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Litigation News | 2022

The Great Resignation and the Business of Law

Daniel S Wittenberg


  • More than 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, indicating a trend of high resignation rates compared to previous years.
  • A global workforce survey found that over 40 percent of workers are considering leaving their current employer, with a higher percentage among Gen Z employees.
  • The legal industry is also experiencing the effects of the "Great Resignation," with increased lateral hiring and firms offering bonuses to retain associates, but also a desire for more meaningful work, better work-life balance, and remote work options.
The Great Resignation and the Business of Law
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Record numbers of Americans are quitting their jobs. In September 2021 alone, roughly 3 percent of all workers in the United States walked off the job. The number of resignations has now exceeded pre-pandemic highs for six straight months. The “Big Quit” is on and hitting our nation.

By the Numbers

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in September, more than 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs. About 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August (2.9 percent of the workforce) and 4 million in July. Between April and August 2021, workers turned in resignations at a rate 60 percent higher than the same time frame in the preceding year and 12 percent higher than in 2019, “when the job market had been the hottest it had been in almost 50 years,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The 2021 Work Trend Index report, which canvassed more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, found that more than 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their current employer this year and 46 percent is planning to make a major pivot or career transition. That number jumps to 54 percent when Gen Z is considered alone. Gallup found that 48 percent of employees are actively searching for new opportunities. The Harvard Business Review reported that employees between the ages of 30 and 45 saw the largest jump in resignation rates with an average of more than 20 percent between 2020 and 2021.

Among the industries hit the hardest, professional services placed third out of eleven identified sectors. According to the BLS, approximately 706,000 professional service workers quit in September and 2.1 million quit in the third quarter of 2021.

By contrast, the number of people who were laid off or fired in September was unchanged at 1.4 million, measuring 0.9 percent of workers. Between September 2020 and September 2021, U.S. employers added 73.3 million workers, while 67.7 million people have left or lost their jobs. That means the economy has added 5.6 million positions. The report from the BLS builds out a portrait of the labor market, with historic levels of people leaving jobs and a near-record number of job openings, showing the leverage workers have in the new economy.

What’s Going On?

It is customary to see a stream of quitting when the job market is tight and there is an abundance of open positions. But what’s happening now is unfamiliar territory. “I certainly think that the pandemic has led many people to reevaluate their work and their priorities and what they want to do,” noted Elise Gould, Washington, DC, to the World Economic Forum.

According to a LinkedIn report, 74 percent of those surveyed indicated that the time spent at home during the pandemic caused them to rethink their current work situation. Many cite stress and burnout in their current position as a reason for their wandering eyes. Others attribute dissatisfaction to cost-cutting actions by their current employer in response to COVID-19-related slowdowns as a reason for quitting.

In an October working paper, Ulrike Malmendier, Berkley, CA, suggests there’s something existential behind the Great Resignation: The pandemic and the rise of remote work have changed the way we view our lives and the world. Malmendier is not alone among scholars in suggesting that soul searching during the pandemic helps explain the surge in quitting. Anthony Klotz, College Station, TX, who created the term the “Great Resignation,” told the Washington Post recently that he credits “pandemic epiphanies” with motivating many workers to depart their jobs for greener pastures.

Impact on the Legal Market

Is the Big Quit affecting associates at law firms? Absolutely, remarked Mark Weber, Cambridge, MA, in a recent Bloomberg Law column. “We know it’s happening because we’re getting calls from alumni who are saying ‘everyone around me has left, and I’m drowning,’” he stated. “Firms are paying enormous bonuses to retain associates because that’s still cheaper than leaving business on the table.” Notwithstanding the financial incentives, the “workload is not sustainable,” according to Weber, leaving one to ponder whether lawyers will drop out permanently.

The legal job market is frenetic as “folks are certainly moving about, both from one firm to another and also back and forth between in-house and law firms,” James Leipold, Washington, DC, told Bloomberg Law. According to Leipold, an upcoming National Association for Law Placement (NALP) report “will certainly confirm that lateral partner and associate hiring is way up.”

While many attorneys may be running for the door, there are plenty of lawyers that are attracted to Big Law. “Big Law is retaining more of its talent than it has in the past,” observed Adam Oliver, Scituate, MA, in a recent Bloomberg Law article. According to Oliver, “[i]t’s more like the Great Reshuffling” rather than the Big Quit in Big Law.

“People are looking for change, but they’re not going off the grid,” Michele Fivel, New York, NY, also told Bloomberg Law. Margie Boone, Cambridge, MA, told Bloomberg Law that she is “not hearing of people dropping out completely—it’s not like they’re suddenly discovering they have a trust fund.” Rather, she said, “they are seeking more meaning in their work.” Irene Dorzback, New York, NY, told Bloomberg Law recently that attorneys are “staying in law but looking for different ways to do their job.” Associates “want jobs that check all the boxes—less hours, more mental health support, more diversity and remote work.”

Experts believe money may be one motivating factor. “Money is a good deodorant for other problems,” noted Dan Hatch, Los Angeles, CA, to Bloomberg Law. According to Fivel, “[w]hen associates move, it’s not [always] for money because they’re willing to make less for fewer hours or better long-term prospects…[b]ut everybody asks about sign-on bonuses.”

The level of change within the legal market is significant, particularly regarding work demand, talent, and returning to the office. Many firms need legal talent, and some are in catch-up mode due to the pandemic. Associate hiring decreased nearly 50 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the NALP. In March 2020, the turnover rate within legal departments and law firms hit an all-time high of 9.7 percent. Accounting for the disruption caused by the pandemic and the Great Resignation, the legal industry is undergoing dramatic changes. “When the world’s in crisis, lawyers tend to be busy,” said Adam Lepofsky, Toronto, in a recent JDSupra article. As a result, 2021 has seen a significant increase in legal spending to the tune of more than $23 billion by domestic companies on litigation thus far this year. Firms are, therefore, looking to attract and retain associates and are increasing their hiring.

With all the change over the past year, employees are reevaluating priorities, home bases, and their way of life. So, whether it is due to less networking or career development opportunities, a new calling, increased demand, or a host of pandemic-related struggles, more people are considering their next move. In all situations, it’s clear employers should take note, as the Great Resignation threatens to dash a full economic recovery following nearly two years of the pandemic.