “I have raised my concerns to a couple of partners and have been told some version of ‘that’s how this business is.’”
The ATL survey laid out a high-level demonstration of these disparities: Women rated every area of job satisfaction covered by the survey lower than men did, and not a single Black or multiracial respondent said they intend to stay at their current firm to become a partner.
To address these disparities, legal department leaders should prioritize impactful, easily accessible support for career advancement and professional development.
For example, establishing a robust mentorship program can play a huge part in fostering the relationships that make attorneys — including those belonging to historically marginalized groups — want to stick around at a law firm.
“Mentoring programs provide associates a personal connection to the firm when someone is charged with keeping an eye on their work assignments and work environment,” writes attorney-turned-consultant Ida O. Abbott for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
“Too many minority associates run into problems early in their law firm experience that, if left unattended, lead to high rates of attrition,” she adds. “A well-designed and carefully implemented mentoring program for minority lawyers, with clear, specific, and realistic goals, can support a firm’s objectives of retaining and promoting more lawyers of color.”
For law departments, it is essential that GCs create real progress and demonstrate leadership’s understanding and concern for the issues raised by less senior attorneys — especially those whose voices have historically been ignored in and out of the workplace.
Focus On Your Team, Too
Despite the large number of associates looking to move in-house, many legal departments are experiencing high levels of turnover as well.
According to a report from Wolters Kluwer, around 70 percent of current in-house attorneys are looking to leave their current positions.
So while opportunities abound to recruit top Biglaw associates, retaining talent should also be a key concern for GCs.
Many attorneys already working on an in-house team share the concerns voiced by law firm associates, and the Wolters Kluwer report highlights the importance of career development opportunities and feeling heard by leadership for legal department team members
In-house attorneys also consistently value the effective use of legal technology. 87 percent of respondents say it’s “extremely” or “very important” to “work for a legal department that fully leverages technology.”
To make the most of new tech, general counsel should consider bringing on experienced help. Alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) are frequent early adopters of new technologies such as blockchain and AI, and they are increasingly valued for this expertise.
“ALSPs are no longer merely low-cost providers of services for firms and corporations to outsource, such as document review,” says Lisa Hart Shepherd, VP of Research Strategy at Thomson Reuters. “The focus of ALSPs on technology innovation gives them a critical edge and makes them ideal partners to take on increasingly important tasks, such as project management and consulting on legal technologies.”