200 Lawyers on What Career Fulfillment Looks Like Today—and What it Takes to Get There
Every law school graduate knows the classic career trajectory: snag an associate position at a firm after graduation, work crazy hours to prove your worth, and then, hopefully, make partner and ascend to the next level, financially and otherwise.
But that typical path may be shifting. The rise in emphasis on overall quality of life and career fulfillment has produced a sea change in the next generation of lawyers, who have found the traditional route to success leaves much to be desired.
At least, according to a recent survey we conducted. We asked lawyers across the spectrum—from associates to partners, to in-house counsel for companies to attorneys working in government—questions about their values, where they plan to go next, down to the most basic question of all: Are they happy in their careers?
Looking toward the future, plenty of lawyers laid out a big question mark. One lawyer admitted they enjoyed their day-to-day, but doubted the path ahead: “I like my firm, but I always wonder if one day I will burn out.” Another worried about balancing it all: “Will I have a life, and if so, will they pay me enough to keep up with the cost of living?” Their responses circled the same topics‚ from figuring out their career to money concerns. One respondent basically summed it up: “Where am I going, where do I want to go (career-wise), and can I make it work financially?”
The overall results are pretty fascinating, and provide understanding into how lawyers are defining their careers today, as well as what it means to achieve fulfillment in the current job market.
Nearly 200—193 to be exact—SoFi members who are lawyers responded over 35 days in December 2016 and January 2017.
We posed different questions to different attorneys, depending on whether they work in a law firm, in-house for a corporation, or for the government. Additionally, in an effort to discover whether law firm associates are on track for partnership at their firms or not planning to attempt partnership at all, we asked different questions to those associates than we did to existing partners in firms. To get general demographic and lifestyle information, we posed the same questions to all respondents across the board, but asked different questions to lawyers with children versus those without.
Law firm associates have found the path isn’t what they expected.
Unsurprisingly, well over a third of our associate respondents either aren’t fulfilled in their careers, or aren’t sure if they are (which, if you’re on the fence, definitely says something). But the reasoning is illuminating: After years of hard work and building connections, almost 40% of associates have zero intent on making partner at their current firm.
Why not try to go for partner, after exerting all that effort? The majority—over 60%—said it’s because they will likely change firms. As soon as associates realize the first (or even first few) firms they join aren’t going to get them that coveted partnership offer, plenty find they have to strategically move on to another firm to receive it. As expected, having to jump around to achieve their ultimate goal is even more time and labor intensive than they might have imagined, and prolongs the timeline for reaching the next level in their careers. It suggests the modern path to partnership look less like a neat trajectory, and more like one step forward, two steps back.
There are other reasons why associates don’t have any intention of making partner at their firm, though. Another 31% noted the increased work and time commitment as a reason not to pursue partnership—though it’s not because they’re lazy or unambitious. (In fact, the lawyers we surveyed work 50-60 hours a week on average, and less than a third think they work too many hours.)
This is because once they get deep into the partnership track, many associates realize that niche legal expertise simply isn’t enough to get an offer. Over half noted the ability to bring in new business as the number one factor which determines whether or not you’ll make partner. So unless they have a business degree in addition to that law degree, that means associates have to start teaching themselves, from the ground up, about the ins and outs of business development, including marketing and networking skills. At the end of the day, for many, this extra commitment adds even more hours outside of work to the extensive amount of hours they’re already putting in to get that partnership offer. For about a third of our associate respondents, they admit that it just isn’t worth it.
It’s enough to make any associate start considering their options.
In-house and government lawyers have at least one upside.
Do lawyers in other camps still in the legal arena—in-house and government—have it any better?
For in-house and government lawyers, at least in one way: their sense that their work place’s values align with their own is much higher than for associates (by 3% and 7% respectively).
That said, the amount of in-house lawyers that either don’t feel fulfilled in their careers, or simply couldn’t tell us one way or the other (which, again, if it’s a question, says something) was the same as for associates’. On the somewhat bright side, 4% more in-house lawyers are just uncertain—rather than downright positive—that they’re unhappy compared to associates.
Of course, this is why it’s important for lawyers across the spectrum to assess their values, passions, and external needs (like compensation) under the same lens, so that they can find meaning in their careers where these elements intersect.
On top of that, 36% of in-house lawyers feel they’re not compensated fairly compared to firm attorneys with similar years of experience. For government lawyers, that number rises to 50%.
This feeling isn’t uncommon, and isn’t relegated to just this group. While figuring out value on the job market can be tough, it’s vital for employees, lawyers or not, to determine the right number to ask for so they don’t feel underpaid—especially when graduating with six figure student debt loads, which many young lawyers face.
