The “Great Resignation” wasn’t so impressive for the legal profession if you take a mass job exodus as a sign that workers are dissatisfied with their careers. In fact, according to the lawyers who responded to Bloomberg Law’s State of Practice Survey, over half of their departing colleagues moved to larger law firms, rather than having completely jumped ship and left the profession altogether.
While the legal world saw an uptick in the number of attorneys quitting their current jobs since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the survey revealed that many firm lawyers made job changes within the profession rather than leaving it altogether. The numbers could indicate that lawyers aren’t necessarily unhappy with their choice of profession but may instead be seeking a change of scene.
The survey asked attorneys how many of their colleagues—among the attorneys they knew personally and among the attorneys in their specific practice groups—pulled anchor and left their organizations since March 2020.
Law firm attorneys responded that, on average, 5.7 attorneys whom they personally knew had departed, and that 4.1 attorneys from their specific practice group had departed. Prior to the pandemic, lawyers left or changed jobs, of course. I stopped practicing law in June 2022, and these numbers feel like a leap from the one or two colleagues I saw leave every year pre-pandemic.
The survey results also show that most lawyers left to join bigger law firms and continue to work in the same practice areas. Consistent with the idea that attorneys didn’t leave the profession entirely but rather moved around, 34% of respondents also reported that attorneys they knew switched to smaller law firms in the same practice area or to other law firms in different practice areas.
Even though over 50% of attorneys reported that their colleagues moved to other law firms, the second most popular departure destination for attorneys was in-house—44% of respondents reported that they knew colleagues who left to take such positions. The appeal of this option is understandable: In-house roles can provide the comfort of working in a similar area of law with similar compensation, while still offering a change and potential improvement to work-life balance.
Other popular routes for lawyers who left law firm practice entirely were government work or non-practicing positions.
Why Switch Ships?
The reasons behind the law firm switches are likely many and varied. Like the survey respondents, I was working at a firm throughout the pandemic, and I also saw many colleagues leave for new, albeit similar, law firm jobs since March 2020.
These lateral moves—in part—may be economically driven. Lateral bonuses and higher salaries can be tempting, particularly in uncertain times like those instigated by Covid-19.
Attorneys, however, may also be motivated by values that extend beyond monetary benefits. The pandemic has given lawyers the opportunity to be selective as demand for legal services (and specifically law firm associates) increased. Attorneys may be taking advantage of this market to find firms that promise lower billable hour requirements, remote working options, alternative schedules, improved diversity and inclusion, and the chance for wellness and self-care.
But if that’s the case, then why are these same concerns not driving bigger career changes among attorneys? It may simply be that change—even good change—can be hard. I left law firm life and the active practice of law entirely in June 2022. I said goodbye to colleagues with whom I had worked for over a decade and quit doing work I had done for even longer than that.
This change felt particularly challenging, given that the pandemic world generally seems unpredictable. Faced with rocking the boat professionally, it was tempting to stay put or make a more familiar change. But in the end, the opportunity to use my legal background for a non-adversarial role—without billable hours—was enough to encourage me to leave law firm practice.
No matter what the reasons are behind the lateral moves or for why some attorneys are leaving law firms altogether, law firms should take note of these departures. Associate satisfaction should be a top priority (and satisfaction can’t be measured by compensation alone), and law firms need to be gathering data from their current (and former) employees to implement programs designed to retain their current attorneys.
It remains to be seen whether those lawyers who merely changed boats and went from one law firm to another will be happy long-term. The expectations they had for switching employers may not be met, and if that’s the case, it will be interesting to see where they end up in the coming years: back at their prior law firms, at a non-traditional legal job, or charting their own course in new waters.
Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, and In Focus: Lawyer Development pages.
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