Junior lawyers frustrated by pace of cultural change at law firms
Junior lawyers want the right to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons, but few firms currently provide it, new research conducted by Obelisk Support has found.
It comes with frustration that cultural change in the profession is being held back by partners resentful at the thought of the next generation having it easier than they did.
The latest Obelisk Support report, World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still, identifies the four key pillars that will help drive the change the profession needs to see: a balance of purpose and profit, being actively climate conscious, enhancing accessibility to the profession, and a stronger focus on professional ethics.
The growing appeal of principles- and values-based businesses to young lawyers was backed up by a survey conducted by Obelisk. Nearly three-quarters agree or strongly agree that they would not join an organisation whose values did not match with their own, even if they were offering more money.
An even higher proportion (86%) say they are looking to effect positive change in society through their work as a lawyer.
While nearly two-thirds of those Obelisk surveyed say employers should allow them to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons, only 18% are able to say that their current employer does this. Just over half say they would feel able to challenge management if they believed they were being asked to do something they saw as unethical.
The report is informed by a roundtable of junior private practice and in-house lawyers convened by Obelisk, as well as interviews with professional leaders. An associate at one City firm said: “There is something among the older generation where, either consciously or sub-consciously, they think, ‘I worked bloody hard to get into this profession and no one cared about my mental health. I worked long hours. Why should the younger generation get away with a nicer culture?’ Perhaps there is a bit of resentment there.”
Another described this mindset as “so toxic”. She said: “Why can’t the mindset be ‘I worked under terrible working conditions so you don’t have to’?” Participants expressed frustration at the slow pace of cultural change, insisting that it could not wait until they were in the leadership positions to effect it.
While some employers are genuinely committed to ESG [environment, social and governance] plenty are still paying lip service – almost all survey respondents agree that some organisations are guilty of window dressing when it comes to tackling diversity and other ethical issues. And yet half say their own employer has a purpose beyond profitability.
The report includes a wide-ranging interview with Legal Services Board CEO Matthew Hill, in which he argues that being a lawyer is about more than making a living. “In my view, lawyers play an absolutely key role in underpinning a safe and civilised modern democracy, and how lawyers go about their business has a major influence on public confidence.”
He suggests it is time for a “course correction” to refocus lawyers on this and says it is “critical for those nearer the start of their careers than the end to be involved in the conversation about what they want from their profession”.
Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support, says: “The next generation of lawyers is expecting the legal profession to shift to a business model that prioritises sustainability beyond profitability. Legal businesses that reflect the core principles of purpose, equality and environmental awareness will be the trusted partners of clients. Mindful of their own responsibilities, clients are pressing for their supply chains to reflect these new priorities.
“Businesses are now in an era of ‘show, not tell’ and law firms are not immune from scrutiny. It is not enough to draft the policies and send out the press releases – they have to prove they mean something. This will create the platform for motivated staff to deliver for their clients.”
Obelisk Support was recently certified as a B Corp, meaning it met rigorous social and environmental standards that represent its commitment to goals outside of shareholder profit.
World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still is the latest in a series of reports from Obelisk dating back to 2019 outlining the need for the legal profession to reshape its culture and how the next generation of lawyers is becoming more vocal in pushing for it.
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