Law firm partners are happier and fulfilled—but it comes at a price.
We know reaching partnership pans out in terms of more money—but do partners feel their work aligns with their values and, most importantly, are they happy?
The short answers are yes and yes. But it’s not cut and dry.
Partners tend to feel their values match up fairly well with their firms’—around the same amount as that of in-house lawyers. But better than that group, just 25% of partners say they either aren’t fulfilled or are unsure if they are. (This, remember, is in comparison to 38% of associates, in-house, and government lawyers who say they’re unfulfilled or are unsure.)
But even with the majority saying they’re fulfilled and feel they are doing work they care about, there is still some hesitation to say they took the best path. This is because, compared to lawyers on other paths, partners emphasized the sacrifices they’ve made to get where they are. A third mentioned they had to miss out on spending time with friends, a quarter had to give up hobbies and interests, and 17% said they delayed having children for the sake of their career. (As for the latter, this was true for all lawyers we surveyed—we’ll explain why in a minute.)
It goes along with that “more hours than expected” aspect associates pointed out—learning business development, driving in new business, and networking with partners means more late nights at the office than for in-house and government lawyers, where the path to promotion within their ranks isn’t determined as much by the amount of hours clocked in.
But for every type of lawyer, work-life balance isn’t necessarily their top priority.
In fact, work life-balance came in third in terms of which factors lawyers found the most important to nurture. Across the board, the number one aspect they cared about most was quality of life—which, of course, is up for interpretation.
One lens we might look at in understanding this is seeing how lawyers feel about children in their lives, and what they meant for their career. Of the lawyers who have children in our survey, 82% took time off when their kids were born, which is a good thing. But, on the same note, a full 50% took off less than 4 weeks.
On top of that, a third admitted that taking time off for their children held them back professionally. And over 60% of attorneys who don’t yet have children emphatically note that yes, having a child would impact their career progression.
This isn’t to say the lawyers who have children (or plan to) have doubts about the decision. Rather, they emphasize that it’s a trade-off, where improving their quality of life in this sense has had (or will have) repercussions elsewhere, one they try to minimize by taking as little time off as they can manage.
After quality of life, getting out of debt and attaining financial wellness came in close second in terms of priorities. But there is a paradox to achieving those ambitions. Namely, the majority say they live in a city that’s beneficial to their career, yet 60% say cost of living in their city has been detrimental to reaching financial goals.
Because they have to live where their career can thrive, lawyers have to come up with financial solutions to make up for high cost of living, including better ways to budget, save, and take control of their debt (with one of them, for the lawyers we surveyed, being refinancing their student loans.) As far as the latter goes, some lawyers have even figured out strategies that made it possible to pay off their loan debt in as little as five years.
The bottom line
For many of the associates we surveyed, the timeline to partnership is getting longer, and some have found that it’s even more work than they anticipated, to the point that they’re re-evaluating their careers. There are plenty of in-house and government lawyers who it would benefit to do the same, considering the lack of fulfillment in this group, too.
So what are the options for lawyers who are burnt out and at a crossroads in their career? Fortunately, lawyers are highly valuable on the market even outside of firms and legal occupations—there’s no denying that a law degree on your resume gives you a leg up among applicants. For associates that are unhappy, it’s worth it to start thinking about their brand more broadly, aside from how they fit into their firm, and how they might market their leadership and networking skills to potential employers. After that, it’s all about coming up with an exit strategy and changing careers to find a great fit for their strengths in another industry.
But for associates who want to stick it out in law, there are options, too. After all, it pays well (which is helpful for eliminating all that student debt), and, once you do make partner, we’ve seen that it can pay off in terms of career fulfillment in addition to prestige and compensation. If their current firm isn’t clicking, changing firms could be just what some associates need to truly feel like they belong, and are on the path to partnership somewhere they want to be long-term. And if the firm route isn’t working out, going in-house, nonprofit, or even practicing solo are just a few legal opportunities worth exploring next. All it takes is reaching out to network with lawyers already in these particular fields to ask questions and see if it sounds like the right direction.
And as for lawyers that feel they’re not being compensated fairly, take advice from other lawyers on how to ask for a raise, and keep chatting with peers to consistently assess your value in the marketplace.
There are plenty of ways for lawyers to carve out the road ahead, and make sure it’s a fulfilling one. Reflecting on what they value in their careers and in their overall lives might be just what it takes to get there.
Talk to a member of SoFi’s Career team to discuss your options and learn more about how you can best accelerate your legal career.