The Great Resignation: Why are Legal Professionals quitting?

28 Nov

By: Chris Burger

The fact that COVID-19 has affected all industries is old news. Since last year, it has come to light that many lawyers & administrative staff are contributing to “The Great Resignation” and leaving their current law firm in shockingly high numbers.

The Great Resignation has been highlighted as an economic trend where employees in droves have been handing in their resignations. This is no longer seen as a fad that started in 2021; as 2022 draws a close, it has impacted not only sectors and services where physical presence is a must –such as food, hospitality, or the healthcare industry – but also other professional jobs, whether employers offer in-office, work from home, or hybrid working options. This challenge is exacerbated for Intellectual Property (IP) practice groups since that field remains to be in high demand, and thus there are more competing opportunities for job seekers. At the same time, IP requires a unique skill set that does not easily transfer from other practices of law. Therefore the volume of job openings often outpaces the number of qualified candidates. At times finding experienced IP staff & lawyers can seem akin to searching for a unicorn.

Legal professionals, especially the younger ones, are switching to other law firms and different careers altogether. The source of this information is not limited to the grapevine. One only has to look at LinkedIn to figure out that The Great Resignation has hit law firms in the US. A search on in October 2022 for IP administrative roles in the US such as paralegal, docketer, etc., brings up over 300 job openings. Firms are reporting extensive challenges in hiring IP administrative staff, ranging from increasing salaries to the inability to find qualified candidates to interview. Some firms have even reported extending job offers, and the candidates simply don’t show up for their first day of work as they secured a better offer from another firm during the interview process!.

Additionally, an article on Youconnect states that over the last year, there has been an increase from 38% to 47% in job changes with lawyers who have one to two years of work experience. Resignation levels for legal professionals with three to five years of work experience have risen from 27% to 32%. (1).

Why is the Great Resignation Happening?

The question arises as to why The Great Resignation is happening. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to pause and introduced a break from the hectic pace that characterises any company, especially law firms. Many people took this time to reflect, rethink, and reimagine their options. There was a mass realization that there was more to life than poring over files, courtrooms, battles, judgements, and awards. Combined with relief from work-induced stress, a relook at unfulfilling jobs and a renewed focus on me-time & family life led to the Great Resignation.

Legal professionals in the US who have left their firms give an array of reasons for doing so. These range from ‘needing a new challenge’ to ‘the management does not have a clear vision’, ‘bad bosses’ to ‘want a better work-life balance’ to ‘increased earning potential.’ The younger lawyers & staff, in particular, want to be able to give back more to their community and be active participants in a firm where CSR and pro-bono are not empty terms. They want an inclusive work culture where their voice can be heard and heeded.

Given that opportunities abound for legal professionals, whether experienced or not, it is not surprising that many lawyers and staff in the US are heading for the exit door.

Impact of The Great Resignation

The impact of experienced legal professionals quitting is felt at multiple levels. If a Senior Partner quits, either to join another law firm or to start their own firm, there is a direct client and revenue impact on the incumbent law firm. They typically take with them the clients they have been managing. Similarly, when a junior attorney or a paralegal quits, this directly impacts the firm’s revenue. Such attrition directly reduces the partners’ effectiveness in serving their direct clients, as the partners must spend more time & effort on internal training tasks and bringing up-to-speed new hires with their own way of working. This time could have been easily used towards higher billable work and expanding their client base.

Further, when junior IP lawyers or staff leave a firm, it can have a detrimental snowball effect on the morale of the remaining employees as well. The volume of work does not decrease, but with fewer colleagues to manage the same workload, it leads to more work put on the shoulders of the remaining team. This, in turn, increases frustration with existing staff, and in turn, leads to even more departures … a vicious cycle! Additionally, several firms have reported challenges related to pay scales for new hires compared to established employees. When employees with many years of tenure at the same firm see new hires earning 20-30% more than their salaries, it leads to further dissatisfaction among existing personnel. Unfortunately, the answer is either costly raises across the board for existing staff or keeping salaries at their current level and risk further alienating the tenured team.

The Great Resignation

According to a report from McKinsey, the key to keeping employees from exiting is a good retention policy (3). A recent article on Reworked says that every employee likes to feel important and that they matter. Recognition and showing appreciation are significant (4). A McKinsey blog puts it perfectly: “To retain employees, organizations need to evolve their approach to building community, cohesion, and a sense of belonging at work” (5)

In a recent podcast on “How Law Firms Combat the Great Resignation”, Margeaux Roush, Director of Talent Acquisition at McGlinchey Stafford PLLC, discusses one of the primary strategies when it comes to attrition is to treat everyone at the firm as equal. “From the first day you enter as a paralegal or a law clerk all the way up to our rainmakers and professional staff, every single one of those people is being treated the same when it comes to physical, emotional, and mental well-being.” (6)

While many employees appreciate that their organization supports them in long-term goals such as continuing education and skill enhancement courses, it is vital that legal firms support their staff to retain them.

Firms should consider alternative staffing models – such as outsourcing routine IP administrative work to a third party – to complement and support their existing in-house team. Such an approach allows firms to have their valued employees focus on higher-value, billable, and client-facing work. Additionally, firms can avoid the jealousy of new hires making more than their established counterparts by having a third party fulfil open roles.

In addition to having adequate staffing levels, Forbes Magazine wrote that assuring a healthy work-life balance and presenting flexibility is more necessary than ever (7). Having a flexible work schedule that allows partial continuance of WFH or WFA is something that many prospective job candidates require.

Many law firms now offer customized programs that focus on personal coaching, fitness and yoga, breaks and mental health support, and healthy food at the office. Some firms are continuing with flexible and remote working. Extended maternal and paternal leave is also on the table.

The Great Resignation – How to Handle Inevitable Staff Departures

Unfortunately, avoiding attrition entirely is not realistic or possible. Firms must prepare for the eventual need to backfill open roles. As discussed, not finding suitable replacements for open roles leads to an increased workload on existing employees and further increases the risk that they too will resign.

Many firms have adopted an outsourcing solution to fill open roles when they arise. In addition to the benefits listed above related to having valued in-house staff spend more time on higher level work, there are several additional benefits. By outsourcing open roles to a qualified third party, firms can not only focus on the highest value tasks but also increase scalability, manage peaks & valleys of work more effectively, reduce operating costs, and even better manage risk.

At times staff members’ initial reaction to outsourcing can be negative, thinking it could introduce competition for their job. However, the opposite has been proven to be true. Staff can offload the least desirable tasks they perform on a given day. With additional capacity at the firm, they can increase the likelihood of having dinner with their family in the evening.

However, not all IP outsourcing vendors are created equally. Firms should thoroughly understand the credentials of the leadership team & staff of the vendor. Are they IP experts that understand the nuances of IP law? Are they focused on IP, or is their strategy and focus spread among various practice groups and offerings? What specific quality-control measures do they put in place to reduce the risk of errors being made? Does the vendor provide dedicated personnel to your firm, or are you assigned a pool of people – meaning your firm could have an outsourced paralegal working for you in the morning and a competitive law firm in the afternoon? How much tenure does their team of IP administrative staff have? As an example, firms should avoid vendors that hire their staff right out of school. Doing so leads to the vendor training their staff on the law firm’s dime. Qualified vendors should require all IP professionals to come with several years’ of experience, so the firm has confidence that their staff is already well-trained in the nuances of IP. Vendors must be able to adequately answer questions such as these to be seen as a viable alternative to hiring in-house staff.

If nothing else, part with a smile!

Accept that times are changing. Priorities are changing. Needs and wants are changing. People are introspecting and evolving.

Departures may still happen despite the best efforts, and as per the article, US legal firms should look back at the tenure with gratitude and celebrate the achievements (8). Do not end things on a bitter note or with anger and displeasure. A good leader encourages their staff even when they want to strike out on their own or look at greener pastures. After all, one never knows how things will turn out for the firm and the employee who left. It has been seen that when the departure happens on a positive note, lawyers and staff often return to the same firm. Keep the door unlocked for a warm welcome.