Junior lawyers and consultants are warning they are suffering burnout after working longer hours in isolation during the pandemic, sparking fears of an exodus from the biggest global law and advisory firms.
Soaring demand for legal and corporate advice during the Covid-19 crisis and a global shift to remote working have resulted in a growing mental health problem among younger professional workers, according to senior partners.
Lawyers said the fast pace of work was no longer balanced by social interaction and face-to-face team work, causing some to reconsider their career path. Senior lawyers said they were already seeing departures at the junior end of profession.
“I do think it will lead to people leaving,” said Ben Tidswell, chair at law firm Ashurst. “We’re really worried about it, and not just as a retention issue but as a welfare issue.”
Similar pressures are being felt across financial services companies. Last week a group of first-year investment banking analysts at Goldman Sachs told management they had been working an average of 95 hours per week and suffering from insomnia and anxiety.
When the pandemic hit, law and advisory firms were deluged with requests from businesses in need of restructuring. A boom in M&A and private equity deals also created more work for corporate lawyers and bankers.
About 8,000 private equity deals were announced in 2020 — the most since records began. Over the same period the number of Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings with liabilities greater than $10m grew by 16.5 per cent, according to data from accountancy firm PwC.
One associate at US law firm Latham & Watkins, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The fear of burnout is real. Since January 1 I’ve worked about 150 per cent of my targeted hours. The work is interesting but has pervaded every waking (and sometimes sleeping) moment.
“With the ability to take holidays curtailed there is an implicit expectation that we are generally available to help . . . I often find myself thinking how long can this be sustained?”
A Brussels-based partner at a magic circle law firm said they were finding it increasingly hard to retain young people. “It’s a real problem. Before you could build a sense of a team even if it meant long hours in the office. Now people are stuck at home doing very unglamorous work from their bedrooms.”
A trainee solicitor in a large American law firm said junior lawyers had been working longer hours and more intensely over the past year.
“Before the pandemic, work drinks and the ability to escape on snatches of annual leave made the relentless pace of work seem worthwhile. Now, without the distractions of the perks and with more head space to consider our options, it’s increasingly obvious to some of us that we have made questionable life choices.”
Law Care, a dedicated support line for lawyers said half of its calls in 2020 came from junior lawyers expressing concerns around isolation, the long hours they were working and a lack of supervision due to remote working.
Senior partners at other professional services companies also said they were concerned about holding on to younger workers.
Kevin Ellis, chair of PwC UK said he worried about retention, particularly as 3,000 recruits joined the company remotely last year. “They won’t have a network of friends in the office,” he said, meaning there was “a big responsibility on offices to create a village market environment when people come back” in order to foster loyalty.
Jason Kennedy, a recruiter for hedge funds, said he had noticed an uptick in complaints from junior staff. “There is no distinction any more between work and home,” he said. “Bankers, real estate staff are all working harder.”
Big Four accounting groups and law firms are offering help for staff. Law firm Fieldfisher, for example, has hired a therapist for workers to use upon their return to the office. Deloitte said it was running a “coffee club” matching employees into pairs to connect over Zoom.
However some managers have been criticised for their attitudes towards struggling staff.
Bill Michael, former KPMG chief executive, resigned after it was revealed he had told staff to “stop moaning” and “playing the victim card”.
One City recruiter hiring into banks and finance houses said the response to complaints from younger employees at hedge funds was “stop being a whiny weasel and get on with it — you’re lucky to have a job”. Another senior law firm partner said there was “a danger if you keep talking and talking about [mental health]” that people could feel worse.