Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Quality of life – law can give it…and take it away

Legal Business‘ team and contacts have had to put up with me banging on about my intention to do an issue focused on quality of life for quite some time. It is a difficult topic to write about without descending into generality or banality but this remains a people business to the bone.

Law firms obsess about getting bright kids through the door, how to engage and develop (and sometimes exit them) – how to retain and corral partners (and attract new ones) – how to keep the favour of clients (and attract the gaze of new ones). Lawyers can seem curiously stiff to those previously unacquainted with the profession but it does not take long to realise that this is an intensely social industry shaped in the village of modern London.

Legal careers often become so fundamental to self-image and worth, even if they can take a terrible toll on personal and family lives as easily as fulfilling and enriching others. So why not talk about quality of life and what it means to the modern lawyer? After all, any institution that can crack this at the watercooler level has a big edge over its peers and will just be, well, nicer to work at.

Here are a couple of initial observations from our 23-page report. Beware of generalisations about changing aspirations of junior lawyers. As we noted in a piece on Millennial lawyers last year, attitudes are not shaped in a vacuum. The values and priorities of younger lawyers often reflect wider shifts in society. And employers stopped offering careers for life just as much as employees stopped expecting them.

There are still very substantial numbers of talented people flocking to the law and prepared to make long-term commitments to firms. Give people something to be loyal towards and you may be surprised with the results. For all the talk of disruption, job mobility is currently stable or declining in many Western economies.

Another observation is that flexible working has pros and cons, it is often valid but not a panacea and needs to be harnessed effectively. There is a reason that the tech giants that are so slavishly copied in corporate theory and business schools led the charge into agile working and then back out of it. A related observation is that the legal profession is surely going to have to come to a more credible accommodation with the swelling ranks of female lawyers entering but not staying in private practice. So far the worthy talk has led to little but this cannot be sustainable forever.

It is popular to criticise the law firm model yet it is rarely noted that law firms are highly prone to intergenerational conflicts, handing older partners a veto on strategy at the expense of associates, staff and older partners. That leads to some perverse decision-making and makes some of these issues harder to tackle.

Nevertheless, over the past five years there have clearly been some genuine efforts in the profession to grasp the quality of life challenge, however fumbling and jargon-laden they may have been. Hopefully, they will be enough for us to return to the theme of what makes turning up to work worthwhile in the near future.

For more coverage, please go to The quality of life report