Meeting the needs and expectations of young lawyers
When I consider the issues facing the legal sector, I often come back to the experience of young lawyers. Smart, energetic, passionate and hardworking, young lawyers are fun to work with, teach and mentor as they establish their careers and reputations. The Law Society’s most recent Annual Report in 2017 reports that 33% or 3,911 of BC’s 11,894 practising lawyers are under the age of 40. This includes 630 lawyers in their first year of the profession. Their journey to becoming lawyers and their daily experience is very different from the other two-thirds of the profession. It is something worth talking about in order to seek understanding of that experience and be sure that the other two-thirds adapts to embrace this group. Lawyers and workplaces who adapt contribute to a positive experience. Thank you for doing that.
If you ask, new lawyers can tell you about the debt load they carry as they start their careers and the potential for that to overwhelm them. In January 2019, the Law Students’ Society of Ontario released a second report on student debt and notes that 53% of students entering law school do so with no prior debt. Those with debt primarily have government student loans with an average amount of $27,447. By the end of law school, over 60% of students have debt and the majority of that is on lines of credit with financial institutions. The amount? $83,746 on average.
The impact of this debt is negative. With an average of $83,746 to be paid off, new lawyers often deviate from the career paths they sought when pursuing a law degree and feel compelled to work in major urban centres in large firms where the compensation is usually higher than in rural areas. They work in more financially lucrative areas instead of social justice. They are less satisfied when the rationale for going to law school and the financial reality don’t match and, in some cases, result in significant set-backs. Addressing the debt during their early career when they are also on a significant learning curve is a source of stress. This can show up on the job where lawyers “put in more hours” chasing increased compensation to the detriment of the quality of their work, their own health, their connections with colleagues, or relationships and activities outside of work.
Ask a few more questions of young lawyers and, if you are patient and they know it is okay to tell you, they may confide that they are struggling with stress, depression, anxiety and substance use. They don’t usually hear from senior lawyers or even their mentors that it is okay to ask for help, get treatment, or adjust work responsibilities in order to address these concerns. They are worried about the Law Society “finding out.” They have negative experiences with health insurers.
As we often hear, the stigma associated with mental health challenges is incredibly difficult to overcome in the legal profession.
So what can we do collectively in CBABC to support young lawyers?
First up: Ask and Listen.
CBABC hosts focus groups and surveys young lawyers to hear first-hand what they experience, want and need.
The Young Lawyers Advisory Committee influences the advocacy and programming in CBABC. For example, they launched the inaugural Bell Let’s Talk CBABC social media campaign on January 30. Young Lawyers sections create communities where young lawyers decide who they want to hear from to learn and gain more control over their practices.
Third: Meet Needs and Expectations.
Our advocacy, programming and services include what is important to young lawyers.
Fourth: Try New Ideas.
A Young Lawyers Conference anyone? Let’s talk.
Kerry L. Simmons, QC