By Marcia Pennington Shannon
From NALP PDQ
“During the pandemic, I think a lot of us started thinking - If I’m spending so much time working, what am I doing it for?”
– Former mid-level associate in big law who moved to government attorney-advisor position
Read the September 2022 edition of NALP Bulletin+ at www.nalp.org/bulletinhome.
When the subject of this article was first conceived, the goal was to focus on the numbers of mid-to-partner level lawyers who were leaving their jobs to move to something else — other firms, legal practice settings, or out of the legal profession altogether. The NALP PD Quarterly Advisory Group wanted to collect some of the personal stories behind the numbers, to learn why these lawyers are resigning and moving on to new opportunities at the peak or soon-to-be peak of their careers. As I gathered names of people to interview, it became obvious that this isn’t just a lawyer reshuffling. It is a legal professionals’ Great Resignation. That is, lawyers, professional development and recruiting professionals, and law school advisors have made and continue to make major career transitions in greater numbers than we have ever seen before.
By now we have all experienced something to do with the Great Resignation — a term coined by Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M University management professor. Whether you have made a move yourself or know others who have changed jobs, have been recruiting for your organization’s open positions in this current environment, or are aware of others considering a major professional change, the data bear out that there continues to be a tremendous career transition afoot, and the legal profession is one of the industries seeing the greatest movement. With the upheaval in the economic market, will this continue? Yes, it appears that it will while the job market allows it. But, even more important, there are some real factors that lead so many to change positions, careers, or quit altogether. These factors are here to stay and if not recognized, an organization will be unable to attract and retain its best talent over the long run.
In the first of a two-part series, this article will explore these factors through the personal journeys of more than 20 people I had the privilege of interviewing. The second part will focus on the conversations I had with some experts in the legal market to get their points of view on what was behind the initial Great Resignation, their predictions for the future, and suggested best practices for those interested in attracting and retaining their talent in the post-pandemic world.
Statistics to Set the Stage
Let’s start by looking at some broad employment numbers from the past year or so, and then dig a bit deeper into the legal profession itself. Two excellent reports that provide in-depth numbers regarding the Great Resignation/Great Reshuffling are the NALP Foundation’s Update on Associate Attrition and Thomson Reuters/Georgetown Law’s 2022 State of the Legal Profession. The broad data and highlights from these two reports provide some context behind the personal stories shared here.
· When the term “Great Resignation” was first suggested in May 2021 by Professor Klotz, we were experiencing a mass exodus of individuals from their jobs — 47.4 million people voluntarily quit their employment in 2021.
· Statistics are now suggesting that most of these resignations were actually reshufflings — that is, most individuals have recently returned to the workforce, just in different positions. In addition, the number of people who are now self-employed has ballooned by another 600,000 since 2019, and this data is often not captured in traditional labor employment numbers. According to Microsoft’s Annual Work Trend Index Report, 52% of Millennials (generation of mid-level associates to partners) and Gen Zs (generation of junior associates) are likely to consider changing jobs this year.
· The NALP Foundation’s most recent Update on Associate Attrition reports the turnover rate for associates is at an all-time high — 26%. Law firms lost over one-quarter of their associates in 2021. Pre-pandemic, that number was 18%.
· Because of greater demand (and therefore, opportunities) for experienced professionals, mid-career lawyers have made up the greatest number of those changing jobs in the legal profession, particularly in early 2021. Junior lawyers have joined the reshuffling (read exodus from their organizations), and many plan to change jobs in the coming year.
· In the 2022 State of the Legal Profession report by Thomson Reuters Institute and Georgetown Law’s Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession, the research looks at who is likely to leave their firms in the coming year. The data indicates that more than half of lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds are a “flight risk.” Looking specifically at Black lawyers, that number is over 60%. In comparison, only 40% of white lawyers indicate that they are considering a move from their current firms.
· Lawyers are not the only ones changing jobs to other firms, moving to other types of legal practice, or changing careers altogether in this Great Reshuffling. The epidemic of career transitions has hit non-lawyer professional staff as well, including law firm professional development and recruitment professionals and career services staff at law schools.
So, we know the pandemic apparently set the stage for many to make a career transition, but why? Of course, the reasons are varied and often complex. But through the conversations with individuals interviewed for this article, some strong themes emerged that can shed light on these factors, and, in turn, provide some possible lessons learned and impactful next steps. Many of the professionals interviewed for this article asked to be anonymous so that they could openly share their thoughts without being identified by former or current employers.
