From Dickens to dress-down Fridays: how the legal industry needs to adapt in a changing world

It might be an age-old image, but it’s an enduring one: the jaded and overwrought Dickensian lawyer working away by candlelight in a dusty old office where the coal is strictly rationed and the fire is dwindling.

It’s fair to say the world has moved on since Bleak House. But in many ways, the legal industry has not. It is, after all, an industry built on the deep-set doctrines of the past, an occupation that by its nature deals in cold, hard facts, in rigidity, in the power of precedent. The work’s intense, the hours are long and there’s still a view in some law firms that a lawyer’s dedication and productivity can be measured in lack of sleep.

While the legal industry has remained largely unchanged, young lawyers have grown up in an era of relentless change, of seismic economic shifts, political instability and unprecedented technological advancement. This gives them very different expectations to their Dickensian counterparts. They expect flexibility from their employer, access to remote working, a choice of what to work on, even a choice of what to wear. They expect a good work-life balance. And this is only likely to continue as Generation Z – born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s – form an increasing proportion of the legal workforce.

Young lawyers can therefore be forgiven for wondering whether the long and rocky road to partnership will do anything other than wear out their shoes. Law’s not easy to get into, either. And nor should it be. A three-year law degree, a year-long LPC and a further two years in a training contract mean a person’s almost in their mid-20s before they can actually start practising law.

The legal industry has a heritage and a prestige that few others can match. To this day, the lawyer is afforded a level of respect that’s shared only by a handful of other occupations. But history’s not enough. With the world around them changing all the time, young lawyers will not be attracted by traditional working methods and rigid career paths forever.

Indeed, legal consulting roles are becoming increasingly attractive. They offer lawyers not only more control over the work they take on, but also the kind of freedom they crave – freedom that’s simply not available in many traditional law firms. Many young legal professionals are even thinking about leaving the profession entirely, which seems like an awful waste of time – and an awful waste of talent.

In order to meet this change, law firms will need to shift accordingly: to present themselves as credible, progressive employers; to offer flexible working to lawyers; to adopt new working practices that smooth the path to partnership.

Of course, it won’t be easy. You don’t reroute centuries’ worth of tradition by blowing out the candle and flicking a light switch. But we are seeing signs that law firms are starting to embrace new ways of working. The likes of Baker McKenzie and Hogan Lovells have introduced flexible working for all staff while Dentons, Herbert Smith Freehills and Morgan Lewis now actively encourage home-working. That’s not something you could have imagined 10 years ago, let alone in Dickensian times.

In an increasingly fluid world where things like flexible working are almost a given, many others will need to follow suit. Otherwise, the legal industry will be in danger not only of reinforcing the old stereotype of the overworked and overburdened lawyer, but of alienating the very talent pool that will provide its lifeblood in the years ahead.

And who knows…the clichéd image of the law firm in another hundred years could see a vibrant, energised lawyer relaying expert legal advice to their client via a VR headset, all from the relaxed surroundings of their own kitchen.

If you’d like to practice law in a way that plays to your strengths or need advice on how to forge your own path in the legal industry, speak to us now. You might just make a great gunnercooke lawyer.

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