Combating Career Dissatisfaction: The Changing Priorities of In-House Counsel
By Sara Morgan
Axiom’s first annual in-house counsel survey report, The View from Inside, painted a grim picture: lawyers are leaving once sought-after in-house roles. Where are they looking to go, and why? Dave, an IP attorney who is part of the Axiom network, shared his perspective on the report as well as advice for those looking to make a career change in the new year.
Low headcount and burdensome administrative tasks are taxing in-house legal departments, exacerbating burnout and attrition
It’s no surprise that low headcount and burdensome administrative tasks are taxing in-house counsel, both in terms of bandwidth and, just as importantly, morale.
Forty-one percent of respondents report a core problem they’re facing is not having the appropriate amount of staffing bandwidth. On top of that, the overwhelming majority (89%) also agree that their legal department has suffered from attrition-related issues. As a result, 41% report spending too much time on administrative tasks as a core problem preventing their team from getting their work done effectively.
This cyclical problem leads to more administrative tasks, which put even more pressure on the existing team, and can further exacerbate the attrition they’re already encountering. “I do think that there's a correlation,” Dave reacted, “and the greater the pressure, the more likely it is that people are at least asking questions and open to making a move.” As an experienced lawyer, Dave was able to provide his insight and perspective into the survey report findings.
As in-house counsel know, low head count doesn't mean the work goes away. It simply means that it's spread across teams in a different way, placing additional burden on individual lawyers. “I do see a higher potential for burnout,” Dave said. “There’s tremendous pressure to work very hard, there’s lots of stress, so therefore, there’s high potential for burnout. There’s incredible pressure to be efficient, productive, and high performing. So there are folks that are no longer satisfied or only somewhat satisfied, who are thinking to themselves, ‘get me out of here’. I think that there's a large potential for that, particularly in the current business environment.”
When asked what advice he would give those who are contemplating a career change, Dave shared an idiom: “What leaps to mind is the phrase ‘jumping out of the pan into the fire.’” He explained, “The question is, will things get better while you're still in the pan, so to speak?” Dave recommends determining if there are near-future plans in place that are likely to improve job satisfaction before jumping ship by asking questions like whether goals will be managed to become more reasonable or whether additional resources will be allotted.
But the recessionary economy is complicating the issue. Economic uncertainty is making it more difficult for in-house counsel to anticipate whether their department will be able to access the resources that would relieve the additional burdens that have been placed on their teams.
And those who are considering making a career change in the new year are in good company: the majority of respondents (57%) are at least open to a new position despite not actively searching, and nearly half of those who are satisfied in their current role (48%) would still be open to a new position.
New career priorities since the pandemic began
What is it that lawyers are looking for in a new position?
Work-life balance was high on respondents’ lists of priorities, closely followed by mental health resources. “Mental health is an area where I think there's been changes as a result of the pandemic in the workforce and in legal departments,” Dave remarked. “And I think it's a change that's here to stay, which is a recognition that the more individual lawyers—and their law firms and legal departments—invest in mental health, there is far greater productivity, making a more positive workforce.” He believes providing access to mental health resources is a good way for employers, who are looking for good candidates, to differentiate themselves.
Dave also thinks the pandemic caused many in-house counsel to reevaluate their careers and ultimately place greater importance on work-life balance. He worries though this might be an area where in-house counsel and the companies where they work aren’t necessarily aligned: “My observation is that a lot of businesses effectively are reverting to the norm.”
What does that mean? “While a lot of lawyers or in-house counsel have a greater appreciation for work-life balance, the people who are hiring them might not be as appreciative,” Dave explained. “I think we all need to be mindful of that.”
When asked what advice Dave would share with in-house counsel who are looking to improve their work-life balance, he responded, “You need to determine whether your current employer or future employer shares the same values you do.”
He also recommends exploring the possibility of working for a flexible legal talent provider and speaks highly of Axiom. “Axiom has some really strong tools for matching skillsets and experience with legal departments that have a need for those skillsets and experience,” Dave explained, in reference to Axiom’s platforms, Opportunity Feed and Access Legal Talent.
Opportunity Feed matches legal talent with work opportunities that complement their interests, availability, and skillsets, while Access Legal Talent gives legal hirers the option to use a self-service search or Talent Finder, a digital intake form, to build a curated bench of high-caliber legal talent who can support their in-house teams.
In addition, respondents are certainly aligned with Dave’s suggestion of exploring opportunities available through flexible legal talent providers: 61% would be very or extremely interested in joining a flexible legal talent provider, and almost all respondents (97%) said they were at least a little bit interested. Among those who are currently looking for a new position or are very or extremely likely to do so within the next year, nearly three-fourths (74%) are interested in joining a flexible legal talent provider. Of those who are not completely aligned with their organization’s business goals, 96% of in-house counsel are interested in joining a flexible legal provider.
For a deeper dive into the current satisfaction levels and career plans of in-house counsel, read part one of Axiom’s first annual in-house counsel survey report, The View from Inside: Why Are In-House Counsel Leaving and Where Are They Going?
To learn what the report findings mean for legal leaders and how they can prepare, read part two of Axiom’s first annual in-house counsel survey report, The View from Inside: How In-House Leaders Can Improve Department Dissatisfaction and Mitigate Attrition.
Sara Morgan serves as Executive Vice President, Head of Global Legal Talent at Axiom, leading an international team and network of more than 6,800 lawyers and legal professionals who provide legal services to clients across all major industries and practice areas. She joined the Axiom team in 2009, where she quickly rose through the ranks of leadership after many successes, with most recently leading her team to 24% year over year growth in 2020 as Vice President of North American Sales. She moved into her current role in 2021 and has since considerably expanded the caliber and quantity of Axiom lawyers across the globe, reengineering the team and the way in which Axiom attracts and retains its market-leading, high-caliber talent. Prior to joining Axiom, Sara was a commercial litigation lawyer acting for major banking and actuarial companies at an international law firm. She graduated with her Bachelor of Laws from Cardiff University and received her LPC from Nottingham law school in 2004.
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