What Role Does Money Play in Job Transition?
Did the money firms threw at potential recruits (as well as their own lawyers) influence their decision to make a move from one firm to another? Yes and no…
Joe Carter (not his real name) says the large sums of money the big firms were paying individuals as a recruiting tool led to his decision to switch jobs. He wanted a job where he was making top dollar for the same amount of work he was doing at his other firm. In addition, he wanted a firm that had great name recognition so that later, when he was ready to leave firm life, he would be able to make an easy move. Asked why making top dollar matters, Joe says that he will be able to pay off his law school loans much faster and then be free to make decisions regarding his career path in a much more holistic way based on his true interests and lifestyle considerations. So, is the extra money a long-term motivator? Studies (and Joe) indicate that it is not.
Jebril Reeves spent two years at a large New York law firm. He was in the first law firm class that experienced the upheaval of the pandemic. At first, he says, there was not enough work to go around and then later, he spent 200 to 275 hours per month billing. This was common for many of his peers as well. “Firms were focused on the billable hours and maintaining their relationships with their clients, not the associate experience. Currently, only around 30% of my friends are still in the jobs they started in 2019. We all felt we had no real ties to the employers since most of our time was spent working remotely and many firms did not adjust to the current circumstances of remote work.” In the end, Jebril felt the money was not worth it. “What I was getting out of the experience money-wise wasn’t worth what I was sacrificing.”
However, the silver lining here is that Jebril now focuses on something he is passionate about. While living in Atlanta during the pandemic, his cousin and musician, Jordan W. Carter, encouraged Jebril to represent him as his part-time manager. After initially only representing Jordan, Jebril left his firm and co-founded a record label with Jordan, Too Solid Entertainment. They also signed their first artist, ArizonaMarty. Jebril currently works remotely in a government position and runs the company as Chief Executive Officer. He is very excited about the record label and the future opportunities it presents. “Law firms need to know what this generation is thinking. We are not going to be as complacent. The idea that we will take punishment until we get to the top is no longer sellable. We are willing to take chances and won’t stay in situations that don’t provide the opportunities we want for our career.”
Kameron Townsend, like Jebril, found that during the pandemic, he was working around the clock at home, with 60-80-hour work weeks and multiple all-nighters. According to Kameron, it was both overwhelming and demoralizing for a new associate, and the salary increase didn’t get to the root of the issue — the workload and near-constant stress. Kameron came to realize that a large law firm environment was not for him. He wanted an environment where he had interesting work, but under less chaotic conditions which would be better for his mental health and allow him more time for a life outside of work. In exploring the job market, he found that businesses were offering opportunities for junior associates without the standard requirement of five years of law firm experience. During the job search, he found many companies were offering these roles to junior lawyers because they recognized that many associates of the pandemic/Great Resignation years were getting the experiences of fourth or fifth-year associates in a shorter period due to the increased workload. Many companies realized they could hire very talented lawyers earlier in their careers.
Kameron went on to describe being a Black lawyer in a large firm environment. “You have young lawyers, especially Black lawyers, who are overworked and burnt out, and this is at the same time when we had to work through the murder of George Floyd and a partial racial reckoning. But the number of Black equity partners at these firms and Black partners in leadership continues to barely grow each year. Why are we not making progress in that particular space? We keep seeing more and more Black students and lawyers excelling in other areas of the law, but to me it feels like there is this obvious ceiling in Big Law. Many of my peers and I just couldn’t see a long-term future in Big Law that was worth sacrificing our mental and physical health along with our time. Instead, I hit the job market and searched for organizations that better aligned with what I needed. I focused on technology focused Black and women-led organizations and companies with a history of addressing social issues head on. Luckily, I was able to take the experiences and skills I built at a firm into a business that provided most if not all of what I was looking for. I’m a counselor to my business partners and my practice is even broader now, ranging from commercial and corporate governance work to privacy matters, product marketing, and anything else it takes to support a successful business. And I have the added benefit of having plenty of free time outside of my job.”
Is There a Better Way to Integrate Work and Personal Life?
