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Why I Don’t Want A Partnership: The Millennial Change in Law Firm Career Aspirations

Rachel Howard*

Making partner – especially making partner in a Big Law outfit – is the holy grail for many who enter the hallowed halls of such places.

Or is it?

An increasing number of lawyers appear to be rejecting the ambitious route towards wealth, prestige and power, in favor of other things – like a happy life and something called work/life balance.

We’re reminded of this with a piece in LegalCheek by an unnamed lawyer who rejects the mere mention of partnership in a big London law firm.  It’s a millennial trend, he/she says –

More and more millennials value work-life balance and achieving career satisfaction through doing something that matters above high pay and promotion. They want to feel like they matter, not that they’re selling their soul. What’s more, with an expansion in education in recent decades increasing the talent pool of bright and gifted lawyers and with clients getting more sophisticated and more demanding, a trainee qualifying in 2017 wanting to make partner really does have the odds stacked against them.

Gruelling hours, responsibility and accountability take their toll, he/she says.

. . why would I give my life and soul to a law firm when I could get paid far more at a bank or a hedge fund for the same stomach-churning stress?

The alternatives to partnership are outlined, such as the ‘of counsel’ or consultancy roles is one alternative, which can pay well, provide a degree of prestige and cache but avoid the partnership trap.

Precedent noted some cases in point in a recent article. “Rather than forcing out every lawyer not cut out for partnership, these firms now allow certain top-calibre lawyers, whose work remains profitable for the firm, to stay at the firm in associate or counsel roles.”

The partnership opportunities are also becoming more competitive, Precedent reports.

“The partnership window is narrowing as it gets more competitive,” confirms Robin MacAulay, a director of professional resources at McCarthys. And her counterpart at Torys, Deborah Dalfen, says the number of opportunities is shrinking at her firm, too. “In just the last five years, the world order has changed.”

Similarly, downgrading to a smaller firm is another often appealing alternative and one that is taken up by an increasing number of lawyers.

So too is the trend towards in-house counsel, which can provide far better and more attractive working hours, good money, often with the usual corporate sweeteners (expenses, travel, insurance etc).

Alternative Business Models

Similarly, the growth in alternative law firms, including virtual law firms, provides lawyers with the opportunity to work where they place lifestyle and flexibility above money and power.

The virtual law firm may still be bound by all the same rules as any other law firm (as indeed they are) but they have flexibility in terms of how they deliver their services.

Similarly the so-called ‘new law’ firms have reorganized how legal services are delivered.  Epoq, the pioneer in legal document automation, is one example, but one of the major firms in this space is ‘Axiom’ and other firms like LegalForce.

The point about such virtual firms and new law firms is that they are not only exploiting technology to delivery their legal services differently, but they are also operating in a way that permits lawyers seeking to remove themselves from conventional old-line firm pressure with a whole new approach to lawyering and living.

Alternative Career Tracks

Law firms have become much more diverse in developing career roles for lawyers in non-traditional roles, which provide an outlet for associates who will not be (or are not interested in) partnership positions.

Such lawyers can become specialist consultants, effectively, or work in areas like knowledge management, e-discovery and the like.

The ability for firms to build out ‘sideways’ creates new legal job openings for those lawyers who simply don’t want the pressures of seeking, let alone gaining partnership roles.

Many such lawyers also have an ability to develop strong relationships with institutional and other clients, which firms desperately wish to encourage and which can in turn lead to a significant sinecure within the practice, but without partnership.

Regardless of the career alternatives and what law firms are doing – as well as how law firms are changing – the millennial move towards lifestyle over lawyering is a trend that is continuing.  And will do so in growing strength.

Author – 

Rachel Howard is a legal recruiter and consultant who has worked in the legal industry for almost 20 years.

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