Big Law falls out of fashion with idealistic Gen Z

Students and early-career attorneys are increasingly looking past the biggest global law firms, fearing the lack of a work-life balance and assignments that clash with their personal ethics, a survey has found.

Just under 40 per cent of budding lawyers in the so-called Gen Z cohort — defined as being born between the years of 1995 and 2012 — said they would like to join one of the US’s largest 200 firms, down from almost 60 per cent when the poll was last carried out three years ago.

The results “indicate Gen Z continues to place an extremely high value on . . . flexible work arrangements, a trend that has only been heightened amid the pandemic,” said Jacqueline Bokser LeFebvre, a managing director at leading recruitment firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, which carried out the global survey between January and March.

“While they of course recognise that law firm life will entail some late night or weekend work, many do not expect or want these long hours to be a frequent occurrence,” she added.

Almost 80 per cent of respondents said they believed “a sexist culture” to be pervasive within the sector, and 65 per cent said they took a firm’s racial, ethnic and gender composition into account when applying for jobs.

Gender diversity at the top of large US law firms has remained stubbornly low, with women making up just 27 per cent of partners last year, a rise of just one percentage point on 2021, according to industry analysts Leopard Solutions.

Even once other employees such as associates were taken into account, women accounted for 39 per cent of total headcount, Leopard found.

More than half of Gen-Z survey respondents, which included students at the top 100 law schools as well as young clerks and associates embarking on their legal careers, said they hoped to eventually work as in-house counsel, in a government role, or for a non-profit organisation.

When asked what might prompt them to leave a law firm, respondents frequently cited practices “not aligned with their interest/long-term goals”, or “not aligned with their values”.

Nathan Peart, a co-author of the report, said such statements showed that “perhaps more so than any other generation currently practising law, this generation highly values social justice and altruism.”

Frank Ryan, the global co-chair of DLA Piper, one of the largest law firms in the world by revenue, said the results did not come as a shock.

“When you see the political unrest, social unrest, economic headwinds, disparity of income that exists in the US today . . . I am not surprised that you see this generation of young lawyers being interested in pursuing the practice of law to help society,” he said.

But he defended large law firms as “an incredible place to learn”, while also allowing staff to “feed their soul” with pro bono activities.

“I think law firms can do a better job of explaining to young lawyers . . . that we do a lot of great things in society too,” he added, emphasising that ensuring people have good representation was a laudable value.

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