Can you quit your job?

I got an email from Linkedin last week, letting me know that 80+ people in my network had changed jobs last year. Now aside from the fact I love these type of analytics, the email made me stop and pause for a number of reasons, not least because I myself shifted jobs.

The revolving door at Thatchwick & Partners saw lots of action last year

The trend that most intrigued me when I looked more closely at the email, was that although lawyers are undoubtedly the biggest single group of contacts I have (having worked in the profession for almost 15 years), they represented a relatively small proportion of the 80 or so people that changed job.

Why is that?

I then started to mull over why people leave jobs and why they stay.

I’d love to find some attrition statistics for the legal profession, and find out if there is less mobility than within comparable industries.

Around ten years ago, I recall there was a huge demand for mid-qualified associates (with around 5 years of experience) because this group had been the target of much of the cost-cutting that had been a feature of the previous economic downturn. As the market picked up (particularly in corporate, driven by the dotcom boom) it seemed that wages shot upwards and opportunities for lawyers in this category were plentiful.

There was much talk about how the traditional law firm model of working your way up from trainee to partner was on its way out, and the market would never be the same again. Much has been said and written about the erosion of loyalty in the workplace and the changing nature of the “psychological contract” between employer and employee generally, and although lacking hard data, I’m sure lawyers do move around far more than they used to which seems to me to be following a basic social trend in the Western world.

But is this all relative? Compared to other industries, is the legal workforce still pretty stable?

It strikes me that there could be some sensible reasons why this might be the case. Firstly the partnership model, while constantly evolving, still maintains some fundamental differences from a corporate structure. With the owners of the business able to dictate who joins “the club”, assessing potential candidates in the workplace over a sustained period of time offers the partners a way of ensuring the culture and profitability of the firm are maintained, and provides an incentive for the senior assistants to stay at the firm.

If the assistant knows they are on the partnership track, the associated rewards (be that higher remuneration, the ability to have a say in decisions, or simple status and prestige) may provide a powerful incentive to see the process through. Moving firm could simply be a passport to start that process again, but at an earlier stage.

Moving also involves risks for all concerned. The lawyer may move firm and find the grass is not always greener and not settle in the new firm. The firm might find that a new lawyer is competent, but just doesn’t fit with the culture or values of the firm. While it is certainly an oversimplification to say that lawyers are risk averse, there’s no doubt that lawyers are often immersed in risk assessment and management (of a sort) as part of their job, and decisions like career changes will undoubtedly be well thought through before being finalised.

The other angle that I wondered about, was the degree to which specialisation in large law firms works against job mobility. My own personal experience (particularly the move from private practice to in-house) made me see how the transferable skills that lawyers develop can be used effectively in many different ways in a commercial environment.

However, in private practice, the trend to specialisation usually starts right after qualification (if not during the training contract) and I can certainly understand the reason for this. If for example you are an employment lawyer, the law is so broad and so fast moving, I for one would certainly have struggled to keep at the cutting edge of a practice if I was also trying to keep abreast of changes in other areas of law (like IT/IP for example).

A consequence of this is of course that when a lawyer has been doing one type of work for five years or more, they will tend to define themselves as a particular type of lawyer (rather than look at their skills and competencies) and look for similar roles. This doesn’t cause a problem if the lawyer is happy doing this type of job (and of course many have very fulfilling careers in a single specialism), but if not, I suspect it does hamper job mobility.

The credit crunch has led to firms showing much more flexibility in retraining staff to help retain and manage their workforces, which given the cost of recruitment and the investment in training lawyers, is understandable.  It will be interesting to see if this shift has any long term impact on lawyers moving firms – perhaps working in different areas will open up new career avenues for lawyers, both inside and outside their current workplace.

With the profession facing real change from deregulation, commoditsation and globalisation, law firms are going to change and new competitors will emerge. As a consequence, new legal roles will emerge and perhaps some existing ones will change or disappear.

For what it’s worth, I think that for most organisations, getting the right balance of stable, trusted employees, and new blood with new ideas is challenging. Too much of either causes problems. Mobility within a firm can help provide flexibility here, but will be more difficult for some organisations than others.

