While money is king, millennial and Gen Z lawyers agree that mental health and work-life balance remain key priorities in any “new normal” that may emerge in the legal industry, according to a pair of recent surveys.

As BigLaw firms compete for associate talent this spring by one-upping each other on salary, millennial lawyers told Above the Law and Major, Lindsey & Africa in the June report “Making Their Mark” that they have not given up on finding the role that will offer them a salary that helps pay the loans and support them in achieving much-needed time and flexibility.

Over half of associates surveyed said they are open to new opportunities, with most of them saying this is because they’re dissatisfied with their firm’s work-life balance.

Further, 23,000 younger professionals across a number of fields shared their top needs through the 10th Deloitte Millennial and Gen Z Survey, emphasizing the need for mental health support at work.

What else do these lawyers say they need in this period of transition?

Time Versus Money

When asked about trade-offs, nearly 30% of associates in ATL/MLA’s survey would trade time off for money, and a quarter said they’d accept less money for a flexible work schedule.

As the pandemic emphasized, the division of household and caregiving labor remains significantly gendered, which may explain the gender disparity in responses to the ATL survey around associates’ top workplace priorities. 

Men’s No. 1 factor when weighing a new role? The firm’s compensation package. Women’s? The firm’s commitment to fostering work-life balance for employees.

Given the mounting pressures on this generation, they need to be valued both financially and as people in order to make the pressures of a law career worth it.

Support for Mental Health

BigLaw attorneys have always struggled with stress and mental illness issues exacerbated by the high-stakes, high-standards nature of the profession, and lawyers are finally talking about it.

The Deloitte survey found that 41% of millennials and 46% of Gen Zers feel stressed all or most of the time, and over 30% have taken time off work to address pandemic-related stress and anxiety. 

However, nearly half of this group felt unsafe being honest about the reason for their absence, and told their employer a different reason. Approximately 40% are disappointed with how their employers supported their mental health during the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this stress has ballooned — but workplace resources to support mental health have not. 

While the ABA has created a pledge for law firms to take, promising to address key areas around mental health and addiction, young workers say that more firms need to take concrete steps like reducing billable hours or offering free counseling support for lawyers in crisis.

Groups like the Lawyers Depression Project and local bar association groups have done what they can to help many lawyers realize they are not alone in their struggle, but mental health stigma remains. 

Survey results like these demonstrate that now is the time for the legal industry to take the lead in acknowledging that overtaxed young associates are not only resources but people.

Managing Burnout

The main reason nearly half of associates surveyed by ATL/MLA find themselves open to new job opportunities is dissatisfaction with their firm’s work-life balance — as opposed to 2019, when dissatisfaction with compensation was the top reason. 

This seems to imply that BigLaw associates are being paid more, but also work far harder, and are burning out as a result.

Given this tension between money and time, millennials are also looking ahead and planning their strategic exit. 

While half of respondents to ATL/MLA’s survey reported they eventually want to make partner one day, half agreed that partnership isn’t as attractive an option as it was a generation ago, and a plurality said they planned to stay at their current firm only three to five years and then move on. This is a shift from previous years, where associates dreamed of rising to the top of their first firm.

However, one-third as many associates dream of hanging their own shingle as only two years ago: from 12% in 2019 to 4.5% this year.

What do they dream of doing, 10 years down the line? Going in-house. The largest cohort (28%) want to go into corporate counsel to find work-life balance, with 21% hoping to be a firm partner and almost 16% seeking a government or nonprofit role.

Mentorship and Inclusiveness

If they are going to sacrifice their time in BigLaw, associates expect to learn on the job, and be given equal opportunity to do so. 

Firm mentorship is seen as improving slightly, with the largest cohort of respondents in the ATL/MLA survey saying it is of moderate quality now (while the most said it was weak in 2019). 

Informal mentorship continues to be more powerful in establishing associate success than formal mentorship programs, according to the respondents.

Additionally, associates were far more likely than partners to express the view that law firm culture is biased against female and minority lawyers. 

More than 35% of associates in the ATL/MLA survey strongly agreed with the statement that law firm culture is inherently biased against women, while just over 17% of partners felt the same, and more than 40% of associates strongly agreed that law firm culture is inherently biased against racially diverse lawyers, while only 16% of partners reported the same. 

Changing Culture

Unsurprisingly, most millennial associates believe they are making a meaningful mark on BigLaw culture. 

By setting boundaries, being more vocal about their needs, and acknowledging systemic disparities, they might very well be making it more equitable.

Most associates in the ATL/MLA survey say that their working relationships with peers are collaborative and enjoyable, and the quality of legal work is high, with over 61% of survey respondents reporting that their access to meaningful work is either strong or very strong. 

With more associates working via Zoom, that might change, but we can expect that Gen Z and millennials will bring their tech savvy to relationship-building through the virtual office. Will that change the overall law firm culture? Time will tell.

The Paragon Way

At Paragon, our mission is to provide legal professionals with meaningful work outside the traditional path, while delivering the highest quality talent and service to our clients. 

We also aim to embody many of the values emphasized in these surveys, including fostering healthy work-life balance and remaining committed to diversity and inclusion. More than 60% of the lawyers we’ve placed are women, and more than 40% are racial minorities.

While we are proud of our diversity, we also know there’s much more work to do.

By expanding the staffing choice beyond hiring a law firm or keeping things in-house, law departments are not only empowered to make better business decisions, they also have new avenues for making real change.