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Just one in five young lawyers are attracted to the idea of making partner at a law firm, according to new data from an international survey of more than 1,000 lawyers and law students in the UK and Asia Pacific.

The ground-breaking research was commissioned by multinational firm Allen & Overy and conducted by the firm’s global consulting platform for lawyers, Peerpoint. The results were published in May in a report titled “The Future of Legal Talent” and revealed some startling differences between the career aspirations of modern lawyers and their counterparts from previous generations.

Forty-six per cent of the lawyers surveyed said that although it would be nice to make partner, it was not the most important thing to them in their career. Eighty-one per cent of lawyers believed many young lawyers entering the profession would feel that undertaking the path to partnership was not worth the sacrifice to their work/life balance.

“The fact is that for many reasons young lawyers don’t always see law as a career for life anymore,” said Carolyn Aldous, Managing Director of Peerpoint Asia Pacific. “Conventional career paths are not as appealing, and the results show that satisfaction levels for young lawyers drop significantly between one to five years into their legal career. Eighty-three per cent of our sample believe lawyers starting out today will have a very different experience to one who started five to
10 years ago.”

The report found that achieving a fulfilling work/life balance was now “the single most important criterion” for lawyers in defining career success. Almost all respondents said they would be prepared to sacrifice a degree of seniority and income in order to control their work and career and achieve balance. This was equally the case for men and women.

Conventional career paths are not as appealing, and the results show that satisfaction levels for young lawyers drop significantly between one to five years into their legal career.

“We were pleasantly surprised to see that the difference in experience and responses between genders was marginal,” said Aldous. “From trainee to partner level and among both men and women alike there is a similar shift in motivations, aspirations and concerns around careers – work/life balance being the resounding example of this.”

Manager of NSW Young Lawyers Victoria Graves said graduate lawyers should be encouraged by the many career opportunities that a law degree now offered, which could accommodate more flexibility and work/life balance than traditional partnership models allowed.

“A law degree doesn’t just give you a ticket to becoming a lawyer in a firm – it equips you with a transferable skill set that makes you strategic, problem-solving, analytical and able to digest large amounts of information,” said Graves. 

“Those skills are demanded in a diverse range of careers. Lawyers need to shift their mindset to think beyond the linear career path in a law firm. Choosing a career other than law should not be seen as a failure.”

Samuel Murray, an active member of NSW Young Lawyers and a graduate lawyer at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, agreed. “It is important to approach the changing face of the profession in a more holistic and nuanced way, rather than seeing it as a binary between ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ legal careers,” Murray said.

The report noted that, while increasing numbers of lawyers were stepping into legal consulting careers through platforms like Peerpoint, peers and colleagues were still an integral part of a happy legal career. Just 8 per cent of the survey respondents were willing to compromise on working with those whose company they enjoyed in order to achieve career success. Most (64 per cent) lawyers said working in a team with intelligent and interesting people was the aspect of their profession they enjoyed most. Just over a third (36 per cent) identified financial reward.