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Ahead of the Curve: Do Law Students Hold the Key to Big Law’s Attrition Problem?

By Zack Needles for

This summer, Hunton Andrews Kurth took a novel approach to trying to figure out what young lawyers want from their law firms: it asked young lawyers. Well, to be exact, it asked law students.

As’s Dan Roe reported this past week, the Am Law 100 firm decided to forego its typical summer associate program for the second year in a row in favor of holding a firmwide virtual “Hackathon.” This year’s event aimed to solve the problem of young lawyer attrition, placing the summers into nine teams of five to six associates and asking each to present a solution at the end of the summer in a “Shark Tank-style” competition.

The exercise offered an interesting window into what those who are just entering (or are about to enter) the legal industry are looking for as they prepare to embark upon their careers. And, as law schools increasingly look to gear their curriculums toward better preparing students for the realities of practicing law, insights like those gleaned from Hunton Andrews’ Hackathon could prove invaluable.

The summer associate teams’ ultimate recommendations focused on more structured feedback and mentorship, better work-life balance and parental support, and an openness to “alternative arrangements” outside the partner track that don’t require as many billable hours.

Firmwide hiring partner Rudene Mercer Haynes said associate attrition has always been a part of the business, but called recent attrition rates “startling.” The current generation of young attorneys, Haynes said, has different priorities that firms need to accommodate.

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“Not everyone who comes to law firms is interested in becoming partner. That’s a shift in mindset between the previous generation and this one, some people have other goals they’re trying to accomplish,” Haynes said, adding that she expects more young attorneys to request such arrangements in the future.

Associate starting salaries in Big Law have never been higher (and they’re likely to continue climbing for the foreseeable future). But while compensation remains a strong lure for many first-years, it has not proven to be nearly as effective as a retention tool. Meanwhile, after a year-and-a-half during which remote operations blurred work-life boundaries, the U.S. was gripped by a nationwide reckoning on racism and discrimination and law firms found themselves under increasing scrutiny for the clients they represent, even brand new lawyers may be on the hunt for something more meaningful than money.

It’s clear that some law firm leaders, like Hunton Andrews’ Haynes, are taking note of the fact that the next generation of the profession seems to rate factors like work-life balance, personal/professional fulfillment and workplace culture considerably higher than previous ones.

Milbank chair Scott Edelman, for example, told’s Patrick Smith recently that his firm has made a conscious decision to distance itself from labels like “white shoe firm” and “Wall Street firm.”

In an email to, Edelman said “The term ‘white shoe’ often connotes an old-fashioned firm that lacks diversity and fails to appreciate inclusiveness. Like many other leading firms, Milbank has evolved in recent decades.”

Edelman said now, the firm aims to be a place where everyone “feels comfortable being themselves” and sharing their own personal experience.

“Today’s Milbank is populated by lawyers of varied race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation,” Edelman said. “Milbank has actively distanced itself for many years from what we believe is an outdated moniker that does not reflect the Milbank of today.”

Alisa Levin, founder of legal recruiting firm Green-Levin-Snyder, told Smith that she believes firms should ditch the “white shoe” label.

As a recruiter, she said, firms should be particularly careful about how they position themselves to potential attorneys. In addition to exclusion, she said, “white shoe” might imply that a firm is “too buttoned up.”

“When you think of white shoe firms, you think stodgy. You think of them representing old blue chip companies,” she said. “A lot of attorneys want to work where they think it is ‘cool.’”

None of this is to suggest that the elite firms are losing ground or that money is not still a key motivation for new law grads.

Indeed, law firm consultant Janet Stanton told’s Smith that those law firms traditionally regarded as “white shoe” remain big draws for law students.

“The last time I looked, the ‘prestige firms’ are still almost always on top,” she said. “Comparing the attractiveness of prestige firms to the ‘lifestyle firms,’ the prestige firms do extremely well as far as being attractive to law school students.”

Much of that is for good reason.

As Stanton pointed out: “White shoe firms are the ones doing the top deals and have the top clients, and they have for a very long time.”

But disregarding law students’ growing concern for things other than pay and prestige as mere youthful idealism would be a mistake.

As firms look to remain competitive in the cutthroat game of law school recruiting while also improving diversity and searching for ways to retain more of those recruits in the long-term, they’re going to have to acknowledge that many new grads are using a more complex calculus to decide where to begin their careers than simply “salary + Am Law ranking.” In fact, for many, that calculus may not include law firms at all.

Perhaps more firms should be taking a page out of Hunton Andrews’ book and going straight to the source to find out what up-and-coming attorneys value most.

In the meantime, law schools should be paying attention to their students’ evolving priorities as well.