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As a law and MBA student at McGill University in 2018, Aly Haji watched several friends graduate and pursue their dream of landing jobs at prominent law firms— only to see them quit within a year or two. Curious as to why, he turned the question into his MBA thesis and probed the apparent mismatch between millennials and Big Law by surveying young law associates and law firm leaders. The findings were clear. “There is a generation gap, a dissatisfaction with working at big firms,” says Haji. “The value proposition those firms have always offered, which is you work a ton of hours and make a lot of money, isn’t something younger lawyers want anymore.”

His paper triggered a flood of interest not just from law students and lawyers but also managing partners at several big law firms, who asked for input on how to keep their brightest young associates engaged. “I was more than happy to give them ideas,” he says. “It was a public service for all the miserable lawyers out there.” But many of his suggestions, like allowing more flexible work arrangements and telecommuting, were rebuffed, even though less than two years later COVID-19 would force law firms to do just that. “At the end of the day, it’s just institutional inertia,” says Haji.

Full Listing: Canada's Best Law Firms

The legal industry, like all parts of the economy, is struggling to find its footing as the pandemic recedes. Part of that means navigating a reset of worker expectations, particularly among young associates who bore much of the brunt of the past two years—first as the target of layoffs and cutbacks when the pandemic took hold, and then toiling late into the night as corporate activity surged back to life, but without any of the perks or mentoring their jobs once entailed.

“I think there’s a reckoning coming given the number of people I see leaving Big Law who are feeling disillusioned,” says one third-year associate who quit a large Bay Street firm to work in the non-profit sector. (He requested we not use his name out of concern for his future job prospects.) And according to Haji, “They already felt like commodities, like they were machines outputting billable hours. That only increased during the pandemic.”

At the same time, the pandemic has led millennial and Gen Z lawyers and law students to reassess their priorities. One survey of mid-level associates by The American Lawyer magazine during the pandemic found 40% of young attorneys had anxiety, while three-quarters said their firms had a negative impact on their mental health.

Many young associates are being targeted by U.S.-based law firms offering staggering salary increases and hiring bonuses amid a shortage of lawyers south of the border. Some second- and third-year associates say they’ve seen their salaries soar from $150,000 at Bay Street firms to US$240,000 plus bonuses in New York and San Francisco.

Canada’s big law firms have been caught in the middle, making the already difficult task of recruiting and retaining the next generation of lawyers even more taxing.

For one thing, law students are realizing there are alternatives to working for large firms. Traditionally, big firms are the most prominent recruiters on law school campuses, pushing the excitement of working in a shiny office tower and rubbing shoulders with brilliant colleagues. “The corporate sector is seen as the pinnacle of success because they work on riveting high-stakes cases, they have generous salaries, and they offer perks like going to the fancy restaurants and having big networks,” says Simon Rollat, a law student in his final year at McGill.

Rollat is also the president of DALA (the acronym fuses the English and French for “legal alternative”), a student-led group that brings in speakers—70 to date—who used their law degrees to pursue unconventional careers, from entrepreneurs and recruiters to diversity advisers and legal consultants. “There’s a need for big firms to re-evaluate their expectations, like whether expecting employees to be fully committed to working 100 hours per week for big paycheques is going to establish a sustainable work culture,” he says. Meanwhile, the pandemic has pushed many associates to reflect on whether they genuinely like their jobs or just relished their old work environments and the people around them. “When you’re at home alone reading 3,000 contracts for that one specific clause,” says Rollat, “you might realize it’s not the most enticing job. That has a lot of people thinking about alternatives.”

Randi Bean is on the front line of that push. Twenty years ago, she launched Life After Law, which specializes in placing lawyers from all levels into non-traditional and “legal-adjacent” careers. She’s in high demand these days. The number and variety of opportunities beyond the realm of Big Law has exploded, she says. Legal tech is one fast-growing field, with companies focused on revolutionizing how legal services are delivered in constant need of smart lawyers. Likewise, startups and tech giants developing artificial intelligence need legal advice on how best to implement their technologies.

