Many law firms, especially small and medium-sized firms are experiencing problems retaining talent. In her second article of a two-part series, Rachel Brushfield of EnergiseLegal examines the common (and sometimes invisible) underlying causes of talent drain in law firms.

rachel brushfield

People are the source of a law firm’s competitive advantage. Losing talent is a big headache; people are expensive to recruit and seeing those you envisioned as future leaders walk away instead of carrying on your hard work can be heart-breaking as well as costly in both time and money.

Consider how much talent drain is costing your firm in:

  • recruitment costs
  • lost fee-earning time training new recruits
  • reduced productivity in over-stretched teams working one person down.

Below, I look at some of the key factors that may be draining talent from your firm, the shifting priorities of millennial employees, and growing competition from other sources of employment.

Where are the leaks?

In the LexisNexis Bellwether 2018 report ‘A dangerous allegiance to the status quo’, 64% of solicitors believed that the law is becoming more of a job than a profession. More than a third said they would not go into the law if they were starting over.

Stress and pressure

Working in private practice is stressful – as shown by the ‘Resilience and wellbeing survey report’ published in April 2018 by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD). Clients are becoming more demanding and the hours are relentless. Technology means that solicitors are always on call, but accuracy is still paramount. The profession is competitive and the publication of fee-earning figures mean that success, failure and mediocrity are visible.

The JLD report’s findings are backed up by the LexisNexis Bellwether 2019 report, ‘Stress in the profession’. Two thirds of this year’s respondents are experiencing high stress levels (with 11% of respondents experiencing extremely high stress levels, 14% very high and 36% quite high). Junior solicitors with little or no power are more stressed than those with responsibility for making decisions.

In 2018, the government cited law as the profession with the highest levels of work-related stress, depression and anxiety. According to the Labour Force Survey, predominant causes of work-related stress include:

  • tight deadlines
  • too much work, pressure or responsibility
  • lack of managerial support
  • organisational changes at work
  • role uncertainty, for instance a lack of clarity about a specific job.

Gender pay gap

The compulsory publishing of gender pay may also be affecting talent retention. If men and women in your firm are doing comparable jobs, but there is discrepancy in pay, people may vote with their feet for a fairer deal elsewhere. It can be costly to remedy pay discrepancy immediately – but failing to do so may have a detrimental impact on your ability to keep talent in your firm.

Inflexibility for working parents

The clash between readiness for partnership and parenthood can be challenging, both financially and emotionally. For many working parents (particularly women), continuing in private practice just doesn’t add up. Many choose freelance work in order to better control their hours or opt out of private practice altogether – especially after a second child. Part-time jobs and job share options are still all too rare.

AI – the writing on the wall

Artificial intelligence has the potential to perform many tasks that are currently done by junior lawyers. It’s driving a commoditisation on the services which law firms have relied upon for years to:

  1. sustain fees, and
  2. train junior lawyers.

This may already be impacting solicitors’ long-term career choices, although research in this area has not yet been carried out.

Changing priorities for young lawyers

Long hours, client demands and difficulty in ensuring a healthy work-life balance have always been the case for solicitors. However, the digital age and changing desires of younger solicitors are making a career in private practice less appealing than it once was. Younger solicitors are asking themselves whether it is worth it, and whether the effort put in balances with the rewards received, now and in the future.

Desire for control, freedom and flexibility

Millennials want a better work-life balance than their parents, and do not want to wait until retirement to get it. Combining work with study or travel is hard amid the focus on presenteeism and billable hours that still permeate many firms (rather than output). Flexible working may be more common, but there is more to be done.

The idea of staying with one firm throughout your career is also increasingly a thing of the past. Young lawyers will change roles many times throughout their working life and portfolio careers are an increasingly popular choice for variety, fulfilment and a more future-proof career.

Responsibility and development

Millennials are hungry for early responsibility and development. Young people are keen to progress early and get involved in decision-making. However, they need still a strong support network while they gain experience. One in five respondents to the Law Society’s career satisfaction report say they don’t have opportunities for personal development and growth in their organisation.

Partnership appeal is waning

Becoming a partner in a law firm was once the pinnacle of career ambition, but the life-long tie and financial commitment of this route runs counter to many younger lawyers’ aspirations. Since the credit crisis in 2007, there has been a growing focus on the importance of making a difference over making money (see the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019). In order to retain young talent, firms must unlock a sense of purpose greater than making partners wealthy.

Lockstep is out of date

The lockstep approach in many law firms (in which partners’ pay is based on seniority rather than performance) is outdated to many millennials. Some firms are using a ‘modified lockstep’ approach giving a no-limits earning potential to successful lawyers.

Is your firm still operating a lockstep approach? If so, this could be affecting your ability to attract and retain lawyers.

Looking elsewhere – competition from other employers

The traditional law firm model has arguably passed its sell-by date. Options such as boutique law firms, alternative business structures, freelance work and the legal arms of the Big Four management consultancies are all tempting talent away from private practice law firms.


Going freelance is becoming easier. On 25 November 2019, the Solicitors Regulation Authority will ease the restrictions on solicitors by allowing them to practise on their own, without the need to work through a regulated firm or as an authorised sole practitioner. This will give solicitors more flexibility and enable them to operate on the same model as barristers attached to chambers – sharing back-office functions while working as self-employed professionals. From November, high-performing fee-earners who feel they are propping up colleagues may be tempted to become independent solicitors.

Platform firms

The growth of ‘platform firms’ (virtual law firms with solicitors of different levels working on projects and contracts remotely) continues. Examples include firms such as Setfords Solicitors, Keystone Law and gunnercooke. In 2018, there was a 29% increase in the number of lawyers rejecting a typical ‘9am to 5pm’ career. According to Keep Calm Talk Law, there are now over 1000 platform lawyers in the UK.

This option also gives greater flexibility for lawyers wanting to raise families or start a portfolio career. Self-employed lawyers who work for a platform firm keep a higher proportion of fees and have low overhead costs, working from home.

In-house growth

In order to better manage their costs, clients are doing more legal work in-house, reducing the amount of work they outsource to law firms. Instead, they are using external firms mainly when in need of expert knowledge not available in-house. Partners’ expertise is what is needed for such requests – less so junior lawyers.

In-house legal roles are perceived as offering more flexible working and a better work-life balance, as well as being closer to business issues. For many, in-house work is becoming a more attractive option compared with private practice.

Conclusion: balancing effort and reward

The legal profession is traditional and has been historically resistant to change, while experiencing immense disruption. Change often happens as a result of pain, and costly talent drain is now causing that pain.

In order to become employers of choice, law firms need to change their workforce planning practices – or risk losing the very source of their competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive market: their people.

About the author

Rachel Brushfield is the Talent Liberator and founder of EnergiseLegal, as well as a career, and learning and development strategist and coach. Rachel Brushfield will be doing an event on talent attraction, development and retention for the Law Management Section in autumn 2019. Email us to register your interest.

Law Management Section members receive a discount on Rachel’s book, Career management for lawyers, using the code LAWMN.