A recurring theme raised in many of the interviews is that the pandemic provided the space for individuals to consider how they wanted to live their lives and what they were willing to give up, if needed, to achieve their visions. Many made their decisions to transition to a different job based on this factor. Kelly Lawton-Abbott, Renato Perez, and Nancy Smith (not her real name) all were lawyers practicing in law firms as we entered the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, Kelly was working 12 to 14-hour days, including commuting and law firm-related meetings and networking events. During the pandemic, Kelly found that she really liked remote work. It provided more control over her day which has led to better physical and mental health. In considering what she wanted for the future, she decided that she wanted to work less and be fully remote and was willing to make less money to accomplish this goal. She now works fully remote for a firm with fewer billable hour requirements, but was able to increase her salary. She says that transitioning to a new position while learning new personalities and ways the firm likes to do things can be challenging, but she is really glad she made the move.
Unlike Kelly, Renato and Nancy decided that law firm practice was not going to provide the lifestyle changes that they wanted. Renato and his wife juggled full-time work with full-time childcare responsibilities for their daughter when the pandemic made it impossible to send her to daycare. The demands of both work and family took their toll, and Renato decided that flexibility would be key for the future. While he thinks he might have left the firm eventually, there is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated the transition. “It really made me think about what I really want in my life. Did I want a more balanced situation or what the big law firm could offer?” He decided that law firm life would mean missing a lot of his child’s growth and chose a more flexible environment. He is now in-house at a large financial company, which provides the opportunity to work from home 3 days per week, with sophisticated work, smart colleagues, and much less stress. “I’m living my priorities now — all about family. Big Law cannot offer that.” Yes, he has taken a big pay cut, but he feels it is well worth it.
During the pandemic, Nancy also found herself questioning how she was spending her time. “Intellectual challenge is what drives many of us to practice law, and the social interaction with our colleagues is what keeps many of us in it. Remove that, and you start thinking about how you are spending your hours in front of a computer.” Nancy, like Renato, has children, and taking care of them while meeting the demands of law practice was very stressful. “Life has seasons,” Nancy says, “and my last job at a law firm no longer fit where I am now in life.” She came to the realization that she needed to refocus on her priorities of public service and family. Her new position is with the federal government where she enjoys mission-oriented work as well as a much better balance between work and family life. Big Law, she says, can be all-consuming and there are other ways to have meaningful careers that also provide time for other priorities.
Jane Stevens (not her real name) has been in PD for more than 15 years and at her last firm for over 10. She has recently moved to a new firm with an expanded role and a fully remote position. When the pandemic hit, Jane was home with two small children and she and her husband were working remotely full-time. “It was an extremely stressful time. The pandemic highlighted things that are critically important in our lives. My professional transition would not have happened if not for the pandemic. It created space to re-evaluate my life and to make a better choice for the life I wanted, both personally and professionally.” Her decision was solidified when her old firm asked everyone to return to the office. “It was a big leap, but I didn’t want to make a choice to stay based on fear. Fear is there, but it’s the good kind — I’m growing and expanding. I’m thrilled I made the move. It is the perfect opportunity at the right time.”
Reva Pollack lives in Columbus, Ohio and is now the Director of Professional Development at Arnold & Porter (and a current member of the PDQ Advisory Group). Her position, like Jane’s, is completely remote. She learned during the pandemic that, first, she likes working remotely and secondly, that the pandemic has created opportunities beyond her geographic location because of the willingness of some employers to create remote positions — opportunities that were not available pre-pandemic. In addition to being remote, she feels Arnold & Porter offers an innovative approach, robust infrastructure, and targeted responsibilities for her as part of a bigger team. Reva now has a job where she is very happy and able to live in her chosen location of Columbus.
Can I Find Something that Challenges Me and Where I Feel Valued?
The pandemic allowed many to slow down and stop running from one thing to the next, where there is little time for self-reflection. Many took a hard look at their work and work environment and made the decision that it was time for a change.
Jack Jackson (not his real name) spent his first five years at a major law firm. His practice area was chosen by the firm when he joined as a first-year associate. Even though it was not his practice of choice, he stayed because he liked the firm and team and was able to work on interesting cases. Working from home during the pandemic led to a change of perspective on what is important to him. He was detached from his team, and only had once-a-week interactions via email when someone reached out with an assignment. He made the decision to move in-house at a major corporation where he could do work that reflected his practice area interests. And he found such a position! He is enjoying the work and has learned that you can be just as busy, if not more so, in a corporate in-house position, but “I feel a lot more comfortable shutting off email and stepping away from my desk at the end of the day, whereas at the law firm, you work until it’s done which may mean evenings, weekends, and while on vacation. I can now stop at 6:30 p.m. But between 9:00 and 6:30, I’m going non-stop, and working on sophisticated matters.”
