Our research shows that junior lawyers are less happy, less fulfilled and more anxious. Why?
Working in the legal profession can be an enriching experience. Many practitioners find the area of the law that suits them, and end up building a career that is personally and professionally fulfilling.
However, starting out is rarely easy, and the early years of a legal career are thought to be amongst the most challenging.
Some stark statistics that came out of a recent Law Society survey included low levels of wellbeing amongst junior lawyers (up to six years' post-qualified experience (PQE)).
Junior lawyers reported lower levels of happiness than experienced lawyers and were more likely to have felt anxious the day before.
Most significantly, they were much less likely to find their work meaningful than other groups.
It's been well reported that junior lawyers generally feel more stressed and have lower levels of wellbeing.
But specifically, why is this? And what can leaders do to help?
Junior lawyers can often feel less fulfilled because they are engaged in work that has little to no impact on the organisation they work for or their wider community.
They regularly assist their senior colleagues on matters, working mostly on the lower-level work which can be tedious and time-consuming, and are not involved in strategic decision making.
Typically, junior lawyers also do not have a choice on what they work on or what their diary looks like, resulting in them having to deal with work that they are not interested in and often at the last minute.
Junior lawyers are also not given the responsibility of more client-facing work.
For example, junior lawyers typically require a senior colleague to get involved to onboard a client, and clients will often prefer to communicate with a senior lawyer because they can dictate costs.
This not only results in junior lawyers feeling disconnected to the importance of the work they do but can also make them feel unappreciated, as the work they do is rarely credited to them by their experienced colleagues, who are likely to see the junior lawyer taking on the “grunt work” as a “rite of passage”.
Many problems come down to the billable hour.
Junior lawyers carry out a lot of the lower-level work for a client, which can often be charged at a lower rate.
Sometimes in the chargeable hour structure, a junior lawyer’s work can be written off to meet a client’s fee estimate.
If the work is literally worth less and can even be taken out of the client’s final bill, it’s little to no wonder junior lawyers can feel disillusioned with their daily tasks.
Conversely, more experienced lawyers can often be rewarded (financially or through promotion opportunities) for taking on non-chargeable work.
This can be pro bono, corporate social responsibility work or even networking.
Although junior lawyers may have the opportunity to do non-chargeable work, these opportunities arise much less often and are not equally rewarded as they rarely result in professional or financial recognition.
This different treatment between junior lawyers and senior lawyers extends to other parts of work too.
Although hybrid-working is now the norm, senior lawyers are not expected to be present in the office as much as juniors either by way of an organisation’s flexible working policy or how the organisation works in practice.
This is typically justified on the basis that the organisation needs to ensure that junior lawyers are being given adequate supervision, but it is understandable that this can be frustrating for junior lawyers, who do not have much flexibility and have to be in the office when their supervisor is working from home.
What can managers do?
In a competitive jobs market, retaining talent amongst junior lawyers can be a challenge. Leaders in the legal profession can start to address this by implementing positive working practices with junior staff that will lead to better retention, higher morale and more productive colleagues. It makes good economic sense too: it is cheaper to retain talent than hire new.
1. Have an open dialogue with junior lawyers
Having regular conversations with junior colleagues is a simple but effective way to sense how they are feeling about their work.
These conversations can range from what type of work they want more experience in, if they consider their pay to reflect their work or generally how they’re feeling.
It may be that during this dialogue, a solution can be found that benefits both the organisation and the junior lawyer.
In any event, having a safe space to talk can be uplifting for junior lawyers who will appreciate simply being listened to.
2. Gain and raise awareness of the mental health support resources for lawyers
Having a safe space to talk is important for junior lawyers.
But despite all an organisation may do to facilitate this, junior lawyers may not feel comfortable talking to their line managers about the struggles they’re facing.
In this case, being able to point them in the direction of where to go to reach out for help can go a long way.
This should not be a once-a-year email, but a regular standard practice within the firm.
LawCare is a great starting point, and the Law Society careers page points towards other helpful resources. There may also be more local or specific resources available.
Additionally, simple practices such as encouraging regular booking of annual leave, finishing work on time and interests in hobbies/activities are easy ways to help promote positive mental health behaviours.
3. Get junior lawyers more engaged with their work
If a junior lawyer has expressed interest in a type of work, client or exercise, then try to get them involved in it as much as possible.
If not, give them more varied and rewarding work that makes them want to get involved, such as client meetings, site visits, secondments and/or project management.
4. Treat junior lawyers as colleagues
It can often come across – whether by culture, supervision style or the legal profession generally – that junior lawyers are underlings and easily replaceable.
Treating junior lawyers as colleagues, especially by getting them involved in strategic decisions and hearing out their opinions on matters, can help them feel valued and respected.
5. Explain why they matter
Junior lawyers don’t have the breadth of experience that their senior colleagues have and may not appreciate how their work is helping the firm and its clients.
Explaining this during regular feedback sessions can help the junior lawyer feel more appreciated, and understand how their work is important.
Although the survey results are disappointing, it’s important to remember that taking these small steps can lead to a big change in your firm’s culture. If organisations take care of their junior staff, they will have a happier and more productive cohort of enthusiastic, new colleagues.
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