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It isn't about the babies!

15 August 16

A recent Society blog on why young women lawyers leave their jobs prompts the author – who has just launched her own fashion business – to respond that sometimes people just want something bigger

by Becca Flory

"Why do young women leave their jobs?” asks Rob Marrs, head of education at the Law Society of Scotland in his April blog of that title (www.lawscot.org.uk/news/2016/04/why-do-young-women-leave-their-jobs/). As a young woman who recently left her job, I read the article with interest, keen to know the answer to such a provocative question.

As it turns out, the question should have been “Why do young women leave private practice law firms or the legal profession altogether?” Not quite as catchy, I know. The answer, according to Rob and the Society’s Profile of the Profession report of 2013, is fourfold: lack of flexibility in the workplace; pay; lack of opportunity to learn; and lack of opportunity to undertake meaningful learning linked to career development.

“Same old, same old,” I hear you say. Perhaps that’s why, when I finished the article, I felt more than a little deflated. (It could also have been because in 2016, I still find myself reading articles about women and careers with the words “It’s the babies, stupid” in them. Says it all, really.) Either way, as a woman who has left both private practice and the legal profession, I felt compelled to respond and to explore a bit further the reasons why young women leave their jobs.

A bit about me

When I left my job in 2015, I’d spent eight years working in-house, after eight months in private practice. At the time I moved in-house, the idea wasn’t as aspirational as it is today; quite the opposite. Regardless, I realised early on in private practice that the culture of the firm I worked for just wasn’t for me.

In my in-house role, I had wonderful colleagues who I learned a huge amount from, but there came a point when I felt I couldn’t go any further in my career there. So I left to go on the Saltire Foundation fellowship, an eight-month executive education programme designed to find, fuel and spark Scotland’s next business leaders. It sounds flippant as I write it, but leaving my job and the profession was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Fully expecting to return to Scotland to a commercial (non-legal) role in a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company, I certainly didn’t think I would be starting my own fashion brand. But that’s what I have done. And as I tell people about what I’m doing, my lawyer friends are telling me they’d love to do the same.

So what is driving them to want to leave a profession they’ve worked so hard to become part of?

“It isn’t about the babies…

…but rather flexibility.” The facts don’t lie (thanks, Rob). More and more women (and men) are leaving private practice to work in-house, as this tends to offer more flexible working, a better work-life balance and the interesting work that solicitors are looking for. Working in-house is now seen by many as aspirational, particularly if you’re working for a “sexy” tech company like Skyscanner.

When I asked Carolyn Jameson, chief legal officer there and a mother of three, about working in-house, she had a few horror stories to tell me about the perceptions of in-house lawyers by senior private practice lawyers, none of which I can share.

Carolyn, incidentally, has never worked in private practice and is now part of the C-suite of one of Scotland’s most celebrated companies. Working in-house, particularly for a company like Skyscanner, offers her the flexible working that she’s looking for: “Skyscanner has a flexible working policy. I take full advantage of it and I encourage my team to do the same.”

According to Carolyn, “taking full advantage” actually makes her more effective, efficient and allows more time to think. It also helps build trust between and among Carolyn and her seven lawyers – who last year won In-house Legal Team of the Year at the Scottish Legal Awards.

So as trainee and NQ private practice lawyers order in their Deliveroos at 10pm for very little pay (comparatively speaking), with the hope of reaching the top of the hierarchical ladder in less than 10 years, in-house lawyers are out enjoying life. This isn’t always the case, of course, and I certainly don’t want to exacerbate the idea that in-house lawyers don’t work as hard as private practice lawyers – it’s just different. And it’s different depending on the firm and the team that you work in.

The millennial(s) takeover

In 2015, the year I left my job, 307 female lawyers entered the profession versus 178 male lawyers. Even when I entered the profession eight or nine years ago, new females outnumbered new males. So, as a generation of millennial female lawyers (millennials being people born between 1982 and 2004) move through the ranks in private practice, I wonder if reaching the heady heights of partner still has the same appeal? I knew early on that it didn’t for me. So what can law firms do to retain or attract young female lawyers who don’t or no longer have partnership aspirations?

