A recent survey of Australian legal professionals suggests that lawyers are increasingly finding their legal careers less fulfilling than they expected.
The 2019 Legal Firm of Choice Survey – an annual report conducted by Momentum Intelligence, in partnership with Lawyers Weekly – found that there had been a sharp decline in how satisfied lawyers were with their employers. The score out of 5 has dropped from 4.45 in 2017 to 3.81 in 2019. Lawyers with one to three years' experience were the least satisfied out of all groups, while those with more than 20 years' experience were most satisfied.
Three factors which appeared to be contributing to this drop in satisfaction included quality of leadership, recognition for individual performance and support for mental and physical wellbeing.
The survey also found that 3.2 per cent of lawyers with one to three years of experience intended to leave their current employers, compared to 38.9 per cent of those with less than a year under their belts. Those who were dissatisfied were 18 times more likely to leave their employer for a new one.
These findings have implications for both employers and employees.
Employers need to recognise that they may lose a large proportion of junior lawyers after spending time and money training them, if they don't ensure that their needs are met. What is more while they are at work, they are probably not engaged and this means that they are not productive or committed to the employer's goals.
But also junior lawyers are finding that their employment is not meeting their expectations in very important areas, and this is forcing them to look elsewhere for fulfillment and purpose in their careers. Let's look at the three causes of dissatisfaction identified above
Quality of leadership
Reports of legal workplace culture indicate problems with legal leadership. A 2015 study found that lawyers were more likely than other “white collar” professionals to be exposed to poor interpersonal behaviour and the perpetrators were typically those holding high levels of power over their victims. Other signs are revelations that junior lawyers at Ashurst have been underpaid. The lack of diversity at the upper levels of the legal profession contradicts its pronouncements about fairness and does not reflect those entering the profession today.
To my mind, this demonstrates the importance of feedback. Let's be honest, none of us are very good at giving or receiving feedback, but it is vital for an engaged and productive workforce. Engaging employees so that they are committed to the organisation has been said to involve ensuring they experience positivity, challenge and meaning. Therefore it is not the case that employees just want praise, they are looking to be challenged and fulfilled as well. This will make the employee more committed and productive, and reward the employer as well as the employee.
Support for wellbeing
It is beyond debate now that lawyers are over-represented among the professions in their levels of depression and anxiety. There are many potential causes of this, including incivility at work, vicarious trauma, chronic stress, methods of legal training, negative bias, and long working hours. As part of their work health and safety duty, employers must recognise this as a workplace risk to health and safety, and take steps to manage that risk. It is not optional - it is a legal duty.
By analysing these factors it becomes clear that the lack of satisfaction among junior lawyers is not a case of unrealistic "millennial" expectations. All three factors are essential for legal success and they deserve attention from employers and employees alike.
If you are a dissatisfied employee, you may think your only option is to change jobs. But before you do, think about what is making you dissatisfied and weigh it up against what you find rewarding about the work. Consider if there is a safe way to determine whether the employer can offer you more of what would make you more satisfied, and whether that would be enough.
If you are an employer, check the levels of satisfaction among your employees and what makes them satisfied or dissatisfied. You may discover some areas that will reward attention.