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LCN Says

Next generation want employers that match their values: will law firms rise to the challenge?

updated on 20 February 2024

Reading time: five minutes

New year is a time when many of us reassess what matters to us in our lives and careers, what we want for the future and what we want to prioritise.

Our latest report, World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still highlights the importance young lawyers place on their workplaces having a purpose beyond profitability. Nearly three-quarters of the junior lawyers we surveyed agreed that they wouldn’t join an organisation whose values didn’t match with their own, even if they were offering more money. An even higher proportion said they were looking to effect positive change in society through their work as lawyers.

Law firms are businesses like any other and look to maximise profits. However, for candidates looking to get more meaning from their work, there’s a growing pushback against the traditional focus on profits per equity partner (PEP), with a growing realisation that there are alternative ways to measure success. Environment, social and governance (ESG) issues are on the lips of clients, staff and partners, and for those starting out in their careers, while remuneration is of course important, law firms must show that they’re good businesses too.

Alongside the need to be climate conscious and a strong focus on professional ethics, our report found that diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I) and a culture that promotes wellbeing are front of mind for many new and aspiring lawyers.

Concrete actions

The profession may be majority female but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its upper echelons. Those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds also continue to be underrepresented at partnership level and there remain barriers to entry for those from less affluent backgrounds.

The good news is that the profession is now awash with initiatives to improve opportunities. These include both broader business programmes, such as the Social Mobility Pledge and 10,000 Interns Foundation, and law-specific movements, like the Race Fairness Commitment and the Women in Law Pledge.

We’re slowly seeing more concrete commitments from law firms. National firm TLT LLP, for example, has set a target of achieving 35% ethnic minority representation across early career roles (trainees and apprentices) by October 2030. Last year Slaughter and May set social mobility targets, aiming to increase the representation of lower socio-economic background individuals in the firm by 2033 from a baseline of 19% to 25% – with the proportion of lawyers rising from 10% to 15% and business services staff going from 35% to 40%. It plans to publish progress against its targets annually.

An increasing number of large law firms are signing up to the Mansfield Rule, a certification scheme that measures whether law firms have considered at least 30% women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and disabled lawyers for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities and senior lateral positions. An in-house version requires 50% consideration of all historically under-represented lawyers for internal leadership and outside counsel roles.

Hear from law firm recruiters about their DE&I plans via our Meet the Recruiter interviews.

Sceptical of initiatives that appear to be mere window dressing, it’s action plans like these, demonstrating concrete progress and accountability that really matter.


Alongside the lack of diversity, the issue of poor mental health and treatment of staff continues to loom large for the legal profession. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has updated its guidance on workplace environments in a bid to tackle law firms with “unsupportive, bullying or toxic” cultures following publication in 2022 of a thematic review of workplace culture. While most solicitors the regulator spoke to said their firms had a positive workplace culture, 25% said they’d be uncomfortable reporting “unacceptable behaviour concerns”.

There’s now an explicit regulatory requirement on solicitors to treat colleagues “fairly and with respect”, while law firm managers must “challenge behaviour which does not meet this standard”.

Many of the junior lawyers we spoke to expressed frustration at the pace of progress in this area, suggesting there are partners who are resentful of the next generation having it easier than they did. After all, they worked hard, spent long hours in the office and no one was concerned for their mental health or tried to improve the working culture. They accepted it or went elsewhere.

In an effort to change the culture, young lawyers themselves are becoming more involved in DE&I initiatives, either industry wide or within their own firms – they’re promoting alternative routes into law such as apprenticeships, joining their own firm’s DE&I boards or forming their own networks. They want to be part of the change and don’t want to wait another 20 years until they’re in leadership positions themselves.

Some more progressive firms are acknowledging the importance of these efforts by allowing this work to count towards lawyers’ billable targets.

Show not tell

It is, of course, nonsense to suggest that all younger lawyers are, or should be, motivated solely by higher ideals or purpose. Just on a practical level, the salaries on offer in the City are obviously attractive to those weighed down by student debt.

However, it’s clear that the organisations that are committed to ESG and not merely playing lip service will benefit when it comes to attracting the brightest and the best. For those not moving with the times, they can expect this generation to push them to make progress.

Junior lawyers are expecting the legal profession to shift to a business model that prioritises sustainability beyond profitability. Legal businesses are now in an era of ‘show, not tell’. It’s not enough to draft the policies and send out the press releases – they have to prove they mean something. Those at the beginning of their careers have the chance to assess the ESG commitments of potential employers and vote with their feet, choosing those with values they share.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder and CEO of Obelisk Support. You can read more in its latest report into law firm culture: World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still.