The “big quit” hasn’t been all that impressive for the legal profession if you take a massive job exodus as a sign that workers are dissatisfied with their careers. In fact, according to lawyers who responded to Bloomberg Law’s State of Practice Survey, more than half of their departing colleagues joined larger law firms, rather than leaving the firm altogether. ship and completely left the profession.
While the legal world has seen an increase in the number of lawyers leaving their current jobs since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the survey revealed that many lawyers in the firm have changed jobs within the profession rather than to leave it altogether. The numbers could indicate that lawyers aren’t necessarily unhappy with their choice of profession, but rather are looking for a change of scenery.
The survey asked attorneys how many of their colleagues — among attorneys they knew personally and among attorneys in their specific practice groups — have dropped anchor and left their organization since March 2020.
Law firm lawyers responded that, on average, 5.7 lawyers they knew personally had left and 4.1 lawyers from their specific practice group had left. Before the pandemic, lawyers left or changed jobs, of course. I stopped practicing law in June 2022, and those numbers seem like a leap from the one or two colleagues I saw leave every year before the pandemic.
The survey results also show that most lawyers have left to join larger law firms and continue to work in the same practice areas. Consistent with the idea that lawyers did not leave the profession entirely but rather moved on, 34% of respondents also indicated that lawyers they knew had moved on to smaller law firms in the same area of law. practice or to other law firms in different practice areas.
Although more than 50% of lawyers said their colleagues had moved to other law firms, the second most popular departure destination for lawyers was internal: 44% of respondents said they knew colleagues who left to take up such positions. The appeal of this option is understandable: internal roles can offer the comfort of working in a similar legal field with similar compensation, while offering change and potential improvement to work-life balance.
Other popular routes for lawyers who left law firm practice altogether were government work or non-practice positions.
Why change ships?
The reasons behind law firm changes are probably many and varied. Like the survey respondents, I have worked in a firm throughout the pandemic, and have also seen many colleagues leave for new, albeit similar, jobs in law firms since March 2020 .
These lateral movements, in part, can be motivated by economic reasons. Side bonuses and higher salaries can be tempting, especially in uncertain times like those brought on by Covid-19.
Lawyers, however, can also be motivated by values that go beyond monetary benefits. The pandemic has given lawyers the opportunity to be selective as the demand for legal services (and particularly law firm associates) has increased. Lawyers can take advantage of this market to find companies that promise lower billable hour requirements, remote work options, alternate hours, improved diversity and inclusionand the possibility of well-being and self-care.
But if that’s the case, then why aren’t these same concerns driving greater career changes among lawyers? It may just be that change, however good, can be difficult. I left law firm life and the active practice of law completely in June 2022. I said goodbye to the colleagues I had worked with for over a decade and stopped doing the work I had done even longer than that.
This change has proven particularly difficult, given that the pandemic world generally seems unpredictable. Faced with rocking the boat professionally, it was tempting to stay put or make a more familiar change. But in the end, the ability to use my legal training for a non-adversarial role – without billable hours – was enough to encourage me to leave the law firm practice.
Whatever the reasons for lateral moves or why some lawyers are leaving law firms altogether, law firms need to take note of these departures. Partner satisfaction should be a top priority (and satisfaction cannot be measured by compensation alone), and law firms should collect data from their current (and former) employees to implement programs designed to retain their current lawyers.
It remains to be seen whether those lawyers who have simply switched boats and moved from one firm to another will be happy in the long run. The expectations they had when changing employers may not be met, and if so, it will be interesting to see where they find themselves in the years to come: back in their previous law firms , in non-traditional legal work, or in charting their own journey in new waters.
Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, reports and data analysis,Legal operations,and In Focus: Lawyer Development pages.
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