Millennials, look here before you leave
Suburban law practice can be innovative, meaningful and lucrative. Sound unlikely? I certainly thought so when I was practising in downtown Vancouver. Downtown practice was the centre of the legal universe – evidenced by the lavish lobbies and high-rise views. Unfortunately, the downtown-centred legal practice has long been hemorrhaging women lawyers and now, it appears, millennials – an entire generation of lawyers, may suffer the same fate. In a recent study conducted by Ali Haji as part of his Law/MBA thesis at McGill University, he predicts a mass exodus of millennials from traditional law firms.
Could the suburbs be the answer? Having spent the last two years setting up a suburban law practice, and meeting many new suburban colleagues, I suggest millennials consider the suburbs before leaving law.
One of the criticisms levelled by millennials, in Mr. Haji’s study, was a lack of innovation in law firms. My observations of suburban law practice suggest the suburbs are an engine of creativity. Alternative fee structures are one example. While the outdatedness of hourly rates has been acknowledged for many years, in my experience practising downtown, they remained the norm. In the suburbs, there are an array of fee structures being used, including some lawyers who exclusively work on flat rates.
Innovation in the suburbs is facilitated by lower overhead and smaller, more agile, firms. It is easier to take risks and experiment when you are not working against established systems.
Based on Mr. Haji’s research, he reports that all millennial respondents agreed (not some, all) that millennials are not able to find meaning, and remain happy, throughout a career at a large law firm. The study’s respondents reported feeling like a cog in the wheel of some larger effort that they did not understand. This is where the greatest contrast can be found between a traditional, downtown firm and a suburban, community-based practice.
Facetime with clients in a suburban centre is the norm, not the exception. Lawyers often meet in person with their clients to work through legal problems and solutions. The impact on our clients is the meaning in our work and, when you sit with the clients, you see it. In a suburban practice, not only do you see your clients in your office (or theirs), but you also run into them at the local baseball field, the grocery store and the library. This level of accountability can be scary, but if you are doing good work, it can be incredibly rewarding.
Of course, the elephant in the room is money. Fear of reduced compensation is a barrier to young lawyers considering a move out of downtown. For a true compensation comparison, a number of factors must be considered. The cost of living, including rent or property prices to live downtown as compared to the suburbs, is dramatically different. Alternatively, if you are commuting from a suburban home, time lost and cost of commuting accumulates quickly.
Suburban law practice is lucrative. Fees charged to clients may be lower, but overhead costs are also lower. The suburbs are growing, in population and businesses. Many suburban firms are over capacity with work and looking to hire. You may even earn more than a downtown salary if you negotiate a bonus structure or fee split, and continue to work downtown hours.
Millennial lawyers, the suburbs are waiting – stop here before you hit the highway out of law.
Sara Forte is the founder of Forte Law (fortelaw.ca), an employment law boutique with offices in Langley, Surrey and North Vancouver.