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‘Never lose sight of why you wanted to be a lawyer’
Desi Vlahos

03 May 2022 / wellbeing Print

‘Never lose sight of why you wanted to be a lawyer’

Such is the demand for legal talent that newly qualified lawyers in London can now command starting salaries of over £160,000, a Law Society of Ireland webinar has heard.

However, even in this ‘hot market’, money alone is not enough to lure the best candidates, with recruits instead choosing firms that are seen as ‘great places to work’. 

The ‘Shrink Me’ event for PPC trainees (28 April) heard from both Elizabeth Rimmer of legal mental-health charity LawCare, and Desi Vlahos  of the Leo Cussen Centre for Law in Australia.

Firms now must compete for recruits on factors other than money, the event heard.

“If you are being paid £160,000 a year as a newly qualified solicitor, you will have no life,” Rimmer pointed out, “because you will have to build a significant number of chargeable hours.”

That left little time for anything else apart from sleep, she said.

But post-COVID, there had been more reflection on what was important in life, Rimmer added.

Not persuaded by money 

“You’re seeing a cohort of people that, perhaps, aren't going to be persuaded by the money,” she said.  

The traditional billable hour model had prevailed in the law, long after other business models built around it had adapted, noted Antoinette Moriarty (psychotherapist, and head of Law Society Psychological Services).

‘Pre-historic’ partnership profit models were still around, agreed Desi, though shifts could now be seen to retain talent.

Rimmer also perceived a shift away from the billing target model to a focus on outcomes, rather than outputs.

“You're seeing a few enlightened people beginning to think about, well, what have we delivered for our clients? Would they recommend the firm again, particularly in difficult areas of work?”

This was more common in areas such as family law, immigration, and crime, because there was a higher emotional impact both on the lawyer and the client, Rimmer said.

Pyramid 

Because the traditional partnership model was a pyramid, and worked well for the people at the top, there was not much incentive for them to really change the system, she added.

“It's built on a model of attrition,” she stated, with those on the bottom seen as expendable, though things were beginning to change.

“I would like to think that in five to ten years’ time, we'll have a much more enlightened approach,” she said. 

“We're going to have to, because people are going to go elsewhere,” she said.

Rimmer noted the rise of social-media ‘law influencers’, who could give often-negative accounts of their working lives.

The law, however, could also be an immensely rewarding career, she added. 

Sense of vocation

Employees were looking for a sense of vocation, belonging, and of doing something that mattered, the webinar heard.

The pandemic had accelerated change and interrupted systems in a way that showed that the legal world did have the capacity to change, Desi Vlahos said.

Recalibrating the business model for the needs of employees, was, therefore, not out of reach, she added.

Lawyers should reflect on the legacy they wished to leave behind for future generations, she suggested.

Elizabeth Rimmer said that it was very important to never lose sight of why you wanted to be a lawyer in the first place, and to always come back to that when challenges arose. 

Marathon – not a sprint

Webinar host Antoinette Moriarty said that careers were a marathon, and not a sprint.

Ever-increasing number of ‘portfolio’ careers meant that there was always room to find a space where one could have impact, she suggested.

She added, however, that it was important to be discerning about what one did and didn’t like, so as not to get trapped in the wrong area of law. 

Desi Vlahos echoed this point, saying that remaining true to one’s purpose was important.

There could be a skewed view of what success and productivity was, Vlahos added.

Burn-out

Where values were not aligned with work, this could lead to burn-out and despondency, she stated.

“Studies have shown that the risk of burn-out is higher in junior lawyers,” she warned.

“You can get a lot of support while you're training, and then once you're qualified, sometimes that can disappear, or not be there in the same way.

“That's an important thing to be cognisant of … because we need people coming into this profession, and staying,” she said. 

New perspective

Moriarty observed that the very large numbers of young professionals leaving Ireland to travel and work abroad could bring a valuable new perspective into the profession here.

In Australia, time spent outside the office was valued just as highly as that spent at work, and identities were not determined simply by one’s profession, she added.

Vlahos responded that recruitment in Australia had moved on, and was no longer based solely on premium universities, or the highest grades. 

There was a real shift, and an interest in the individual, and what they brought to the firm, she added.

She described interview processes now as  “very social”, because senior partners wanted to see effective inter-personal skills, and not simply cerebral qualifications.

Billable-hour backlash

2001 research by professor of law and theology M Cathleen Kaveny found that big-firm lawyers were often unhappy as a result of the billable hour, which accounted for every moment of working life, and led to an unhealthy attitude to how they spent their time.

Kaveny found this ‘instrumentalisation’ of time led to narrow, short-term goals, rather than broader or deeper values, such as maintaining skills, mentoring young colleagues, or living up to the highest ideals of the law.

The commodification of time made it feel expensive to do anything non-billable.

“No time is inherently sacred or even special,” Kaveny wrote, with the logical outcome that an hour not sold was an hour wasted.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland