It is often said that human beings are somewhat averse to change, finding comfort in the tried and trusted method of getting things done. The turmoil of the last few years have shown us, however, that firms must be willing to adapt if they want to maintain their retention rates and survive. The incoming cohort of solicitors from the latest generation presents a unique challenge to firms of all shapes and sizes. The traditional ways of enticing would-be associates into the top firms holds less weight, and firms across the board have begun to adapt their style to meet the needs of “Generation Z”.
Whilst the true definition of who falls into this category is somewhat inconsistent, the general boundaries that are accepted are those born between the mid-to-late 1990s all the way up until 2010. This means that, at the older end of the banding, “zoomers” going down the traditional route will now be junior associates within private practice.
The importance of this can be seen when reviewing Deloitte’s ‘Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey’. In the survey, the top priority given for a role was a “good work/life balance” at 32%. The legal industry is notorious for overworked teams on 80-hour weeks. However, the advent of COVID has led to a cultural shift within the field. Firms like DAC Beachcroft (who previously ranked #1 in the entire London market for associate satisfaction) have embraced an agile working policy, allowing staff to decide when, where and how they engage with work. Many firms like Mills & Reeve provide the tech so that their employees can work from home, allowing for the flexibility that on which zoomers seem to place such an emphasis.
In some ways, the legal industry is insulated from the changing attitudes of Generation Z towards pay. In the same study, 46% of Gen Z workers say they live pay check to pay check and worry that expenses will not be covered by the end of the month. The legal industry is notorious for being one of the highest paying, with firms in the London market offering up to £179,000 for a newly qualified lawyer. However, the direct competition between firms means that they will receive no relief from this. Back in May this year, Clifford Chance increased their salary by 16% to £125,000 in order to match their magic circle rivals. In this regard, generational attitudes may not be as important as scarcity, as firms race to secure the limited pool of top talent in the market.
But the desires of Gen Z appear to stretch between their own work life (and indeed, themselves). 75% of Gen Zs agree that they are concerned with climate change and that the world is now at a tipping point. Whilst Gen Z are far from being the first generation to care about the state of the market, we can already begin to see a shift play out amongst the top players in the London market. In recent years, law firms have become more active in displaying their green credentials, with firms like Clifford Chance and Herbert Smith Freehills publishing environmental policies and calling for sustainability in the workplace. These moves are not merely reflections of the generations that are beginning to fill these firms, but rather reflections of society at large. The growing concern over climate change has been compounded in the last few years, with rapid ecological changes leading to growing concern throughout the world.
It is no surprise therefore that these effects have catalysed a drop in mental health, with 46% feeling burnout and 44% saying they know people who have quit due to workplace pressure. Whilst these numbers don’t necessarily indicate that Gen Z is any more burnt out than the generations that proceeded them, it is undeniable that the cultural shift on recent years has placed a bigger emphasis on mental health. In this regard, the legal industry can sometimes be one of the bigger offenders on the job market – the long hours and high-pressured environment lead many to drop out of the profession. Law firms like Kirkland & Ellis have introduced wellness programs to educate their staff on resilience, connection and fitness/nutrition, whilst Baker McKenzie has taken the opposite route and started training their partners and managers in aiding their associates. Generation Z have managed to place a focus on mental health that simply was not there for previous generations, and firms are now having to re-evaluate just how much their elite status protects them from this fact.
Only time will tell how the legal industry will end up in the face of such rapid changes, but one thing is certain: those who do not adapt to the desires of the latest working generation will find the sustaining of their retention rates increasingly troubling. These new lawyers will not be bought with remuneration packages alone - they literally want the world too.