When I was two years’ PQE, my supervisor asked what I wanted from my career. I had done well to that point, with good outcomes on my cases and strong billing, but I had been undeniably lacklustre in the months preceding that conversation.
I told him that I was growing bored, and that I was honestly thinking of giving up law and starting my own business. When pressed for what I would start a business doing, I said (and to this day I do not know why), ‘making paté’.
The reality is that, obviously, I had no idea what I wanted. And, although as a manager he was right to see that I was restless, I believe his actions following that meeting were wrong. Deciding I could not be relied upon for management in future (as I might leave to build my paté empire), he recruited a more senior solicitor to join the team. Inevitably this resulted in my work becoming more controlled, more monotonous, with less access to clients and a far narrower route to progression. Eventually I left the firm.
'It is easy to see why this period of 2-3+ years’ PQE is sometimes a tipping point for wavering junior lawyers'
I look at my earlier self and question what I would have done differently in my supervisor’s shoes – if I did not want to lose that junior fee-earner. What screams out is not that I actually wanted to leave and start my own business, but that I wanted more of a role in the firm’s business-making decisions. I was (without realising it at the time) asking for assurance that I would one day be a part of the management.
Solicitors at 2-3+ years’ PQE are at a point where they are comfortable in their field, know how to handle clients and manage others, appreciate marketing and social media, and are starting to understand the firm’s finances. It is natural for them to want more of a hand in the business itself – even if only assurance from existing managers that, although it won’t be tomorrow, there is a plan for them in the future.
I am currently five years’ PQE, so it is a bit rich for me to be telling experienced managers of firms how to retain and motivate junior staff. But every junior lawyer I know has moved firms before they were four years’ PQE, unless they work in a specialist area or in-house – so it might need highlighting.
Those who work in specialist areas know that their options to move will be limited, but they also find their motivation mostly in their work – this is why they specialise. Those who work in-house are more intimately involved in the business than contemporaries working within a firm. Both have a direction to go in.
But solicitors who work in general practice, like me, are arguably now more conscious than any previous generation of lawyers that, if they do not have a direction, they will end up going nowhere (or somewhere they did not want to go). That does not mean we all want to be partners one day; many of my contemporaries just want to know that they are moving towards a position where they will be able to work on the most interesting cases and the most complex deals – with the most lucrative fees. Whether that includes being made partner might be important to the existing management, but it might make no difference to the lawyer.
The first step is to recognise the challenges facing junior lawyers at this early point in their careers. Just like their supervisors did at that stage, they are working long hours and are probably slightly resentful. They are paid a decent salary and they enjoy their work, but they are eating more takeaways, spending less time resting, and are probably drinking more. The difference today is that the job market is broader, with the impact of social media opportunities and the rise of recruiters, and an increasing number of solicitors working in-house with a more enjoyable corporate work-life balance and benefits. It is easy to see why this point of the career is sometimes a tipping point for wavering junior lawyers.
The second step, then, is to understand their motivation. Just as there is a difference between looking and seeing, a manager listens and a leader hears. Words are not a neutral medium and rarely reflect true meaning. It is the job of the more experienced supervisor to recognise that what someone is saying is not necessarily what is being said.
Finally, rally the juniors by giving them direction. If they want to be involved in management, give them a clear path for getting there, even a lengthy and arduous one if you like. If it is to focus on interesting work, let them buddy with a senior solicitor who does the type of work they think they may enjoy. Allow them to time-record their training and development in these respects, so they do not feel that this is of secondary importance – this is work, and the fees it will generate come later.
We should all plant trees in the shade of which we know we shall never sit; that is the enduring contract between the generations. The firm is no different.
Jonathan Hodge is a commercial disputes solicitor at Aquabridge Law in Chelmsford and an executive committee member of the Junior Lawyers Division