In the legal field it’s more like “The Great Trickle!”
For more than two years during the pandemic, employees across the spectrum of the American workforce came to the realization that they simply weren’t happy with their jobs, their work environment, the industries they were in, as well as their work-life balance. The result? They left their jobs, in droves, many changing professions. This national narrative included the legal field—but new studies and various experts are detailing that “lawyering” experienced far less movement than other professions. In fact, most of the so-called “career change” by attorneys was either lateral or up—but not out. For the legal field, “The Great Resignation” is turning out to be more hyperbole than reality.
Historic in nature, the COVID-19 pandemic created an upheaval with sweeping effects on society in general and business in particular. For more than two years and counting, we’ve experienced quarantines, mass shutdowns, a dramatic decrease in jobs, as well as restrictions on goods and services. The retail, travel, and food industries suffered tremendous losses. A major consequence of the pandemic was the re-definition and physical transition of “the office.” Across the board, employees were required and/or chose to work remotely from home. This “remote” evolution of the workplace continues. But it’s clear: The legal profession (from the courts to the firms to in-house) has handled this upheaval quite well.
The Great Resignation is Real
The term was coined by Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University. He was quoted in Bloomberg Businessweek when he forecast a mass exodus by employees from careers and jobs they no longer wanted to pursue. “The great resignation is coming,” Klotz predicted, “When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year.”
Klotz’s prediction was spot-on and is backed up by data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. From April 2021 through April 2022, more than seventy-one million Americans separated from their jobs. That’s an average of almost four million individuals quitting every month. Pew Research found that one in five nonretired persons left their job by choice in 2021. The Gallup Organization found that only 21% of employees are actually engaged and interested in their work and only 33% report that they’re thriving in their wellbeing. This type of dissatisfaction sends employees heading for the exits. And rightfully so, the news media pounded this Great Resignation story daily. The narrative became ubiquitous to almost all industries and professions, including the legal field. But this broad stroke narrative may have overlooked the specific reality when it came to lawyers, their firms, as well as in-house corporate departments.
There’s no doubt that the giant tidal wave of resignations that hit and affected the entire world also affected the legal field. But the idea that this has wreaked havoc on “lawyering,” creating a mass exodus is not backed up by data or recent surveys. For instance, Bloomberg Law conducted a major survey of current attorneys. Here’s what they found: 76% of respondents said they were “not at all likely” or “not very likely” to leave their jobs in the next six months. Then digging deeper into the career movement of transitioning attorneys, this chart illustrates that the vast majority are largely headed to other firms or to in-house counsel.
Journalist Vivia Chen of Bloomberg Law writes, “Despite all the commotion about how Big Law can’t hold onto its talent, lawyers are still flocking to major firms.” She suggests that Big Law is retaining more of its talent than it has in the past. Adam Oliver, the CEO of Firm Prospects, an intelligence company that analyzes law firm hiring, reports that firms are “keeping 17.71% more of its attorneys within the Big Law ranks in 2021 than we saw in 2019” (before COVID).
Some lawyers are headed for what they perceive to be “greener pastures.” But again, as the next survey by Bloomberg indicates, there’s only a small number of attorneys seeking alternative professions.
Bloomberg Law suggests that “The ‘Great Resignation’ wasn’t so impressive for the legal profession if you take a mass job exodus as a sign that workers are dissatisfied with their careers.” Indeed, the legal world experienced an uptick in the number of attorneys who quit a current position at the start of the pandemic but according to Bloomberg’s reporting the surveys revealed “that many firm lawyers made job changes within the profession rather than leaving it altogether.” They concluded that “The numbers could indicate that lawyers aren’t necessarily unhappy with their choice of profession but may instead be seeking a change of scene.”
Is the Legal Profession Healthy?
Once again, Vivia Chen of Bloomberg Law is emphatic, “What’s indisputable is that the legal market is sizzling and lawyers are bouncing around like pinballs.” She spoke with James Leipold who heads up the National Association for Legal Placement (NALP). Leipold backed up this frenetic movement by lawyers, “Folks are certainly moving about, both from one firm to another and also back and forth between in-house and law firms.” Leipold stated that their annual recruiting report “will certainly confirm that lateral partner and associate hiring is way up.”
Employment recruiters, law school career counselors, associates, as well as law firm administrators are not buying the idea of a “Great Resignation” in the legal profession. One legal recruiter for a national firm said, “People are looking for change but they’re not going off the grid. It’s more like the Great Reshuffling.”
There is also this myth circulating that professionals, lawyers included, are leaving the profession to open a coffee shop or a vineyard. Chen writes, “Call me a romantic but I had imagined associates resigning en masse to do some kind of ‘Eat-Pray-Love’ thing. The news flash is that Big Law’s ‘Great Resignation’ is a big trickle.” Harvard Law’s Director of Alumni Advising, Margie Boone says, “God, no. I’m not hearing of people dropping out completely—it’s not like they’re suddenly discovering they have a trust fund.” But Boone adds, “They are seeking more meaning in their work.” Irene Dorzback, the head of career counseling at NYU School of Law, reports that “They’re not leaving but they’re more insistent about what they want. They are staying in law but looking for different ways to do their job.”
Job Growth in Legal Sector
During 2020 and 2021, there was a major wave of corporate deals that energized law firms and expanded recruiting. Firms increased pay and offered additional perks to retain and attract attorneys. Headlines declared that business was booming. Phil Flora, VP of Sales & Marketing for Leopold Solutions, a company that tracks law firm hiring, stated that “Throughout the first five months of 2022, law firm jobs are opening and being filled at about the same rate” [as 2020-21].
A recent Reuters headline reported that “Latest U.S. jobs report shows more legal sector growth in May .” In fact, data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that legal sector jobs totaled 1,178,800. This total is almost equal to the all-time historic high of 1,179,500 legal sector jobs reached in May 2007, shortly before the Great Recession.
The bottom-line is clear: major shifts in the American workplace will be ongoing, shifts that will affect the legal sector, but in ways that spotlight the need for more talented attorneys not less. Whether you’re a recent law school grad of a seasoned professional, you’ve worked hard to achieve your place in this demanding profession. The marketplace offers unique opportunities for lawyers and for the next generation of legal professionals.
Priority number one for Superior Executive & Legal Recruiting (SELR) is to enhance the careers of the candidates we place. This blog is another in a series of blogs dedicated to offering you professional and tangible advice to help you succeed in a competitive legal job marketplace.
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