Do junior lawyers want the moon on a stick?
There’s a major storm brewing over pay and working conditions, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the legal sector for maybe 20 years.
Despite earning sums that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago and (officially) enjoying the kind of flexible working conditions that previous generations could only dream of, there is growing concern amongst the latest intake of junior lawyers over issues such as pay, work-life balance and burnout. Meanwhile, the upper echelons of the commercial legal industry are becoming increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as a sense of entitlement amongst their less senior colleagues.
Something has to give.
In a recent article for Law.com International, journalist Hannah Walker quotes a London partner at a large law firm, who says that the unique market conditions of the past two years have instilled associates with “a sense of entitlement which is focused entirely on themselves rather than the effect that they have on others in the team.”
According to many recruiters, this perceived sense of entitlement has led to some junior lawyers making what would have been regarded as unreasonable demands in previous years. One London-based recruiter states: “Associates in small national firms in the regions are saying they’ll only move to London for £100,000, a sign-on bonus, and they want to work from home. It’s not feasible.” He adds: “If you’re 25 and thinking you can ask this and more from firms now, get stuffed. It’s poor form.”
This is a commonly-held view amongst the senior ranks at law firms, as a survey of 50 partners conducted by Law.com International reveals: 76% of respondents believe junior associates are more entitled than they were three years ago, with 58% of respondents claiming to notice a “negative change” in the attitude of associates they work with over the same time period. Partners said this change was revealed by the frequency with which associates raise concerns over issues such as pay, workload, burnout and required office attendance.
A case of the old guard vs the Young Turks?
Could this all be down to a generational divide? Law.com International’s survey respondents who had qualified more than 10 years ago were asked how the attitudes of today’s generation of junior associates differed to theirs. Three quarters said that the new generation complain more, with 62% of respondents stating that the current crop of juniors weren’t prepared to work as many hours, and 42% saying they don’t work as hard.
Juniors themselves feel anything but entitled, instead framing the issue as one of prioritising wellbeing, especially after the pandemic and the huge negative impact it has had on mental health. As one London-based junior associate puts it, “We don’t see our futures as our careers, we see our futures as human beings—life is too short after being stuck indoors for two years.”
The views amongst the new cohort of junior associates are not entirely alienating to their seniors, however, with some amongst the upper ranks standing squarely behind the young guns and their attitude to the industry. One General Counsel in London dismissed the very notion of partnerships, calling them “old fashioned and hierarchical” and adding: “Welcome to the new generation, get with it. I support [associates’] insubordination all the way.” The Law.com International article also quotes a London partner who says that his years as an associate at a Magic Circle firm “were quite hellish”, and that he wishes he had had the same confidence to refuse to work under such gruelling conditions.
And while the majority of the respondents in the Law.com International survey were obviously disgruntled at associates’ complaints regarding pay, workload and office requirements, 44% of them also felt their firms should demonstrate greater flexibility on these issues. Some of them also questioned whether this sense of ‘entitlement’ is really anything new, with one partner at Eversheds Sutherland recalling being faced with the same chatter about juniors not working hard enough when he qualified more than 15 years ago.
The times, they are a-changin’… probably
Ultimately, whether truly entitled or not, associates may soon find that their scope to behave in this way is drastically reduced in the face of a looming recession and mutterings within the industry of a slow-down in associate recruitment. Will they then continue to resist the pressure to go along to get along, or give in and conform to the demands of their seniors, or will they instead pursue other career avenues?
It’s back to work for criminal barristers…
Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have voted to accept a 15% government pay rise on legal aid fees, ending months of strike action that have brought the criminal justice system to its knees in England and Wales.
The offer by the justice secretary, Brandon Lewis, included a 15% increase in legal aid fees to “the vast majority of cases currently in the crown court”, £3m of funding for case preparation and £4m for prerecorded cross-examinations of vulnerable victims and witnesses. This was in contrast to the MoJ’s earlier offer, where the 15% increase would only apply to new cases from the end of September, failing to cover the huge backlog in the crown courts of around 60,000 cases.
The CBA had been demanding an immediate 25% increase in legal aid fees, applicable to all cases, but agreed to let its members vote on the government’s improved offer. On Monday, the CBA announced that 57% of the 2,605 members who voted were in favour of accepting the offer. As a result, industrial action that began in April and which gradually escalated into an indefinite strike on 5 September has now come to an end.
… but for how long?
The cessation of the CBA’s months of industrial action feels very much like a temporary truce rather than a permanent farewell to arms. Following the announcement on Monday that criminal barristers had voted to accept the government’s offer of a 15% rise in legal aid fees, Kirsty Brimelow KC, chair of the CBA, stated that: “The criminal justice system remains chronically underfunded. The onus is on government to properly fund it. Barristers’ acceptance of this deal is a first step in working with government for long-term reform. If the deal falls short in implementation, the CBA will ballot its members again on taking action.”
Meanwhile, the outcome of the vote has been met with derision and despair by many of the CBA’s own members, some of whom took to Twitter to denounce the decision. “Monday 10th October. The Day the Bar died”, wrote international barrister Khadim Al’Hassan, while Kate Riekstina, who was called to the bar in 2016, tweeted: “I feel so broken. And let down. And hurt.”
In a tearful interview given to the Guardian, Riekstina further voiced her despair: “I honestly think we signed the death warrant for the criminal bar. The only thing that I really genuinely wanted was for people from any background, any race, sex, religious beliefs, anyone who was capable and good to be able to come into this profession and at least it be survivable and I feel like we’ve lost that now.”
