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How Gen Z is Shaking Up Big Law

The upcoming year is anticipated to bring a multitude of challenges and uncertainties for law firms, according to a 2023 Georgetown Law and Thomas Reuters report. While law firms experienced reasonably positive financial outcomes in 2022, 2023 is expected to present various headwinds including a slowdown in demand, reduced client spending, increased expenses, declining productivity, and the impact of inflation.  

With a shifting landscape and reshaping of the hierarchy within the law firm market, Generation Z is poised to be yet another area of disruption within the legal landscape. With their altruistic yet practical mindset, quest for financial independence and stability, and need for community and connection, Generation Z lawyers are here and ready to make an impact. 

The state of early-career talent in the legal space

According to a Major, Lindsey & Africa survey, most Generation Z attorneys and law students plan to move away from the traditional Big Law career path and opt for in-house, government, or nonprofit work. As we’ve seen with other industries, these survey findings indicate that this generation prioritizes work-life balance and flexibility. 

The survey found that Gen Z would willingly give up part of their compensation for more time off (62%), a more flexible schedule (60%), and a reduction in billable hours (41%). And, while nearly 70% agreed that the legal industry is changing for the better, 79% agreed that sexism remained a problem. 

The survey also found that a mere 23% of Gen Z survey participants anticipate pursuing a law firm partnership as a long-term career goal, according to the report, “this percentage speaks to the challenges associated with retaining talent and high attrition at law firms.” Among the primary reasons that would lead these lawyers to consider leaving are the frequent demands of long working hours, late nights, and weekends. Additionally, working in an environment that lacks alignment with their interests, goals, and values is another significant factor contributing to their potential departure. Burnout and mental health protection are another. 

In short, big law is losing its appeal: more than competitive salaries and prestige is needed to attract and engage Gen Z talent. Below we unpack how Gen Z is impacting the legal landscape and ways that law firms can adapt to the changing needs of this new generation. 

“I think the changes that Gen Z wants will lead to a more humane, healthier, and ultimately more productive legal profession.” - Caitlin Moon, Director of Innovation Design, Vanderbilt Law School

The Quest for Work-Life Flexibility 

The allure of Big Law is fading for Gen Z lawyers, and it all has to do with work-life balance. In fact, over half of Gen Z lawyers say they’d rather work outside of Big Law firms, instead opting for in-house roles, government positions, or non-profit work. 

Gen Z workers are all about achieving a healthy work-life balance: they value flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to juggle their personal and professional lives, without sacrificing one or the other. This desire for balance and health is driving many Gen Z lawyers to explore the above, alternative career paths. And, despite grappling with the fact that Big Law pays big (and can help pay off those law school loans), Gen Z sees these firms as a short-term option to set themselves up financially and obtain solid training. 

So, while Gen Z may still work in Big Law at some point, it’s a quick fix: only 23% of Gen Z seek law firm partnerships as a long-term career goal, resulting in low retention and high attrition

The Importance of Mental Health

Big Law has long grappled with stress and mental health challenges, exacerbated by the high-pressure nature of the field. However, there is a growing movement of young lawyers breaking the silence and openly discussing these issues. A Deloitte survey revealed that nearly half of Gen Zers experience stress consistently, with more than 30% of them having taken time off work to address their stress and mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified this stress further, yet workplace resources to support mental health have not kept pace. While the American Bar Association (ABA) has initiated a pledge for law firms to address mental health and addiction, young lawyers believe that concrete actions, such as reducing billable hours and offering free counseling services for those in crisis, need to be taken by more firms.

It is imperative for the industry for current-day firms to take the lead in recognizing and prioritizing the mental well-being of its practitioners. By fostering a culture that values and supports mental health, the legal profession can empower its young lawyers to thrive and contribute their best selves to the field.

Great Expectations

Gen Z (as well as their millennial counterparts) exhibit a heightened sense of global social issues. And while law firms pivoted when millennials entered the industry, implementing service days and charitable endeavors, etc., the expectations of Generation Z go well beyond these efforts. 

As the most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, Gen Z demands more than lip service from law firms. In an industry that has progressed at a sluggish pace, Gen Z serves as beacons of guidance, leading the way towards more inclusive and diverse work environments. Law firm management must acknowledge the importance of listening to and learning from this new generation of lawyers, as doing so will undoubtedly benefit their organizations in the long run. 

Law firm management finds itself in a unique position as they begin welcoming Generation Z into the industry. Preparing for the youngest lawyers starts by establishing the right tone and expectations during the recruiting process and throughout summer associate programs. Interviewers should be ready to discuss the firm’s ESG initiatives and advancements, ongoing performance review initiatives, and institutional flexibility. Summer programs should also consider integrating activities that focus on social causes and champion diversity. By setting the tone early on, a solid foundation can be laid for a lasting relationship between law firms and Gen Z layers, paving the way for their professional success. 

“When you see the political unrest, social unrest, economic headwinds, disparity of income that exists in the U.S. today…I am not surprised that you see this generation of young lawyers being interested in pursuing the practice of law to help society.” - Frank Ryan, Global Chair, DLA Piper

Key Takeaways

Generation Z is shaking up the legal industry with its steadfast commitment to its values, career preferences, and expectations. This emerging generation of lawyers prioritizes work-life balance, seeks non-traditional career paths, and expects authentic, inclusive, and diverse work environments. As law firms adapt to these changing dynamics, they have an opportunity to take advantage of the energy, creativity, and resourcefulness of Gen Z lawyers to drive innovation and transform into more agile workplaces. 

For more insights like these, get in touch with our team at Abode. Abode’s all-in-one platform can be used to keep Gen Z candidates engaged from the moment they receive their offer through 100% productivity. Learn more or request a demo today. 

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