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Quiet quitting is having a moment as workers swap impressing the boss for doing the bare minimum. The demands of the profession make lawyers particularly susceptible to the social media-driven phenomenon.

Our relationship with work has undergone a dramatic shift during the pandemic. We’re more in tune with our mental health and desire better work-life balance. We’re increasingly fed up with toxic workplaces and hustle culture – an expectation that we put in long hours and put work at the centre of life.

Yet we continue to feel overworked and underpaid, especially given the rising cost of living.

For a growing number of workers unhappy at work and unable or unwilling to resign, ‘quiet quitting’ is the way out. The trend fist went viral on TikTok after the platform’s creator, Zaid Khan, posted about his discovery of quiet quitting and perfectly captured the zeitgeist.

“You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” he explains.

Data from research and consulting firm Gartner’s Global Labour Market Survey published in July shows the phenomenon is playing out in workplaces, with employees’ discretionary effort – willingness to go above and beyond – falling, while intent to stay with a current employer is rising.

Quiet quitting might seem like the domain of the less committed, but professions like law where ambition and overtime are implicit aren’t immune to the appeal of doing just enough to get by. And even though the trend has its roots in younger, Tik-Tok-literate generations, older practitioners are also voicing their discontent through quiet quitting.

The message to the profession is clear: firms that ignore the signs of quiet quitting do so at their peril.

Rejecting hustle culture

Discontented workers have long done the bare minimum required to keep receiving a pay cheque, but quiet quitting is resonating now because of the pandemic and the conversations it’s triggered around workplace wellbeing.

“It’s really a symptom of things that haven’t been going right for a long time, of an unhealthy relationship that we have with our work and vice versa,” says Valerie Ling, a clinical psychologist with a focus on burnout and workplace wellbeing, and director of the Centre for Effective Living. “The pandemic has made it worse because a lot of our professions are exhausted.”

Hustle culture, toxic workplaces and professions with systemic burnout are just some of the things that have “gone wrong in people’s relationships with work”, she says. “Quiet quitting is a voice to say, not only are we exhausted and tired, but nobody cares, and nobody is giving us the reward or recognition for the hard yards we’ve put in.”

Aaron McEwan, a psychologist and vice president of research and advisory at Gartner, agrees that a re-examination of the meaning of work is one of the main drivers of quiet quitting.

“Pandemics have this way of reshaping society. One of the bigger flow-on impacts of that, and we’ve got very specific data that shows this, is people are really rethinking their relationship with work. What is the purpose of work? Where does it fit into our life? Pandemics are existential events, so they remind us of how fragile our lives are and how short they can be.”

Indeed, quiet quitting isn’t about slacking off or phoning it in because you can’t be bothered. It means continuing to work but not allowing work to control you – by doing only what your job requires and nothing more.

“You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life; the reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labour,” explains Khan in the TikTok post.

Quiet quitting is a part of a broader global movement pushing back against traditional narratives of hard work, fixed pathways to professional success and work as a key aspect of identity. There are links with ‘The Great Resignation’, where workers around the world are leaving or planning to leave their jobs in record numbers.

Interestingly, quiet quitting may have its origins in a trend that began sweeping through China last year known as ‘tang ping’ in Mandarin or ‘lying flat’. Sparked by an online post that went viral, young workers are rebelling against the country’s notorious ‘996’ work culture, where people are expected to clock in from 9am until 9pm six days a week.

But even though younger workers ignited the quiet quitting trend, and tang ping, Ling says it’s come to represent the discontent of a broader demographic. “TikTok and Gen Z have been the ones to create a short way to say things that we are all feeling.”

A warning sign for lawyers

Despite the hard work, high pressure and long hours that are implicit in any legal career, law isn’t immune to the effects of quiet quitting. In fact, it’s these expectations that make the profession particularly susceptible.