From an individual’s perspective, I’ve always taken the view that a person’s career is their own responsibility, and it is for them to find the roles that will both satisfy and grow them.

So with that in mind, what do you think you will be doing next year?

7 thoughts on “Can you quit your job?

  1. August

    Its interesting how Americans take the pursuit of happiness into the job world. Certainly its ideal I suppose to enjoy your work, but sometimes don’t we just have to stick with it because it pays the bills? I mean at the end of the day if the job provides for your family isn’t that enough? Ideally I suppose not.

    1. Intelligent Challenge Post author

      Great comment August. There are undoubtedly people who don’t have a choice, and need to keep on what they are doing for financial reasons. I do believe however there are people who do have a choice, but choose to stick with what they know because finding something different would be (a) too much effort; or (b) take them too far out of the comfort zone; or (c) maybe make them confront the fact they may have made sub-optimal choices earlier in life. However, my personal view is that life is too short to spend doing a job you don’t like – but the fact that there are so many people who whinge and moan about their job, and never do anything about it, shows that my view is not shared by all!

  2. melancholiastudioinc

    You say the credit crunch will lead law firms to operate employee-wise as they have in the past, yet go on to say things like deregulation and globalization will force them to change. I wish you would have expanded on that, sounds like an interesting topic, I’m sure you are following it. [You’re going to write a book, someday, I can tell. But you’ve probably written a few already, my guess is you joined wordpress to keep your thinking current, in line with Joe/Jane Public. I hope you don’t mind if I comment, I’m Jane Flakey and have no useful information, although it has been said I’m so crazy I’m sane, and this was someone would know.] Well, no one has a crystal ball on globalization. By the looks of things, the credit crunch could be permanent — how will that affect law firms with or without globalization.

    Linkedin may have said 80+ people in your network changed jobs — what exactly is network? When Linedin says changed jobs, do they mean changed jobs within their field or changed careers? [You really should have inserted the email in your post, it’s a bit vague, would that be illegal? It’s not exactly a personal letter.] And what is their motivation for sending it to you?

    A career category or career category on Linkedin? For some reason, I have the impression Linkedin is for job searchers and people looking to hire, I’m sure no one except you reads it for fun. If their information is confined only to Linkedin members, how large/exact/truthful is their information/sampling? Do they take Legal Aid attorneys into account? Pro bono work? Linkedin has it’s own profit margin to meet. If a lawyer retires and decides to run an antique store, is that considered changing careers or jobs? What if they die or become too disabled to work, is that changing careers?

    “A person’s career is their own responsibility” — don’t be so glib, that’s not nice. I’ve got a book for you to read that hasn’t been written, “Growing Up Ghetto — How the Best and Brightest Become Granny Whacking Purse Snatchers as a Direct Result of Poor Nutrition, Sub Par Education, Out Sourcing and the Technology Takeover.” Go read a few books on Sociology. Believe me, Oprah is a ghetto girl token, if Oprah did it, you can do it, too, political pandering, you know senators and congress people don’t stare at the tv watching her crap.

    And speaking of own responsibility, women only got the vote in the US somewhere in the 1920’s if memory serves me. Bring to mind the days when women and African Americans were not allowed to read, write, own property or money let alone attend college. Consider the US government probably takes more in taxes than it gives back in the services it promises. How many of our brave (and scared) soldiers don’t have bulletproof vests when theoretically we have the best funded military in the world? How many of those kids would have signed up for college instead of the military if they could find a job?

    Wish you hadn’t added that line echoing “personal responsibility” — that phrase and anything like it always sets my teeth on edge no matter who says it and what they mean. Sure some people with good educations and and an abundance of jobs to choose from will whine incessantly how unhappy they are, but it isn’t fair to over generalize on that one. You’ve read enough books on competition to know how important it is start out ahead of the pack. Patriarchy and slavery go way back, but really not that far back, and it’s ludicrous to think we’re all maneuvering on an even playing field.

