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As law firms continue to grapple with high rates of worker burnout among young lawyers, experts say a career break for grads could be part of the solution.

It’s not unusual for junior lawyers to feel overwhelmed, with grads often overloaded by a burden of low level, repetitive tasks in a work setting where it can be scary to speak up.

So, perhaps it’s unsurprising the rate of burnout in junior lawyer ranks is a big issue for law firms globally. According to a recent International Bar Association survey of 3,000 lawyers under 40, most said they would consider leaving their job over the next five years, with lack of work-life balance cited as a major concern.

In Australia, where the legal profession has long seen lawyers working excessive hours, young lawyers often bear the brunt. Many are said to leave roles due to exhaustion caused by marathon working hours, insufficient rest breaks and extreme stress.

The situation is not confined to law, with the federal government passing a so-called ‘right to disconnect’ law in February, which could provide some help for overworked employees nationwide.

It’s against this backdrop that experts say an early career break, or career “gap year”, can assist. Arvin Bisbal, founder of human resources consultancy Workplace Partners, says giving young lawyers a long break to travel is “as an emerging trend that is gaining traction.”

“It aligns with the ongoing desire many people have for greater work/life balance,” South Australia-based Bisbal tells LSJ. “This has become predominant in the past few years, since the COVID-19 pandemic where we saw many longstanding workplace trends forced to adjust and this new flexibility has remained prevalent since we returned to the workplace.

“Now, more than ever, we are seeing greater flexibility available in many professions and an overarching focus on wellbeing in the workplace.”

Incorporating a gap year into a firm’s wellbeing strategy can be a good idea, she says, as it’s a measure that aligns with what should be a “broader HR focus” on employee wellbeing. This is about promoting a healthy work-life balance from the start of an employee’s career.

On the issue of burnout, Bisbal’s guidance is that an early career break may help reduce exhaustion in a grad cohort, and boost long-term productivity and job satisfaction.

“Nonetheless, it may not suit all new graduates and must be considered on a case-by-case basis,” she adds. “Its success depends on the individual graduate’s needs and the organisation’s capacity to accommodate such flexibility.”

Jacqui Elliott, a senior HR consultant at global risk management and consulting firm Gallagher, also sees benefits of an early career break for grads.

In her opinion, there’s often pressure for new grads to kick off their careers straight away, and once that happens it becomes very hard to take time out for other life experiences.

“Given that a gap year is an idealised ritual in society, it would hopefully remove the ‘what if’ or regret for never having done it,” Elliott tells LSJ.

“It also presents an opportunity have young aspirational lawyers with some practical real-world experience coupled with their degree.”

That’s one of several potential upsides for firms, according to the Queensland-based expert, who adds that it can be an upside on both employee wellbeing and firm culture.

“I believe the gap year would place well into a talent attraction strategy,” she says.

“It does add some context to wellbeing in that in supports individuals to retain their position while they go on a personal journey reducing concern for their ongoing career aspirations should they need some time out.”

Bisbal agrees, pointing to the mental and emotional wellbeing gains of young workers taking time out. She says after years of academic pressure at school then university, a break can help young workers return to a firm “more refreshed and motivated.”

This can lead to a lift in a firms’ employee retention rate.

“Companies that offer this option may see higher retention and attraction rates as employees feel valued and supported from the outset,” Bisbal says.

“This sense of goodwill can foster loyalty and reduce turnover. In competitive markets, offering a gap year can be a unique selling point that differentiates a company from its rivals, making it more attractive to top-tier graduates.”

However, giving young lawyers leave, often with pay, for months or a year is not all upside.

Bisbal points to risks posed to firm planning from grads taking a gap year option.

“There can be challenges related to reintegration into a structured work environment after a year of relative freedom, potentially requiring additional onboarding efforts,” she says.

“Graduates may change their minds during their gap year and decide not to commit to the original employment offer, posing a risk to the organisation’s planning. “

There’s also the potential for the firm’s structure or needs to  change during the gap year, potentially altering or eliminating the original position, according to the HR expert.

“This raises concerns about job security for both the graduate and the company.”

Elliott echoes the concerns, noting the potential impact on workforce stability as clients could be left to deal with a “rotating” staff of juniors.

“You would also need to have a strong policy on how this is accessed and managed so you don’t have a large uptake at once that leaves you short on resources,” she says.

