Publish date: 14 December 2022

Superficial, cosmetic and often specious, the change espoused by law firm leaders is like a new coat of paint on an old commodore; it’s bright, buffed and shiny again but everyone knows deep down that nothing has improved underneath the bonnet. After all, the decision makers grew up with the sleek lines of the VH model and its horizontally slatted grill, lower front-end body work and 4.2 litre V8 engine. It ticked all the boxes when they were new to the profession, so why not give it an upgrade and roll it out of the garage once more? 

So too, in our approach to practice. Are we really being transformational as we “revamp”, “recalibrate” or “reassess” our approach to practice in this digital age? Or are our pivots in policy, values and culture really more of a cosmetic rejuvenation than a paradigm shift? As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  

Law firms now operate in a digital age with the challenges of artificial intelligence, digital technology and telecommuting, yet we so often seem to hold on to the practices of the past for grim death. Think time costing, performance appraisals, hierarchical structures and rainmaker reverence – all rusted-on attributes of successful law firms in the past that I’d argue have little relevance to law firms of the future. 

If we reflect on the data, it’s quite apparent that the legal profession looks nothing like it did two or three decades ago. Perhaps our noble profession could avoid falling behind the curve by getting ahead of the numbers and landing on a strategy that takes into account the changing demographics of legal practitioners across the country and aims to meets the needs of the next generation of lawyers?  

As the Baby Boomers retire, Generation X have become the decision makers and leaders in a large number of Australian firms. But the “command and control” approach that so many of us grew up with isn’t going to fly with the Millennials or Generation Z. Even before the pandemic, younger lawyers were less interested in bonus schemes and high remuneration than they were in flexibility, work-life balance, constant feedback and authentic leadership. And if the researchers are right, it seems that for Generation Z, employers will need to plan to provide for their psychological safety at work, higher levels of pay, career progression and a firm culture of transparency, courage and entrepreneurship.  

Dynamic and successful firms of the future will already be planning for the future look of the profession. And hints about the future shape of the profession can be mapped from the data contained in the National Profile of Solicitors, a report undertaken by Urbis and published every two years by the Law Society of New South Wales on behalf of the Conference of Law Societies. The next edition should be out soon, but there are plenty of useful indicators in the 2020 report (published in 2021).  

To my mind, they key take outs from the report are the growth in number of females entering the profession, compared to males, and the sheer number of new lawyers taking out practising certificates. It was back in 2018 that women in the profession began to outnumber men, but strikingly, since 2011, the increase in women entering the profession has been staggering – a 67% increase compared to 26% for men. We know that in 2020, there were 83,643 lawyers across Australia and that there was an 8.79% growth in numbers since the 2018 report. We also know that 67% of the new entrants to the profession were women. If we assume, for the sake of the exercise, that these trends continue in coming years then the total number of lawyers and the number of females should look like this: 

YEAR TOTAL LAWYER NUMBERS (growing by 8.79% p.a.) NUMBER OF FEMALE LAWYERS (assuming 67% of new lawyers are female) 
2020 83,643 44,330   
2022 90,995 49,256 
2024 98,993 54,615 
2026 107,695 60,445 
2028 117,161 66,787 
2030 127,460 73,687 

So, if, by 2030 we have 73,687 female lawyers in the profession. By my maths, that means that women will account for 57.82% of legal practitioners. And if the 8.79% increase each year continues, we will have 43,817 members of the profession in that early career stage. It will mean that these “early career” lawyers will account for 34.81% of the total profession (forecast on these assumptions to be 127,460 by 2030). 

So, what does that tell us? 

If the future of our profession is going to be female focussed and weighted towards early career lawyers, our firm’s culture, leadership, policies and approach to practice will need to evolve to meet the needs of these cohorts. April 2020 taught us that, in law firms at least, Darwinism is dead. No longer is it survival of the fittest, but survival of the most agile.  

So, rather than sprucing up the old commodore, perhaps today’s law firm leaders should be focussed more on planning to meet the needs of early career and female lawyers in the next iteration of their business and strategic plan. And perhaps it’s opportune to enquire of the early career and female lawyers in our firms as to what structural and cultural changes our firms should start planning for in order to attract, retain and inspire law firm leaders of the future? 

As published in Australian Lawyers Alliance and Lawyers Weekly 

Travis Schultz
Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
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