    What will I be doing next year? I plan to design a children’s activity workbook for grownups. It will be made of recycled paper and comes with non-toxic crayons produced by a non-major corporation giant. My intention is for this to made state law that anyone accepting a job earning over $100,000 a year must read it or forfeit employment. Quiz to follow.

    Title? “Don’t be an Idiot.” On the first page is a simple outline androgynous figure, color it anyway you want, blue for boy, pink for girl, peach for Caucasian, brown for minority or green for alien. Said figure stands facing a job market. Under the figure it says “You are here.”

    It is only a three page book. Turn the page. You will find a list of questions and simple pictures to color in. “Did your parents pay for your education?” (Color in the bricks on the bank) “Were you fed a healthy, nutritious diet designed to make your brain and body work at its peak performance?” (color the apple, green, red or speckled as you see fit.) “Did you live in a nice neighborhood where you thought more about your chem lab assignment than becoming the next innocent drive by victim” (color in the gunshot child any color you want).

    Turn to the last page, and read the statement. “Picture yourself with nothing and ask how far you will get.” Color in the picture of the coffin in the middle of the page as a reminder you can’t take it with you, and we’re all going the same place. If this accomplishes nothing more than people holding their noses just a little bit less high when glancing down at the little people who grumble as they bag their groceries, or look a little pale and weak as they shine their shoes in the airport lobby — who am I kidding, it really won’t accomplish anything. You are right and I am wrong, it’s a dog eat dog world.

    What will I really be doing next year? Going on about my useless self-absorbed life which consists primarily of creating and collecting images that allow me to enjoy my creativity and express my unique personal vision. With any luck, paintings to follow. Also, I’d like to figure out a way to finish, edit and submit some of my fiction writing. Hopefully, I will wise up and disconnect the internet — it’s a real time waster.

    As long as the dog eats properly and gets fed regularly, the rest of that can slide.

  3. melancholiastudioinc

    Book? Snarky comments are easy, a book requires solid research, unless of course, it’s meant to to be satire. The art of keeping a blog (and/or comments) civilized yet entertaining eludes me, although I have managed to refrain from comments like well….let’s not go there. The word most often used to describe my writing style is “gritty.” My blog is dull is dirt, it would be less so if I weren’t such a coward. Seriously, does anyone care if I misplaced a dishtowel or buy instead of bake cupcakes? I rarely even eat cupcakes.

    What was is the real story? I could describe working late, walking the dog at 1 am Sat nite (really Sunday am), encountering a neighbor between bars on a pub crawl who invited me to accompany him. Said neighbor generally avoids me. Said neighbor overlooked my attire. I was wearing a short puffer jacket over my pajamas and bathrobe, not to mention fluffy little dog in tow. In all fairness, the final stop on his tour was the worst dive bar in town, even there, quite a sight I’d be — guzzling beer in my bathrobe and the dog jumping the bar for salted snackies. I opted for going to bed (alone!) and saved myself the time and hangover. This is not the kind of thing that attracts advertisers to paid bloggers — unless they’re selling Bud Lite.

    Still, I have blog envy, oh, to share adventures about fine dining on international cuisine whilst actually abroad, great shots of sunsets over spires in Turkey, h’mmm, funny, if those blogs were so great, why can’t I remember a darn thing???

    Appropriate and civilized are not my style, yet I have blog envy. I should really write this on my own page, shouldn’t I? Or my neglected fiction notebooks.

  4. botzarelli

    My personal experience is that it is not so much lawyers defining themselves by a specific specialised practice area as recruiters doing so. After 4 years inhouse in government and commerce I spent 10 years in practice specialising in competition law. It was immensely hard to persuade recruiters, particularly recruitment consultants, that I had a wide range of other commercial legal skills when moving back towards inhouse work. Even after a year of doing general commercial inhouse roles at a recent interview an employer thought I was a competition lawyer who could do a bit of other stuff, rather than being a highly experienced commercial lawyer who could use that experience across a range of disciplines. That might change a little as the jobs market flips away from being one where the employer can be very prescriptive in what they’re looking for rather than have to be more willing to see past the headlines to look at the underlying skills and judgement that a lawyer can bring.


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