Law firms are the original pyramid scheme.
The model depends on a wide base of junior lawyers working long hours to generate cash for partners who sit at the top and take a share in the profits.
Arguably it is a model that has had its day in an era where a younger generation increasingly prioritises work-life balance.
One Magic Circle associate says: “The new grads don’t want to do long hours when their pals are going to work in jeans, logging on from hipster cafes and finishing when they want.
“Working at a law firm seems very old school and rigid compared to that.”
Nadine Simpson-Ataha, an associate at City firm Fieldfisher, says she was initially discouraged from pursuing a career in law by its stuffy reputation.
“I assumed I wouldn’t fit in, I assumed it would be full of people I had nothing in common with and I wouldn’t understand them and they wouldn’t understand me,” she says.
The big London firms recruit hundreds of trainees a year and regularly appear in lists of the top graduate recruiters, however, they are coming to a realisation that they will need to adapt to continue to attract top talent.
Aija Maddocks, a legal recruiter at FRS Associates, says one area that has seen a shift is the increasing uptake of flexible working.
“Flexible working was a practice reserved for working mums and there was a stigma attached to it. Now you have junior lawyers, male and female, saying we want to be able to work flexibly and we can’t see any reason why we can’t, particularly if we are doing 70-hour weeks.”
Changes at law firms reflect a wider cultural shift, with the explosion of London’s tech and startup scene offering new opportunities for young grads in a more relaxed and less corporate atmosphere.
Darren Roiser, London managing partner at Asian legal giant King & Wood Mallesons, says: “London has changed. Twenty years ago the concept of fintech didn’t exist, now people look around and they see start-ups with people who are wealthy, successful, appear to be enjoying it and wandering around in skinny jeans.”
Luke Martin-Fuller, an associate at Linklaters who is on secondment to the firm’s internal artificial intelligence unit Nakhoda, says the tech sector’s influence is beginning to rub off on law firms.
“In this role in particular – it is essentially an internal start-up – the culture maps to that quite nicely. As I speak to you now I am wearing jeans and there is a table football table right outside this office.”
Despite the removal of some of the starch, the basic model remains unchanged, with young lawyers expected to work long hours, a hard sell for a generation that increasingly prioritises work-life balance.
Antony Cooke, editor of Chambers Student, a publication for aspiring lawyers, says dramatic salary inflation in City law, could be in part driven by a desire to attract talent to a job with serious time demands.
“Today’s students are more prepared to reject a career that doesn’t fit their lifestyle,” he says. “The recent salary inflation in the City might be a response to a more demanding pool of candidates, as much as we assume it’s singly about bigger American pockets.”
While pay is high – newly qualified lawyers at Clifford Chance can take home £91,000 – firms demand their pound of flesh in return.
One Magic Circle associate says “it’s a hard way to make money, and I don’t think the students fancy it anymore.”
While some boutique firms have made innovations, offering junior lawyers a stake in the firm at an early stage for example, none of the major firms has moved away from the basic pyramid model.
Simpson-Ataha says allowing junior lawyers a stake in the firm at an earlier stage would be “top on the wish list”.
“Some kind of graded profit share model like what the small boutique firms are starting to do would be a massive draw,” she says, “it will be interesting to see how that develops.”
The Magic Circle associate argues that partners are unlikely to back a major shake-up as long as the money keeps rolling in.
“The model just about works still in terms of making millions a year so partners aren’t fussed,” they say.
Although firms are adapting to reflect wider cultural changes in society, the fundamental model – barring a revolution – looks set to stay.