Three years have passed since the first pandemic lockdowns upended the careers of virtually (pun intended) all legal professionals. Even before the pandemic, this once traditionally late-to-embrace change industry already started to see new ways of providing legal services, through new technologies, new settings and new practice areas.
To that point, in the U.K., many lawyers have continued to work remotely or have settled into a hybrid routine, with some days at the office and others at home.
But the real question shouldn’t be: where do lawyers prefer to practice? It’s whether changing career perspectives run deeper. In other words, are lawyers continuing to think in new ways about their employers and the future of their careers? Have changing attitudes about their careers persisted from the pandemic to the recession or are they a relic of a talent-driven market?
Spoiler alert: The answer to these questions is “yes.” Yes, lawyers continue to want a new life in law. Yes, that life means more meaningful changes beyond the location from which they practice. Yes, these demands have persisted even amidst a recessionary economy.
To learn more about how the current recessionary environment is impacting the desire for a ‘new life in law,’ we recently asked a broad swathe of law firm and in-house lawyers across the U.K. about their satisfaction with their work, the career priorities that are most important to them, their openness to change and their views of the legal market, including their own firms and departments and other employers.
We were particularly interested in learning how they felt about newer career paths, including their views on new law providers (sometimes known as alternative legal services providers or flexible legal services providers).
Mixed Emotions: How U.K. Lawyers Currently Feel About Their Jobs and the Legal Sector
The lawyers we surveyed expressed a strong measure of satisfaction with their jobs and with the clients and companies they represent. Yet those feelings appear to mask deep anxiety about their overall careers and the state of their law firms and in-house departments. Already bruised by years of economic uncertainty, they worry about potential job cuts and a looming recession. They face burnout from an ever-growing and complex workload, made worse by the prospect of headcount freezes. And they feel their employers are not helping matters by falling behind on technology and client service. Is it any surprise then that when asked whether they would leave their jobs if given the chance, lawyers say they would be happy to make a change?
Four out of five in-house counsel and law firm lawyers we surveyed say they are open to a new position—and 21% are actively searching. How likely are U.K. lawyers to seek a new role in the year ahead?
Economic Anxiety is Taking its Toll
The business climate has been tough, and from the perspective of the lawyers in our survey, it is about to get even more challenging. A large majority of in-house counsel (80%) and lawyers at firms (84%) are concerned a potential recession will result in headcount freezes or will curtail the ability of their employers to invest in talent and resources. Nine out of 10 lawyers say their mental health has been affected because of the impact of ongoing economic volatility and a potential recession.
Workload is Increasing and the Job is Even More Intense
The burnout risk is running high for lawyers. Legal workloads have been steadily increasing—and the matters are not getting any easier. U.K. lawyers in both firms and in-house positions are struggling to do more with less. Seven in 10 lawyers agree strongly or completely that the volume of matters they are handling is rising. And more than 95% of respondents say they feel legal matters and emerging legal risks have grown more complex during the last few years.
Lawyers Want to See More Digital Innovation
Across industries, digital and data-driven systems are driving rapid change in the delivery of services and customer interactions. The legal sector, however, is lagging behind, according to the lawyers in our survey. More than 90% of in-house counsel and three-quarters of law firm lawyers agree that the legal sector has been slow to embrace data, technology and new delivery models. (That‘s a marked increase from the 64% of lawyers who felt similarly in last year’s survey).
Why the change? Perhaps they recognise that the slow movement toward a digital future contributes to the burnout, particularly in an age of bigger, more complex workloads. Lawyers know that better technology (be it workflow software to help oversee the lifecycle of legal matters or AI to automate contract management) can help relieve them of repetitive, low-value tasks and improve efficiency and service delivery to clients. They have also noted the rise of new law providers, like Axiom, which are using technology to innovate for clients and to create more satisfying legal career opportunities for the lawyers working for them.
They also know that embracing tech-enabled hiring, as has been done in virtually every other industry, can meaningfully move the burnout needle. More specifically, by embracing digital platforms to procure flexible legal talent, legal departments can help their teams quickly and effectively access the help they so desperately need.
Law Firms Seen as Out of Sync with Client Expectations
Law firms are having trouble meeting the expectations of modern clients, both lawyers working at law firms and their in-house counterparts say. Four in five law firm lawyers agree, at least in part, that a disconnect exists between what firms provide and what clients now expect. In-house counsel are even more adamant as 96% agree a disconnect exists between what their companies want and what firms deliver.
Why does this disconnect exist? Well, cost can’t help. According to a Wells Fargo report, globally, 2023 law firm billing rates are increasing by 7–8% (with some hikes reaching 30%), representing the largest increase on record in 15 years. Now, there’s always been a bit of a disconnect with law firms. They’ve never been an ideal solution for ‘overflow’ in-house legal work for a variety of reasons.
Looking for Balance, Finding Career Advancement Opportunities
Given the turmoil they have faced during the last few years, the lawyers who responded to our survey are primed for change. They are rethinking the way they approach their careers and are seeking opportunities that help them achieve a better balance between their professional and personal lives. As a result, they appear increasingly open to exploring modern career paths and working with employers like new law providers who can give lawyers the flexibility they require without sacrificing their need for stimulating legal work.
Get the full report.