Cybele Smith and Lori White (not her real name) have both recently left law school career services offices to join talent management teams at two forward-thinking law firms. Cybele says that her move surprised even her — she was 15 months away from retirement eligibility at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. She says without the pandemic it would have been hard to leave her students, but because of all the time away, she could see that it was time to do something different that included new challenges. She joined a motivated team at Ice Miller, a firm where she feels the team’s work is valued. She feels the talent management team has a shared mission and that partners are committed to talent management.
Lori, too, recently made the decision to transition to another job after being in her position in career services for several years. Lori describes the role the pandemic played in her decision: “Things slowed down dramatically in life to just have work and home to focus on. Like other parents of young children, I spent years running from one thing to the next. The time at home during the pandemic shined a much bigger spotlight on work. I was able to see other ways of working and balancing a family. Seeing how my organization reacted to the pandemic and treated the return to work shined a light on the lack of value placed on my job and role. I think without the pandemic, it would have taken me a lot longer to see what I was missing and wanted to do differently.” Lori says the new position at a law firm aligns with her skills and values and allows her to make a real contribution. She has flexibility through a hybrid schedule and her work hours when she does go into the office. “The role is valued by the firm, and they demonstrate that financially through my salary as well as through investing in professional development for the staff. I’m not driven by money in a job, but I was underpaid and beginning to feel undervalued. I tell others, ‘Follow your values — what motivates you.’ I’m now doing that for myself.”
Sarah Smith and Robin Peters (not their real names) each had over 15 years of recruiting experience in the legal industry. Both decided to move outside the industry to new opportunities that valued their previous experiences. Robin, now part of a global professional services firm, says the pandemic caused her to take stock, and in doing so she decided to find something more fulfilling. She wanted more challenges and no longer desired the long hours of work doing the same thing she had done for years. She has joined an organization where she can create a global DEI strategy from the ground up. Not only is this an exciting opportunity, she says, but it is completely supported by leadership. “The CEO is vocal about the importance of these initiatives and the company has committed substantial financial and people resources. They want to make a real difference.”
Sarah has moved to a fully remote position in a technology start-up. Like Robin, she felt it was time to do something different. The pandemic took her out of the cycle of go-go-go and allowed her to consider how she was spending her time. She wanted to be in a company that values its employees and that would provide new challenges. The new company is forward thinking and transparent which means everyone understands the strategy and what role each plays. She feels they make employees the priority. Sarah, like many in her law firm role, says that more value should be placed on the contributions of non-lawyer professionals, but firms are struggling to figure that out. “There don’t seem to be enough people in leadership roles at firms caring about their non-lawyer professionals. They are losing talent and will continue to have trouble finding and retaining individuals if they don’t look at this as an opportunity to do things differently. But this doesn’t seem intuitive to most firms.”
If Not Now, When?
The theme of getting off the “go-go-go” treadmill, forced by the pandemic, provided many with an opportunity to dream of and start their own businesses or to take giant career leaps to follow paths that called to them.
Kendra Brodin launched her company, EsquireWell, during the pandemic. She left her full-time law firm position as Chief Attorney Development Officer in an AmLaw 100 firm to contribute to the legal profession in a meaningful, impactful way — by creating a company focused on lawyer well-being and professional development. As a trained social worker, lawyer, and certified coach, Kendra’s long-term interests and passion centered around this work. She feels the pandemic highlighted the very strong need for well-being training and consulting, which she believes intersects closely with professional development. Kendra has a passion for ensuring that individuals have access to well-being resources, so she is prolific in creating those kinds of tools through her online materials, training and coaching via Zoom, and post-pandemic, in-person consulting and speaking. Even though Kendra acknowledges that starting one's own business can be scary, she knew what she wanted to accomplish. Kendra shares that she asked herself, “If not now, when? It is always a leap to go from a solid, predictable income to starting your own business, but I bet on myself. I believe in the value I can provide and the contribution I want to make.” Her advice for anyone considering starting a business: have a plan. “Don’t expect revenue to come in overnight. Move through fear — it’s part of the journey. The best advice I’ve ever received is make sure you’re running toward something you want, not running away from something that isn't working for you.”