Offering extended leave to grads can also exacerbate staffing shortfalls, especially in the current hiring environment where it can be tough to fill short term temporary vacancies.

As Elliott explains: “If you have to temporarily backfill a role, short term contracts for lawyers are not exactly attractive so you may struggle.”

“There needs to be serious consideration into the firms’ ability to see through an offer of this kind, and it not just be glorified lip service to reel talent in,” she adds.

There’s also just the big cost to consider, she says, which makes the “big commitment” of offering a gap year uneconomic for many boutique and mid-tier firms.

“Firms that are not well positioned to make this offer might want to consider other benefits that lean in this direction.”

New Way Lawyers founder Carolyn Devries is one principal that has not yet felt able to give grads the option of a gap year due to the big resource allocation involved.

Instead, Devries says the Brisbane-based firm has a “whole of career” pledge to flexible work based on the individual needs and preferences of lawyers across their professional life.

“For some lawyers this means scheduling leave for vacation or travel, with there then being the ability to work from the vacation or travel location either side of their leave,” she says.

“For other lawyers, this means flexible work from home arrangements to accommodate family time with children.

“We also have an annual retreat for all our team which provides an opportunity to relax and unwind and connect as a team away from work.”

According to Devries, the firm is unlikely to lose from his approach given its pitch to new recruits focuses on “genuine and balanced work arrangements over an entire career.”

In her view, this set-up works better than single initiatives like a career gap year as it keeps the focus on employee wellbeing and career over the long term.

She also cautions against overplaying the lure of a career break to junior lawyers given, in her view, law graduates consider a firm’s overall recruitment package.

Even so, Devries acknowledges the benefits that can be gained from an early career break, especially in the area of family law, which is where her firm specialises.

Such a break provides a chance “to build experience and life skills that complement the practice of law,” she says. “In the area of family law, this can be invaluable as it is an area of law that requires a holistic approach to practice.”

“A family lawyer needs to have not only strong technical skills but also soft skills such as a broad world view, cultural awareness and values of empathy and compassion.”

While data on young workers is scarce, career breaks, generally speaking, are not unusual in Australia. Around 60 per cent of female workers and 29 per cent of male workers say they’ve taken one, according to data cited by the Australian Human Resources Institute.

For women, the main driver is to take time out to have children (41 per cent), followed by travel (14 per cent), while for men travel is top (25 per cent) followed by study (21 per cent), according to the data.

A recent report from Mahlab, a consultancy for legal and executive search, suggests the career breaks are on the rise. Its 2023 legal industry report found “more lawyers are opting to leave secure roles to take six to 12-month career breaks to recharge, reflect and refresh” as part of “short- and long-term incentives remaining a key drawcard to reward and retain staff against a climate of lower annual increases.”

Career breaks for young lawyers accompanies the growth, in the post pandemic world,  of sabbaticals among professionals reassessing the interplay between career and life including considerations like burnout, hybrid work and travel.

Business futurist Morris Misel predicts a growing number of young lawyers to push for extended time off, whether that’s six months or a year, in the years to come.

“It’s happening across the board, it’s happening in all industries,” Misel says. “The reality is that today’s graduates are not looking for the linear path necessarily. There was the time when you finished university and you routinely went on the hamster will and went to work … that no longer exists.”

He says another positive driver is more law firms getting on board the idea, which he labels a “huge hurdle” now overcome for juniors considering taking extended time off.

Another contributor, according to the futurist, is a general mindset shift among many of the  around 15,000 law students that enter the workforce each yea.

“The younger generations are not so gung-ho on having a career or an employer for life, so if they’re not getting out of it what they want they will move on,” he says. “It’s increasingly ‘I don’t need to be tied to you for the rest of my life if you’re not giving me what I want.’”

There’s also a better understanding of mental health and wellbeing these days.

“For them to take a gap year off prevents burnout and rejuvenates them, it’s a grinding course and by the time they’ve got to the end of it they’re gone. For them it’s a much better thing to take some time off.”

On the firms’ side, there’s understanding that grads may benefit from personal growth and maturity that comes from time off, especially as artificial technology takes up more work.

“A lot of the grunt work that they would have done historically just doesn’t exist or won’t exist,” Misel says.