Mind Your Business

Law firms can attract and retain talent by providing purpose for young attorneys

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Hybrid work isn’t the only change in how people prefer to work today. It’s perhaps not even the biggest change.

As much of the world begins, hopefully, to emerge into post-pandemic life, finding purpose in one’s career has become more crucial than ever. While the legal field in particular can often be perceived as grueling work, it’s also an industry that enables its professionals to feel that they’re truly contributing to the greater good of society, according to a new study published by the Thomson Reuters Institute: Finding Purpose and Having a Social Impact: Lawyers and Tax Professionals Speak Out.

In fact, 99% of law firm attorneys and 92% of those in-house feel that their work provides them with a strong sense of purpose, according to the study. Professionals’ need for purposeful work is critical for employers to understand, especially when it comes to finding and retaining talent in the age of the “Great Resignation.”

The ‘Great Resignation’

The Great Resignation has swept across the national employment landscape, altering the future of work across virtually every industry.

The legal profession is not immune to this trend, as turnover numbers skyrocket. Law firms came “dangerously close” to losing nearly one-quarter of their associates in 2021. The result has been an ongoing bidding war for talent that saw average associate compensation grow by 11.3% through November.

Perhaps this shift in the employee/employer power dynamic has allowed attorneys to prioritize their professional decisions based on factors aside from compensation. For example, Barbara Mendel Mayden’s article “Law Firm Recruitment and Retention in the Age of COVID-19,” which ran in the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, found that the values displayed by employers during the pandemic were cited as strong differentiators for potential recruits as well as a key reason for potential defection from organizations that did not share employees’ values.

Barb McGivernPhoto of Barb McGivern courtesy of Thomson Reuters

A sense of purpose

The growing importance of finding greater value in one’s work has been steadily increasing as millennials take more prominent roles in the workforce. In a survey by Olivet Nazarene University of more than 2,000 millennials, 90% express that having their work make a positive impact on the world is either “somewhat” or “very” important with regard to their career decisions.

Millennials are more willing than the generations before them to put their values ahead of employer loyalty. A survey by Great Place to Work, a workplace consultancy, indicated that millennials are nearly four times more likely to intend to leave their jobs than baby boomers, and 11 times more than Gen Xers if they feel they are not fairly compensated or that their work does not have purpose beyond just the job.

4 ways to find meaning

The Thomson Reuters Institute reached out to attorneys in more than 60 countries, representing a broad range of practices, for its Finding Purpose survey, which indicated that attorneys took professional pride in their ability to have a broader social impact. The report also found that the ways in which they were able to contribute to the greater good fell into four categories.

1. Enabling a civilized and orderly society. Nearly half of law firm attorneys surveyed felt they played a critical role in ensuring their clients—and their clients’ companies—behave in an ethically and legally responsible way. These attorneys felt that contributing to a more orderly society was their primary method of social impact. Providing pro bono legal aid, achieving justice for clients and upholding the rule of law were some of the specific ways they made an impact.

2. Having a direct impact on society. Among in-house attorneys, 36% felt that their primary source of social purpose came from their ability to directly impact society. This was higher than those in law firms, where only 29% of the attorneys cited the same. Legal professionals cited the opportunity to help establish environmental, social and corporate governance initiatives for their companies and clients—whether through promoting net-zero climate emissions promises or fair labor practices—as a critical way they’re able to positively impact the world. Others felt that the freedom to pursue volunteer or charitable work in the context of their job was another avenue through which to make a positive impact on society.

3. Creating wealth and employment opportunities. Just over one-third of lawyers at law firms and in-house attorneys (34% for each group) indicated that their ability to create jobs and wealth provided them with a sense of pride and purpose. They expanded on this by indicating that they saw meaning in their efforts to help their businesses succeed and play an important role in creating thriving communities.

4. Knowledge-sharing and empowerment. Attorneys noted a sense of professional purpose through their efforts to engage in knowledge-sharing or other empowerment activities. Many felt that they were contributing to the greater social good in other ways, including mentoring and developing the skills and talents of colleagues; engaging in other professional skills development; educating people about their legal rights; and serving as a role model for women, minorities or other underrepresented groups within the legal profession.

Culture counts

Attorneys are noticing the firms and organizations that are moving—and growing—alongside them. Like their counterparts in other fields, attorneys long to feel a sense of greater value and meaning in their work, enabling them to be a part of a larger movement with the ability to impact society in tangible ways.

Lawyers also want to feel appreciated and recognized, and they are eager for opportunities for both growth and personal satisfaction in their work. Employers need to develop—and clearly communicate—policies and procedures to assure equity and fairness in assignment, evaluation, compensation and promotion decisions. There should also be ample opportunity for training and professional development to help attorneys advance faster.

Finally, employers should recognize the important role that work-life balance plays in employee satisfaction. Hybrid or remote work options that provide flexibility allow attorneys to focus on the individual values that are most important to them. Employers can further demonstrate their commitment to their employees’ well-being by providing wellness and mental health programs.

Attorneys have a vested interest in working for companies and firms that actively contribute to the greater good within their communities. In order to find and keep good people, law firms and organizations alike must take notice of attorneys’ priorities and provide opportunities for their work to align with their values. Enabling attorneys to create a positive impact in their community and on society overall is an all-around win.

This story was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Making an Impact: Law firms can attract and retain talent by providing purpose for young attorneys.”

Barb McGivern is general manager of the legal professionals midsize law firm segment for Thomson Reuters.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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