Tory Frol moved from Fenwick, a firm she has been with for 14 years, to a 100% commission position in real estate with Windermere Real Estate in Seattle. “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would have made the move. When I was in the office every day prior to the pandemic I felt emotionally connected to the lawyers and staff. But after 18 months of being away from them, I emotionally detached just enough to think, ‘Can I really leave Fenwick and chase my dreams?’ Fenwick was so aware of keeping the culture and people connected during the time we worked from home, but despite their heroic efforts, the distance from my colleagues is what gave me the courage to make the move. I knew Fenwick had prepared me to become a business-minded real estate agent who could make a real impact on peoples’ lives. Just like the lawyers with whom I worked, I wanted to be the subject matter expert who really cared about all other aspects of my clients’ personal and professional lives, not just the contracts. I wanted a career I could get better at over the next 25 years, and I’m grateful for the time I spent in law to prepare me for this new chapter.”
Jen Golden is a mid-career lawyer who decided to make a major career transition from a practicing lawyer in the federal government to Georgetown Law’s Office of Career Strategy. Through a self-reflection process that so many have undertaken during the pandemic, she realized that the work she found so satisfying for numerous years was no longer exciting. As she thought about the things she really enjoyed, she realized that it was the extra things she did in addition to her day-to-day responsibilities, such as recruiting, hiring, and mentoring. She decided that she wanted to focus on these activities in her career moving forward. After exploring her options within her organization, she decided that a move to a career services office would best fit her interests. She is glad she made the move and is really enjoying working with students. Her advice to others considering a transition: “Be honest with yourself. Make sure your actions are aligned with your own priorities. See if the substantive work you are seeking is available in your current job. If not, explore your options and learn what you’re excited about.”
Joe Gerstel practiced law at Davis Polk for three-and-a-half years. He knew fairly early on that Big Law was not for him. He wanted to be in a place where he could make suggestions for improvement, generate ideas, and think outside the box. He explored alternatives such as going in-house or consulting, but those felt like he would just be “kicking the can down the road.” Then the pandemic occurred — “When the world is disrupted, no one knows what’s going on and there’s an opportunity.” He identified a need for helping teams engage in a virtual world. Working from home allowed him to use his time outside work to explore the idea of virtual corporate events. He began first by creating a chess tournament for a firm. It involved identifying a national chess champion to help lead the program, and sending all participants chess sets, T-shirts, and chess-related snacks, such as Chessman cookies and chess chocolates.
After a great success with this event, Joe went on to launch others, such as art nights. In March 2021, Joe felt he had enough traction to leave Davis Polk to fully work on GetSomeClass. “The pandemic opened the door to experiment more. The pandemic created new paths that didn’t exist before, such as a business formed to add value to the remote/hybrid world.” Joe has customers ranging from companies to law firms. In addition to virtual programming, the programs are now in person as well.
“The environment of law firms can produce social anxiety and tension. Law firms are cognizant of this issue due to retention. Programming through Get Some Class boosts EQ, adds warmth, fun, connectivity. We are doing some wise work practices around digital communication and ways to support downtime in a conscious way as well — to begin to shift the needle and make the environment a bit lighter, add more connection, and reduce social anxiety. Interventions that support individual well-being are great and important, but they are insufficient. Institutional and group well-being must be a priority as well.” How does he sell his ideas to organizations? Joe says the return on investment can be seen through the difference between attrition and retention. A more positive environment leads to much greater retention. In addition, he states, “focusing on making the environment more wholesome is a good thing — it’s just the right thing to do.”
Where We Go from Here
I am so thankful to all these individuals who were willing to share the stories of their transitions, as well as the factors they used in determining that a “reshuffling” was needed. It is true that a lot goes into thinking about a major career transition, and it is clear that the disruption caused by the pandemic led many to ask, “Is this the way I want to work and live? Do I feel challenged and valued? Can the extra money make a real difference to me? Is this an opportunity to create or do something I’ve wanted to try?”
Whenever someone decides to make a transition, the impetus is often some dissatisfaction with their current situation or something not working for them. And much of the dissatisfaction can find its beginnings in the unique environments in which lawyers, non-lawyer professionals, and law school professional staff find themselves. In Part 2, we’ll explore those environmental factors that have been highlighted during the pandemic, and through our experts, learn about some best practices that increase satisfaction, and therefore, retention, in the workplace, as well as ways of attracting new talent.
Marcia Pennington Shannon made her own transition during the pandemic. After 10 years as Assistant Dean of Georgetown Law’s Office of Career Strategy, she recently retired to the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband. Like Tom Brady, retirement only lasted a month, and she is now in part-time private practice focused on consulting and coaching with See Clear Coaching.