Riekstina also told the Guardian that in a recent Zoom meeting, 84% of around 200 junior barristers said they would be voting “no”. While she understood that some senior barristers wanted to return to work because they had mortgages to pay, she said that home ownership was a distant dream for juniors: “At the moment, I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent next month.” Riekstina is now considering leaving the legal profession and becoming a social worker, as “at least you get sick pay and annual leave”.
Her concerns are understandable when one considers that criminal barristers have seen real earnings fall by 28% since 2006, while inflation is running at about 10%. A large number of junior barristers in particular will therefore probably regard Brandon Lewis’ deal as too little, too late. This is echoed by lawyer, writer, broadcaster and legal commentator Chris Daw KC, who tweeted that “Many will still be in an unsustainable financial position, despite the increase in fees.”
So it seems more than likely that this deal will prove a pyrrhic victory for the government and that the drain of young talent from the profession will continue virtually unabated.
Make ESG your ABC
A new report by global law firm Dechert and global advisory firm StoneTurn, Are you ready for ESG as a critical business imperative?, highlights how important it is for organisations to adopt and embed ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors into their business strategy.
Based on three events held by Dechert and StoneTurn and a pulse survey* of executives in attendance, the report discusses the impact of ESG across business and the evolving regulatory and legal environment. It highlights that engaging with ESG is a future-proofing investment that can create value, drive cost reductions and increase productivity and growth, with the potential to be a powerful business force for good. The report also emphasises that, with tighter regulation coming into play and stakeholder and activist groups demanding increased ESG accountability, companies must demonstrate real action now on issues including sustainability and supply chain due diligence.
The pulse survey indicates that many firms have a lot of ground to make up if they want to meet these increased demands. It found that fewer than one in three respondents say their organisation has carried out a risk assessment to identify ESG risks in their supply chain in the past two years, while 60% failed to integrate ESG due diligence into wider due diligence activities and compliance measures.
The report highlights how a failure to embrace ESG could have serious ramifications, including litigation, regulatory action, and the restriction of access to capital as lenders start to charge higher premiums and interest rates to organisations with a poor ESG risk rating. Markets are also reacting, with stocks that have positive ESG ratings driving share price and dividend growth.
Also contained in the report is some practical advice on maximising the success of ESG business commitments. For a more detailed summary of the report and its recommended actions, please see here.
The challenge for Dechert, however, remains how to balance calling for clients to take ESG more seriously when it failed to have its own house in order over the £20m+ Neil Gerard / ENRC scandal. My fear is that we’re going to see more and more examples of firms who propound ESG whilst falling short on their own governance responsibilities.
“For ’tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar.” Hamlet
The shrinking law-firm offices
The latest HSBC Investment and Growth Strategies in Law Firms report, published on Tuesday, shows that the proportion of law-firm leaders planning to reduce their office space has risen by nearly half over the past year.
Conducted between May and July before the latest economic turbulence, the report is based on an online survey that attracted 76 responses from firms ranging in turnover from £18m to £1bn+.
Half of respondents stated their firms are planning to shrink their office space within three years – an increase from 35% saying that this was part of the strategy in 2021. Two-thirds said they continue to repurpose their remaining office spaces for more collaborative/hybrid working. 29% of respondents stated they have already achieved the reduction they need – an average cut of 13% in space.
These figures are especially interesting in light of news stories on the tension between law-firm leaders and junior lawyers over increased in-office requirements – just see our recent newsletter for a flavour of this. So will law firms now double down on trying to get their people back into the (considerably smaller) office, or do the findings of the HSBC report sound the death-knell for the traditional law-firm office?
… what to do if you do have space in the meantime?
Fifth Day founder and all-round legal industry legend Fred Banning has called for firms to allow charities to use their free space.
Fred notes in a recent LinkedIn post that Reach Volunteering is in urgent need of somewhere to house its 10-strong team in central(ish) London.
Marketing team too cool for Cooley
The news of the near-wholesale departure of law firm Cooley’s marketing department seems like the perfect opportunity to butcher an Oscar Wilde quote: to lose one marketing expert may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose almost an entire marketing team looks like carelessness. The mass exodus includes six marketing and communications professionals, all of whom have made a joint lateral move to Fried Frank, seemingly following in the footsteps of Cooley’s former chief marketing officer, who did the same thing in the last year.
This ‘relocation’ of virtually an entire marketing department from one firm to another is unprecedented, and may spell trouble for other law firms as the shortage of high-calibre candidates in the legal sector continues and rivals tempt away talent with ever-bigger incentives. As one law firm marketing expert said, law firms in general could start seeing more business professional group moves like this one, describing the team departure as a “harbinger of things to come” in the industry.
Dates for your diary
- 18 October – The Civil Litigation Autumn conference – This annual event brought to you by the Law Society’s Civil Litigation Section brings together experts from the judiciary as well as from across the litigation sector to provide you with the latest updates, insights and practical tips and guidance on key areas affecting the sector or your day-to-day practice. The event will be held online.
- 19 October – The Law Society seminar: How can your firm benefit from an Employee Ownership Trust model? – This webinar session brings together leading experts to discuss Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs) as an innovative business model that is becoming increasingly important across the sector to help staff retention and long-term investment.
- 20 October – The Higher Education Conference will be held at the QEII Centre in Central London. The conference will feature three core themes designed to address the overarching challenges faced across the higher education sector.
- 22 October – The Oxford University Law Fair will take place in-person for the first time in two years and offers students and employers a valuable chance to network. The event will be held at the University of Oxford’s Examination Schools.