Junior lawyers want the right to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons, but few firms currently provide it, new research has found.
It comes with frustration that cultural change in the profession is being held back by partners resentful at the thought of the next generation having it easier than they did.
The report by Obelisk Support, World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still, identifies the four pillars that it said would help drive the change the profession needs to see: a balance of purpose and profit, being actively climate conscious, enhancing accessibility to the profession, and a stronger focus on professional ethics.
Nearly three-quarters of young lawyers polled by Obelisk agreed or strongly agreed that they would not join an organisation whose values did not match with their own, even if they were offering more money.
An even higher proportion (86%) said they were looking to effect positive change in society through their work as a lawyer.
While nearly two-thirds said employers should allow them to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons, only 18% could say their current employer did this.
Just over half say they would feel able to challenge management if they believed they were being asked to do something they saw as unethical.
The report was informed by a roundtable of junior private practice and in-house lawyers convened by Obelisk, with an associate at one City firm telling it: “There is something among the older generation where, either consciously or sub-consciously, they think, ‘I worked bloody hard to get into this profession and no one cared about my mental health. I worked long hours. Why should the younger generation get away with a nicer culture?’ Perhaps there is a bit of resentment there.”
Another described this mindset as “so toxic”. She said: “Why can’t the mindset be ‘I worked under terrible working conditions so you don’t have to’?” Participants expressed frustration at the slow pace of cultural change, insisting that it could not wait until they were in the leadership positions to effect it.
While some employers are genuinely committed to environment, social and governance (ESG) plenty were still paying lip service, the research said – almost all survey respondents agreed that some organisations were guilty of window dressing when it comes to tackling diversity and other ethical issues.
And yet half said their own employer has a purpose beyond profitability.
Obelisk chief executive Dana Denis-Smith said: “The next generation of lawyers is expecting the legal profession to shift to a business model that prioritises sustainability beyond profitability. Legal businesses that reflect the core principles of purpose, equality and environmental awareness will be the trusted partners of clients.
“Mindful of their own responsibilities, clients are pressing for their supply chains to reflect these new priorities.
“Businesses are now in an era of ‘show, not tell’ and law firms are not immune from scrutiny. It is not enough to draft the policies and send out the press releases – they have to prove they mean something. This will create the platform for motivated staff to deliver for their clients.”
Obelisk Support recently became only the 11th legal business to be certified as a B Corp, which requires businesses to show “high social and environmental performance”.