If firms fail to address ingrained cultural problems in the profession, they may face a talent deficit as young lawyers go elsewhere.
Salaries are something of a taboo subject of conversation in the UK. Despite this, most lawyers would generally agree that the good salaries on offer are one of the key attractions of the job.
Starting salaries for twentysomethings entering the profession are comfortably high compared to what can be expected in other professions.
As a trainee at a large international firm, I earned upwards of £40,000 per year, with the figure rising to £60,000 on qualification. And for my friends at US firms, the rewards were even greater – NQs at such firms can earn £80,000 or more. However, the high salaries in the legal profession do not always translate into high levels of job satisfaction.
In fact, a number of lawyers are choosing to leave the profession to take less-well-paid roles in other industries. Of those who do choose to remain in law, many wish to transfer to smaller city or regional firms, and are willing to take a cut in salary in order to do so.
Given that one of the main aims of law firms is to retain talented lawyers, it is worth asking what, apart from money, motivates such individuals. It does not pay to assume that competitive salaries and/or bonuses are enough to keep fee-earners happy.
Speaking from personal experience, for many lawyers the single most important motivating factor is the quality of work. If the work is boring and repetitive, or conversely too difficult, fee-earners are often left feeling unmotivated, untalented and unfulfilled.
One problem at many larger law firms is the lack of thought and transparency with regard to work allocation. All too often, partners will allocate work to the same individuals, without giving any thought to PQE, talent development or personal preference.
Law firms need to spend more time clearly and transparently identifying the types of work that are appropriate for fee-earners at different stages of PQE.
There also needs to be a system documenting the types of work that each individual has encountered, with a view to matching work to the correct fee-earners.
In addition, many lawyers originally went into law in order to make a positive difference. Such individuals generally understand the need for firms to make a profit, and accept the need to act for lucrative clients. However, to achieve a balance and boost morale, firms should ensure that there are also sufficient good-quality pro bono opportunities available.
In addition, quality feedback is important. Yet partners are often time-poor and giving feedback (particularly positive feedback) may come in low on their list of priorities.
I have spoken to junior lawyers who have complained that many partners view them as commodities, and easily replaceable. The view amongst such partners appears to be that junior lawyers should be grateful for their jobs given both the salary and the growing number of qualified lawyers in the market.
Given the time and resources taken up by recruitment and training of junior lawyers, this approach is clearly short-sighted. Taking the time to give feedback (whether positive or negative) is a cheap and effective method of ensuring that fee-earners feel appropriate attention is being devoted to development, and makes a massive difference in terms of morale.
Many partners would say that one way for junior lawyers to learn is by making mistakes in their early years of development. However, this does not sit well with the fact that in many firms there is something of a ‘blame culture’ and, when things go wrong, more often than not junior lawyers find themselves on the receiving end of most of the criticism.
There needs to be collective responsibility for work (including any mistakes), and partners and more senior fee-earners should take ultimate responsibility (both externally and internally). This simple change in attitude would have a hugely positive impact on morale and personal development.
Something needs to be said about the long hours worked by lawyers, often cited as a primary reason why fee-earners become disillusioned and leave the larger firms.
It is true that lawyers consistently asked to work long hours during the week and/or at weekends may burn out and be forced to find less demanding roles. However, lawyers work hard to qualify into the profession, and are usually eager to employ and develop their skillset. Therefore, in my view the impact of long hours on morale is overstated.
In any case, one way of lessening the impact of long working hours on staff morale would be to utilise alternative working structures better. For example, if required to work late, many fee-earners would prefer to work remotely and firms should be set up so that this is both possible and accepted as an appropriate way of working.
Law is traditionally a well-paid profession, and one way of making lawyers feel appreciated is through awarding competitive salaries and bonuses. However, firms need to recognise a number of other factors are just as, if not more important than, salary. If they fail to do so, they may face a talent deficit as staff look for job satisfaction elsewhere.
Eleanor Hassani is a solicitor specialising in litigation at a London law firm