McEwan says there is a lot of data that points to quiet quitting as an emerging trend in law. “Law is particularly exposed to this phenomenon because there is a culture of excessive workloads, of sacrificing everything for the final prize. And that is clearly what people are rejecting – that’s what this phenomenon is about.

“People are really reflecting in jobs that require you to go above and beyond and to sacrifice time for yourself, time with family, time with friends. These jobs are being rethought at a very deep level.”

The effects are likely being felt across most levels of seniority, except for older workers approaching retirement age. “The data is pretty clear that it’s not just a young person thing,” McEwan says. “Gen X is the partner group at a law firm, and it’s also showing up in millennials and Gen Z.”

What’s more, when the tacit payoffs of heavy workloads start to evaporate – courtesy of internal factors like lack of career opportunities or external factors like inflation, wage stagnation or a higher cost of living – the effects can be compounded.

“If you take on a job at a major law firm, you accept your hours are going to be long. The implicit guarantee here is there’s an upside, but when that upside disappears that’s when you start to get quiet quitting in professionals,” says Mark Humphery-Jenner, an associate professor of finance at UNSW Business School.

“People who are potentially stuck at senior associate [level] and are not really going anywhere – those people may start to quiet quit. Because if they’re not seeing they’re going to make partner or have much of a career upside, they’re probably going to exert less effort.”

Humphery-Jenner says for legal professionals overstretched by an increasing workload, quiet quitting can be an attempt to establish better work-life balance. For others, quiet quitting can be a “stepping stone” to quitting in the traditional sense.

“People who are ambitious, who genuinely want to put in more hours and who want to progress up the corporate ladder, aren’t going to do so if there’s no upside,” Humphery-Jenner adds. “They’re simply going to quiet quit and then potentially move jobs.”

Ling agrees that quiet quitting often facilitates job searching. “Depending on how small or large your firm is, how political the environment is, if you take quiet quitting to mean, ‘I’m just going to coast and do the bare minimum that I can to make it through the day without actually resigning while I look for another job’, that’s probably been sitting there for some time.”

Re-examining relationships with work

There’s no doubt quiet quitting offers a potentially positive alternative to stressed out, exhausted legal professionals seeking to recalibrate their relationship with work. Working less is linked with better mental health and a reduced risk of burnout, and happier workers are more productive and engaged.

“If we embrace quiet quitting for what it is, which is simply employees setting boundaries, what that then allows people to do is establish healthier habits around how they live, exercise, sleep, eat and all of those things,” McEwan says. “That’s the fuel that produces the skills we need for the future of work – particularly in law.”

But, says Ling, quiet quitting can also have the opposite effect on our attitudes to work. “It can lead us to give in to a resignation of hope that we can make our work lives meaningful,” she says.

“Work is of itself a good thing. It’s good for our mental health to have a place where we have colleagues, structure, a place where we can achieve, a place where we feel like we’re connected to meaningful work. If we quiet quit [from] all of that, it’s not a good thing.”

She says it’s important for firms to probe the reasons behind quiet quitting and aim to solve problems. “Look at it as a symptom and say: Why is this happening? Why do we feel this way? What needs to change? What are some of the ways that we can introduce that relief without you needing to quiet quit?

“The legal profession has got the need for people to do hard work and long hours, but it’s not just the workload – it’s also the culture and how we distribute work and how we recognise the work.”

Assoc Prof Humphery-Jenner says incentives are a key mitigator of quiet quitting. “It pretty much comes down to pay and making sure there’s a clear path to career progression.”

Employees have a role to play, too. Doron Paluch, director of legal recruitment firm Burgess Paluch, says the onus is also on lawyers to raise issues affecting their relationship with work.

“The most important thing for people who want to avoid burnout and who feel that they are being required to work unreasonable hours, or who feel they are going too far above and beyond, is to in some way or other discuss that issue with their employer.

“It is a hard discussion to have and there’s often not a simple way of doing it. But simply unilaterally changing the hours or conditions under which you work is not usually a path that’s going to end well.”