Junior lawyers can feel as if they have an unfortunate trade-off: associates are overloaded with responsibilities — many consisting of manual, repetitive tasks — and they may also feel that their compensation is lower than that of their peers.
So, it’s not surprising that junior lawyer burnout is a serious issue for law firms. As per a recent International Bar Association survey, the majority of 3,000 lawyers polled under the age of 40 said they would either leave or consider leaving their current job over the next five years. About 54% said they were likely to go to a new workplace, 33% want to switch to a different area of the legal profession, and 20% may leave the profession entirely. An ongoing trend of junior lawyer isolation has been sped up by the “Great Resignation” post COVID-19.
Associate burnout affects a law firm in many ways. Productivity may suffer, deal processes get disrupted, and client relationships get rattled from clients having to adjust to new faces too often. Plus, too much turnover is simply expensive. Firms need to spend time and money onboarding junior lawyers, so the more of this they have to do, the more it costs. In the late 2010s, turnover was estimated to cost the top 400 law firms as much as $9.1 billion annually.
Is junior lawyer burnout tied to due diligence tasks?
There are a lot of reasons why junior lawyers are unhappy. A common denominator is being assigned tasks which are both time consuming but also exacting. A single error in a due diligence analysis could spell trouble for a deal. Missing a buried but critical detail in a document could lead to litigation down the road.
Because of this, the pressure on associates is immense. They feel they have to be perfectionists but also rarely find the time to dig deep into a project. They may work over the weekend to complete diligence on a deal, yet still feel as if they haven’t done an adequate job, worrying they may have missed something important in their reviews. It’s a perfect recipe for burnout — enough to drive a junior lawyer to think about changing careers.
What are other causes for burnout?
- The sense of a greatly uneven work-life balance
- The drudgery of much associate-level legal work
- The constant, inescapable deadlines; the culture of the billable hour
If these concerns go unaddressed for too long, many junior lawyers will eventually choose the option of the door, which isn’t good for a firm’s long-term prospects. The associates of today are a law firm’s leaders of tomorrow. If too many of them leave before making partner, the firm risks losing much of its stability and institutional knowledge and having to build its business on less stable client relationships.
Changing the culture
That said, law firms can take steps to reduce junior lawyer burnout without making radical changes in priorities, spending, or organization. The goal is to make a junior lawyer’s work more interesting and rewarding.
As per a report by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and the Thomson Reuters Institute, when 900 law firm associates were asked what could entice them to stay at their current job, associates cited colleagues, their firm’s culture, and the quality of their work — and only 9% said compensation.
Improving a firm’s culture can start with simply allowing junior lawyers more freedom in terms of home-office work. If it’s crunch time on a deal and an associate will have to spend the next two weeks deep in diligence, allowing for a looser, hybrid work schedule could make the workload seem less exhausting.
Firms also can try for more equitable work allocation. Partners understandably may have their favorites among associates: those they feel are good workers and with whom they have a rapport. The problem is that sometimes these partners overburden those junior lawyers by always turning to them first for new assignments.
One way to reduce this is to move to a more formal work-allocation system. Junior lawyers will list how much time they have in a given period. Then work can be assigned randomly, based upon a lawyer’s availability and flexibility, not favoritism.
Transforming legal work
Most of all, a law firm can reduce burnout by cutting down on the repetitive, time-consuming tasks that its junior lawyers need to do. The move to greater automation of due diligence processes is a way to transform and improve the quality of legal work. Imagine: junior lawyers no longer needing to upload documents page by page or spending days trying to convert a pile of contracts, usage agreements, leases, and patents into an organized, accessible database.
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Or, that an unexpected client request no longer means a desperate scramble through notes to find the data needed. Instead, a single query to an artificial intelligence(AI) process will retrieve the information immediately and often with a level of detail that no lawyer could have gotten on their own.
AI as the associate’s friend
Law firms should regard platforms like Document Intelligence as an anti-burnout tool. By incorporating AI into such processes as document retrieval and discovery, a firm no longer has to make its junior lawyers devote so much time to unrewarding tasks.
Instead, an associate can work to add value to a firm’s interactions with clients, not just billable hours. Armed with AI analysis, a junior lawyer can dedicate themselves to finding and ranking potential red flags, annotating performance, and forensically examining a client’s operations to offer them better, more pinpointed strategic advice. A junior lawyer’s life thus becomes more client centered rather than being primarily clerical.
A new type of associate
While junior lawyer burnout is understandable, it’s not inevitable. Changes in legal work culture — and particularly changes in legal work technology — means there are new options, more rewarding responsibilities, and a better work-life structure for associates. The first years of a legal career shouldn’t be considered a trial to endure until the lawyer gets promoted to more rewarding work. Entry-level law work should be rewarding in its own right — and now it can be.
It’s no secret that when you have the right tools at your firm’s disposal, deals can get done faster and more efficiently and your associates will be happier. When your people are happier, your clients are happier.