When a lawyer friend from another firm e-mailed me about it, though, I took notice. I’ll quote her: “In our LSUC e-mail today they released a very interesting report, most interesting because it questions the validity of the assumption that women ‘opt-out’ for child care, work-life balance reasons and suggests that instead we may need to look at the organizational structures that characterize the profession to understand why women and men leave private practice at the rates that they do.”
I don’t know how common this is in your experience, but I can’t recall ever having a friend enthusiastically e-mail me about a 96-page law society report. So I took the time to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The report charted the career course of 1,600 Ontario lawyers, the vast majority of whom started their careers in private practice. One important theme relevant to us newbies was how much change new lawyers can expect over the course of their careers. As the authors put it, “change rather than continuity characterizes the careers of law graduates in our study.”
I’ve already started seeing those career changes. It seems that every other day on LinkedIn, a friend or colleague from law school has switched jobs, usually from private practice to an in-house position. The study subjects that started in private practice had, on average, three professional positions across their careers.
The researchers had compelling, and at times surprising, conclusions. They addressed reasons why lawyers leave private practice, what won’t keep lawyers in private practice, and a theory of what will.
Reasons why lawyers leave private practice
The authors highlighted four main reasons lawyers leave private practice:
1. family responsibilities and establishing work/maintaining a work/life balance;
2. organizational structures;
3. pursuit of other interests; and
4. burn out.
While some findings weren’t terribly surprising, the section on organizational structures had some stark commentary for the junior lawyer experience in private practice. The authors found the “tremendous emphasis on profit and billable hours appears to have some very negative consequences for the environment and experiences of junior lawyers within law firms.”
The authors also refer to the “time cage” of professional work, where lawyers feel they are trapped in the office between particular hours. They suggest “the emphasis on billable hours conveys to junior lawyers a firm’s ‘engrained cultural beliefs and practices around work time and face time as indicators of work commitment, productivity, and quality.’”
The authors also review the “tournament model” of law firm promotions, pointing out that many firms now, unlike in past generations, have at least two stages: promotion from associate to partner, and from non-equity partner to equity partner. This additional barrier for advancement can discourage junior lawyers from enduring the intensity of the associate years, because “weak prospects of promotion, in particular, appear to be a key consideration in the decision by junior lawyers to quit a firm and transfer to another firm or employer.”
What won’t keep lawyers in private practice
A lawyer’s satisfaction with the content of legal work increases the risk of leaving private practice, as does a collegial environment. Yes, you read it right. Those who enjoy the content of their legal work leave private practice 22-per-cent more quickly than those less satisfied. This surprised the authors of the study, too. They query whether lawyers satisfied with the substance of legal work, but frustrated by other conditions of their employment, may make the move out of private practice in search of an improved working environment more quickly than others.
Satisfaction with collegiality also fails to ensure lawyers will remain in private practice. Lawyers experiencing more collegial workplaces move out of private practice 15-per-cent more quickly than those less satisfied with their co-workers. There was no possible explanation given for this finding, but clearly likeable co-workers aren’t enough to keep lawyers in private practice if other aspects of the job aren’t a fit.
What may keep lawyers in private practice
Here’s where the research is less surprising. The authors found firms offering flexible schedules (on a full-time basis) significantly decrease the risk of lawyers leaving. Flexibility also includes the opportunity for leaves for a variety of reasons, not just a parental leave. For example, caring for an ill family member, taking time off to travel or work on secondment. The option to take a leave without stigma or negative repercussions was viewed as a significant benefit in the study. Importantly, the provision of flexible full-time work appeared to be of considerable value to male lawyers, not just women lawyers.
The authors cite numerous studies in support of major changes to the structure and culture of time at work to achieve improved well-being of professionals and their families. “This will require fundamental changes to the temporal organization of work,” the authors emphasize, “more than simply drafting policies that are frowned upon by firm management if accessed by lawyers.”
According to the report, of the 1,134 lawyers surveyed who started their careers in private practice, 44 per cent left private practice at some point. Women were more prevalent among the departed — 52 per cent of women exited compared with 35 per cent of men. Among those lawyers who left private practice, 18 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men returned at a later time.
The report is important reading for associates in private practice and for law firm employers wanting to improve associate retention.