Bean says there’s also been a surge in companies hiring junior lawyers for in-house counsel roles. While the shift away from using outside firms has been underway for a while, those corporate legal departments are growing and need junior lawyers to staff them. “The biggest driver for people wanting to change is flexibility and lifestyle,” says Bean. “There are a lot more opportunities, and it’s getting more competitive for firms to hire talent.”

Canada’s big firms are acutely aware of that. But they also question the idea that there’s a generational divide among lawyers. “I’ve been hearing versions of this since I was in law school in the early 1990s. Supposedly my generation of Gen Xers were different because we valued work-life balance more than the generation before us,” says Doug Bryce, national managing partner with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. “It’s definitely not the case that we have a younger generation that is unwilling to work or works less hard than the generation before them.”

Where he does see a potential gap is what work will look like post-COVID. The pandemic showed that people can be highly productive at home, but there are limits to what can be accomplished on Zoom. “The business model is you really learn by sitting in the same room as someone who is among the best at what they do and soaking it up hour after hour, something you can’t get from a Zoom call,” he says—though he admits many young people disagree with him on that. To that end, Osler is moving to a hybrid model that doesn’t impose strict guidelines on how much time lawyers spend in the office. “I don’t think any of us really know how these trade-offs are going to play out,” Bryce says.

Like Bryce, Cristie Sutherland, director of legal talent at Gowling WLG, believes the generational divide has been overstated. But she says young lawyers do put far greater emphasis on flexibility and autonomy. “They want to do fulfilling work that is rewarding,” she says. To address that, Gowling’s plan is twofold. The firm has said it would like to see its legal professionals spend half their time in the office each month, but stops short of prescribing how that split should work, so long as clients don’t suffer. The firm is also planning to introduce a formal work-allocation structure to replace the traditional approach, in which each partner decides how to allocate work among associates. “It will help level the workload distribution and ensure diverse associates get access to career advancement opportunities,” she says.

While large firms wrestle with how to accommodate the shifting demands of young lawyers, some small ones have been much more ambitious in rethinking their relationships with employees.

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Marcelle Faucher/The Globe and Mail

Quinn Ross, managing partner at the Ross Firm, with offices along the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario, describes himself as “a change addict” in an industry that long prided itself on its intractability. “If you were to dig up a lawyer who died 100 years ago, walk him into an office and teach him how to use a computer, everything else would be pretty much the same as they left it,” he says.

Even before the pandemic, Ross created a new approach to feedback and discipline. When an employee didn’t live up to expectations, it was up to the firm to figure out what was holding the person back. It was a labour-intensive process, but the return on investment was a “precipitous” decline in people fleeing to other firms. “The incremental costs of hiring and firing are brutal, not to mention the destabilization on the rest of the ecosystem,” he says. “The philosophy became how much can we do, because every time we do something, it’s a significant, measurable win.”

Next, Ross turned to the problem of pay equity, introducing a transparent salary grid with clear metrics for moving up the ladder. At the start of the pandemic, he instituted a defined-benefit pension plan—a perk more typically enjoyed by civil servants than the employees of small law firms. Then he rolled out a four-day work week in May 2020. At first, the approach was to cram a full work week into four days, but within weeks Ross saw signs of burnout, so he switched to a non-compressed four-day week. The result was a boost in revenue, since workers were happier and more efficient, and missed fewer days.

It also made Ross’s firm a dream job destination at a time when so many others are struggling to retain and recruit young lawyers. Since the start of the pandemic, the firm has tripled in headcount to 64 and opened two new offices.

As for Haji, whose thesis highlighted many of the challenges large firms are now facing, he works for a small law firm in Ottawa. He says he thrives on long hours but understands the frustration felt by so many of his former law school colleagues. And as if he needed reminding of what it’s like out there, he fields calls from recruiters nearly every week asking if he’s interested in a job at a large firm. “They say, ‘We’ll give you X amount of money and a parking spot in downtown Toronto,’ and every time, I think of all the people leaving their firm and wonder why they aren’t focusing on retention,” he says. “It comes back to the idea of associates as commodities. Recruiters don’t care if they’re hiring me or someone else—they just want a warm body in the seat.”

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