Who wants a work / life balance?

Posted 18 Sep 2015 by Toby Williamson

Up until recently our whole legal system from a career perspective was geared up to a Darwinian race to the top. Lawyers would work harder than their colleagues in order to impress the Partners in the hope they would rise through the ranks of Associate and in time be invited into the inner sanctum of Partnership.

Depending on the firm this could take a couple of years or (more likely) more than a decade. Having made Partner the quest was then on to attain the Holy Grail of a legal career – Equity Partnership.  Traditionally the equity shares in the business have been held by the few – perhaps only 10% of partners in a law firm holding an equity stake. Attaining equity, certainly at larger firms, meant great financial rewards and prestige, but usually at huge personal sacrifice – long hours, stress and financial risk.

Generation ‘Y’ is changing this outlook. They are more interested in a work / life balance, flexible working and “me time”. Increasingly we are being approached by lawyers prepared to take enormous pay cuts (over 50%) just to re-balance their life. They are not interested in titles, avoid man-management, hate working long inflexible hours and don’t want to invest their money in a business. Firms are going to need to adapt their business model to accommodate these wants otherwise they risk losing excellent people from their business.

There are now lots of options out there throughout the UK for people with followings who want to be master of their own destiny on a fee share basis along the lines of keeping 70% of what you bill and being able to refer work to other lawyers in what has become almost a barristers’ chambers style set up. What the market is short of is firms who offer people a well-paid career on a more 9-5 Monday to Friday basis, accepting the fact that they have no ambition to progress up the corporate ladder.

The answer to this issue might be the new ABS style practices. If over time most, or all of the equity in firms is unattainable, as it is held in floated shares or by private equity firms, then the incentive to run harder and faster on the eternal legal career treadmill to equity partnership will have gone. Team Leader / quasi-Director style roles will still be pressurised roles with good financial rewards, but won’t expect (or demand) that individuals live to work rather than work to live.

The downside of ABS’s however are many – non-lawyers involving themselves in legal business with sometimes lower moral and professional standards than lawyers is dangerous and can lead to friction – or worse contact with the SRA. There is also a line of thinking that without highly driven talented individuals pushing themselves to their professional limits, law firms might slide into mediocrity rather than striving for excellence.

Whatever happens in the future one common thread we are seeing from younger professionals is the desire for greater work place flexibility and a departure from the macho long hours culture. The knock on effect of that culture will be the need to recruit more lawyers in the future to service the work. This might just help the army of LPC graduates get the career in law they have been coveting. 

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