Can you quit your job?

24 01 2011

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?