Millennial lawyers aren’t ‘work-shy, ill-informed or lazy’

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By Andrew Francis and Lydia Bleasdale on

Academics Andrew Francis and Lydia Bleasdale outline the challenges facing younger lawyers and the importance of managing expectations

‘Millennials’ and millennial lawyers are often presented negatively in the trade and popular press. Commonly ascribed attributes are viewed as a challenge to the accepted ways in which organisations and the profession operates. However, the reality is much more complex.

This research paper, Great expectations: Millennial lawyers and the structures of contemporary legal practice, published in leading law journal Legal Studies, presents the findings of the first empirical study of the experiences of young lawyers who have entered an increasingly uncertain profession following a highly competitive education and recruitment process.

The paper analysed a sample of younger lawyers who, contradictory to common assumptions, were not work-shy, ill-informed or lazy. Rather, their expectations of professional practice have been framed by the socio-educational context in which their preparation for legal professional practice has been forged.

They understand the profession will be high-pressure and stress a core part of it. However, they have faced contradictory messages throughout their education and early engagements with the profession.

On the one hand, autonomy, responsibility and a well-regarded, highly remunerated professional career are held out to them. Yet, their experiences of limited autonomy in working life, as well as delayed personal and financial security, contradict these expectations.

This undermines their continuing commitment to the profession and frames their willingness to challenge organisational and professional norms, in particular, in relation to work-life balance and management practices.

There is, thus, also considerable stress, unhappiness and discomfort. Nearly 60% of questionnaire respondents had considered leaving the profession.

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In highlighting the limits of the new entrants’ ability to challenge accepted ways of professional practice, our research cautions against optimistic predictions that changes to working cultures will occur readily as new generations enter the profession.

Paying close attention to the millennial generation enables us to look at the context within which all lawyers practise. Legal educators and the profession need to continue these conversations, including discussions about technological change, new delivery models and organisation forms, for the benefit of lawyers of all generations and, indeed, the future health of the profession as a whole.

Law schools need to think about how they can ensure future lawyers are able to cope with professional expectations, while not perpetuating aspects of practice detrimental to health and wellbeing.

Law firms need to reflect on those many aspects of organisational culture and management practices that were so alienating to the younger lawyers — in particular, continued examples of sexual harassment and a lack of support following the ‘cliff-edge’ of qualification.

Context matters and it is worth reflecting on the context that the current global pandemic will frame for a new generation of young people facing, at best, a disrupted educational experience and an uncertain labour market. At the same time, the current context has required law firms to adopt much of the flexibility in working practices that the younger lawyers were already advocating.

As law firms and legal educators work to support young people through their legal studies in this challenging and uncertain period and in developing their careers in practice, this paper shows that context is vital in shaping expectations, approaches and values in legal practice — and challenges taken for granted assumptions about an entire generation.

The full research paper, Great expectations: Millennial lawyers and the structures of contemporary legal practice, can be viewed online.

Professor Andrew Francis is head of Manchester Law School. Lydia Bleasdale is an associate professor at the University of Leeds.

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