Do young lawyers want to follow in the footsteps of the seniors?

New waves of discussion on an old topic has been pounding on my screens for a few weeks, since the incumbent Law Society President brought up the issue of young lawyers leaving the profession in droves at the start of the year. Although I’m no longer classified as a young lawyer, my peers and I still retain memories of our newly minted selves and initial struggles to find our place and pace. Attrition has been a consistent background fact in this profession and it will take radical changes to solve that.

A lot has been written about the working conditions that young lawyers face. Are these conditions actually inherent to the industry? I count myself amongst the lucky ones whose boss did not operate as if we were in a constant state of emergency. Reading about the long hours, unempathetic responses and hopes of a better life made me wonder if I would still be here pontificating on legal topics if I hadn’t started in a smaller firm. The common refrain that people quit managers, rather than practice, is a good starting point for reflection.

To tell young lawyers to try practising in other firms is an imperfect solution. People who left because they couldn’t “take the heat” (as an example of an unempathetic response) are understandably reluctant to risk getting burnt again. Being a smaller or boutique firm in a particular niche makes no difference if the associates look at their new bosses and still think, “I don’t want to become him / her”.

For those who remain, who are in a position to hire and instruct (and one might hope, guide and mentor), I think we ought to look at ourselves and ask, what can people see of me and my life? Is this a state of being that a less experienced peer could desire for themselves, and would ask me how to accomplish it? Of course, times have changed and the experience of many senior lawyers have become historical curiosity (nobody my age has told me a story of having a judge throw a pencil at them). If one recognises that those conditions were not ideal, then one implicitly recognises that those conditions should not persist.

If senior lawyers can understand that young lawyers look up at them but not look up to them or look forward to being them – working through the night, missing on family time and not being able to say no to clients – then they know where they can start changing. Maybe this needs to be said expressly in order to catch the attention of those who are still focused on what is on their desk. Maybe young lawyers need to band together (maybe even unionise? Is that still a dirty word?) and have a conversation with those who are receptive.

In the meantime, young lawyers will have to continue voting with their feet, because only by doing it in sufficient numbers will it force the profession to examine ourselves and rethink our culture and mentality, even if only momentarily.