If flexibility is really what women want, one option may be for law firms to embrace freelance models like Lawyers On Demand (LOD) or Pinsent Masons’ Vario. Freelancing is a trend on the rise. Solicitors can be more selective in terms of the clients they work for and the types of work they do. According to managing director Tom Hartley, in the last three years, LOD’s business has doubled and it now has more than 600 lawyers.

Granted, it may not be for everyone, but for people who perhaps have ambitions outside the law and yet don’t want to leave the profession completely, it could just be the perfect solution – like corporate lawyer Ian Barrie, who left his full-time job to start ski business Glacius Travel and who now spends his winters in the French Alps and his summers working on legal projects. I explored the idea myself when I left the profession, but decided it wasn’t for me, discovering that while it’s hard to leave the law, it’s even harder to go back.

It’s all about the experience, dahling

Experiential trends are perhaps more relevant to consumers and marketing, but in a global society, law firms (and companies employing in-house lawyers) who can offer their employees experiences may be more attractive to millennials. At Skyscanner, Carolyn says that all employees have the opportunity to work in its overseas offices. “If you want to work in Barcelona for six months to see what it’s like, then you can.”

Of course, not all law firms or companies can offer this, but if there is a way of offering different experiences to employees, particularly at a more junior level, then I do not doubt that employers will be rewarded in the long term. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

The point is, young women and men do want more from their jobs – they expect more. People don’t stay in the same job for years and years like they used to. They move around. They go where there is more money, more learning, more career development. And unless law firms start looking outwards instead of inwards, and change, modernise and adapt, lawyers will not just be moving from private practice to in-house, in-house to freelance… they’ll be leaving the profession altogether.

Something bigger calls

After I read Rob’s article, I analysed the reasons I left my job. If I had completed the Profile of the Profession survey at the time I left, I too would have said pay and a lack of opportunity to learn or develop my career. But if I were completing it now, I would say it’s because I always felt there was something else I wanted to do in my life. Something bigger. For me that is starting and running my own business. For my best friend, it is working in international development – she left her job at an international law firm to volunteer at a charity before completing a Masters, and now works in Beirut, Lebanon, helping to support Syrian refugees.

I wanted to write this article to show that sometimes, just sometimes, women (and men) leave the legal profession because they have dreams and ambitions outside of the law. And try as law firms might to retain (or even attract) lawyers, they might just be on to a losing battle.

Is law a dying profession? Of course not. I am the first to argue against those who say that lawyers will no longer be necessary as automation and artificial intelligence “threaten” jobs, and I certainly don’t regret studying law or entering the profession. It has led me to where I am, and I am excited for what the future holds as a result.

Do I think that law firms need to think very carefully about what the millennial generation (and generation X…) wants, and adapt accordingly? Absolutely.

Becca Flory’s fashion e-commerce business, nublvck.com launched on 2 August. Becca would be happy to continue the conversation and be contacted at becca@nublvck.com

Have your say


Your comment

Elizabeth McGillivray

Wednesday August 17, 2016, 21:22

To my mind as someone very long in the tooth, private practice is facing a real difficulty. Young women seem risk adverse so many do not want to become partners. Smaller private practice firms may be popular with clients for the personal service aspect but the level of fees we can charge are simply not commensurate with paying high salaries. Clients do not understand the concept of flexible hours when it comes to wanting their solicitor at the end of the phone. In-house lawyers not only have the opportunity of flexibility but they do not have the worries of where the money is coming from to pay the bills. That worry is why you have to provide the service clients want.

It's fine to say we need to adapt but the reality is that we have to provide a service acceptable to clients and that's where the problems start. Anyone got any ideas?


Janet Hood

Wednesday August 17, 2016, 22:34

Such a brilliant article! Flexibility and an end to macho timekeeping and old fashioned office customs could enable a vibrant profession to emerge.

I have often said that my father who retired in 1973 would feel at home in most firms today - that is worrying.

Keep pushing the boundaries.

All the best

Janet