Many students choose to study law because they see it as a means to make the world a better place. By the time they graduate from law school three years later, most with staggering debt burdens, the lure of astronomical salaries and bonuses offered by large law firms might outweigh their initial altruistic intentions. But some remain conflicted, and that can affect recruitment and retention.
One such law student’s struggles were revealed in the September 8, 2022 New York Times Magazine story, “Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?” There’s no right or wrong answer. Rather, the question requires each individual to determine where to draw the line. Studies show that the answer to the question might be determined by one’s generation.
Although, in the ‘60s, Boomers agitated for social change and environmental protections, the majority settled down to traditional careers of hard work in return for decent salaries. Many then used their earnings and time outside of work to support causes dear to their hearts. In contrast, for the current crop of associates, money may not always be the top job priority. Rather, they seek meaningful work which, in itself, is the vehicle through which they make the world a better place. Although large law firms are throwing money at associates, salary alone is not the answer.
The 2022 Major, Lindsey & Africa Gen Z Survey shows that, although members of the younger generation value financial stability, they also place a high level of importance on pursuing purpose-driven legal work. Gen Z lawyers want to know what their employers value, how that’s being prioritized, and what investments in people and causes are being made as a result. They want to work in an organization whose values connect with their most important issues and concerns such as the environment and climate change, social justice and equity.
Remember, this generation of associates grew up with information at their fingertips and expect to know how their individual work impacts an organization’s larger purpose and the world as a whole. This may put them at odds with the traditional law firm demands for billable hours and personal sacrifice in exchange for career advancement and a big paycheck.
Taking a stance on issues
The desire for purpose-driven work also can cause consternation in a profession that prides itself on the premise that everyone is entitled to legal representation. In today’s political climate, the old norms that allowed firms to take any paying client or pro bono case and avoid taking sides on hot-button issues are changing. Clients, the public, and the lawyers themselves have come to expect statements from institutions on everything including hate crimes, voting rights, wars and human rights. And there’s the risk of alienating clients or talent if an organization doesn’t take the proper position, which, of course, is defined by each individual stakeholder.
A 2022 Law.com International survey of more than 30 major law firms found that some are declining to accept certain representations for purely ethical reasons. While there’s no industry-wide agreement on the legal profession’s moral role in society, 25 of those firms stated that they turned away clients and matters deemed incompatible with their ESG and ethical stances. Most problematic were environmental and energy abuses, and those clients linked to Russia. Ranking next were issues around human rights abuses and child labor, followed by animal welfare, defense, and munitions.
Recruitment and retention
A firm’s client list can be interpreted as exemplifying its core values, which can affect its ability to attract and retain lawyers at all levels.
One example is illustrated by a 2021 Above the Law poll of more than 150 attorneys from law firms of all sizes and varied practice areas which asked how the legal profession changed due to the Trump administration. A vast majority, 75.86 percent of respondents, stated that a firm’s role in representing the Trump administration would negatively affect their decision to join that firm. Alternatively, almost 70 percent of respondents said that a firm’s decision to challenge the Trump administration would positively affect their decision to join the firm.
A September 15, 2022 story in Bloomberg Law quoted Molly Coleman, a Harvard Law School graduate who co-founded People’s Parity Project, as saying, “Even if you’re comfortable going into corporate legal work, there are some firms that are just off limits for anyone who’s left of center, who values democracy, or holds some basic values above their need to pay their student bills.”
According to their website, “The People’s Parity Project is a nationwide network of law students and new attorneys organizing to unrig the legal system and build a justice system that values people over profits.”
Law firm partners and recruiters can motivate the younger generation of lawyers not only by a huge salary and the promise of a billable hour bonus at the end of the year, but also by focusing on the noble practice of law – doing well by doing good. While a day or two of firm-funded community service tailored to associates’ preferred causes may have been a successful way to communicate an organization’s values to Millennial employees, Gen Z lawyers want their employers to go a step further. They want to know how they can make a direct impact through their work itself rather than relying on their employer to support social causes. Show them the bigger picture so that they can see how and why their hard work is benefiting not just the individual client but also the world at large.