Changing track: is it time to challenge ageism?

Asking questions about ageism

There is a lot of focus, and rightly so, on the challenges young people face on starting their careers, especially in the midst of the pandemic. It’s an issue we’ve championed before on this blog. But there’s something else we need to talk about – the ageism that count against those who grow older in our profession.

The most recent SRA diversity survey found that 60% of lawyers across the profession are aged 25 to 44. Only 13% are aged 55 to 64, and at large firms that dropped to 7% of the lawyer population. The SRA comments that this “reflects the average career pattern of solicitors”, but is this sustainable as our population ages? And what needs to change?

For women in particular, the structure of the traditional legal career can be frustrating: the years the profession expects you to be at your most productive are also, for most women, the years in which they can have children, meaning many find it impossible to pursue their partnership ambitions or abandon their legal career altogether.

Why is the working world wired like this, why is ageism wrong and is now the time to change?

Age of lawyers in the UK

  • 25-34 years 31% 31%
  • 35-44 years 29% 29%
  • 45-54 years 22% 22%
  • 55-64 years 13% 13%
  • 65+ years 5% 5%


A cult of youth?

In March 2021, the Guardian reported on the 70% rise of requests from men for so-called “bro-tox” and other cosmetic “tweakments”, spurred on by the increase in video calls during the pandemic and perceived pressure to appear younger in order to compete at work. In the legal industry, where years of PQE are used as a shorthand to benchmark lawyers’ career status, it can be harder to hide your age.

In many ways, when it comes to ageism the legal industry is no different to other sectors. Lawyers with a four to five years’ PQE are widely sought after because the perception is that they will deliver good value, they will be more willing and able to put in discretionary extra effort and are more malleable than older workers. Not only that, hiring managers too often wrongly assume that more experienced candidates will either get bored, be difficult to manage, be less tech-savvy or be unwilling to “roll their sleeves up and get stuck in”. And the lockstep model of most law firms doesn’t help, with the traditional “up or out” culture reinforcing negative preconceptions.

On top of these assumptions, those who have taken a career break for family reasons – usually but not exclusively women – often have a second layer of prejudice to overcome. Too often they are seen as a more high-risk hire, as the assumption is that they will be the primary carer at home and less committed to work, even after a stellar early career.

“I look back now that my children are older and I wonder about all the hours that I missed when they were young.”

A demographic time bomb

Not only is ageism, like all forms of discrimination, morally wrong. It’s also wasteful and unsustainable. The UK has one of the highest old-age dependency ratios in the world, currently for every 100 working age people, there are 29 people aged 65 or above, and this is set to increase substantially over the next 20 years as fertility rates fall and life expectancy remains relatively high. This means that we are likely to see a shortfall in the tax income necessary to maintain our health, pension and social care systems, unless we have a wholesale re-think of how we utilise an ageing workforce.

At the same time, recent research shows that Generation Z and millennials expect greater flexibility from their employers. We are also seeing a rise in the types of work that can be automated, or part-automated, and the legal sector is not immune. The lawtech sector is finding new ways to create and review contracts, manage documents and prepare for litigation, for example, using AI and machine learning.

These factors present challenges for the future legal talent pipeline. It becomes harder to convince younger people that the challenges of traditional legal working practices are worth the rewards. The rise of automation, which tends to focus on the repetitive work often performed by trainees today, has the potential to further reduce the amount of new talent coming into the industry via training contracts. If we don’t start to think differently about training and utilising workers of all ages, the amount of available talent for law firms and in-house teams will decrease.

“No-one wants to say it but this industry doesn’t see you the same once you get to 50.”

Changing track

The pandemic has shaken up many entrenched cultural norms in the world of work. The necessity to work from home, and the emergence of hybrid working, is one example of how established thinking was upturned overnight. If we are to reverse our culture of ageism, let’s dare to think differently about how we structure careers, as well as where work takes place.

One of the challenges for those starting out in their careers, especially while we are remote-working, is the absence of opportunities to learn at work. Creating more opportunities for interactions across generations, through buddy schemes, mentoring programmes and the like, will help trainees and young lawyers to benefit from the experience and knowledge of older workers. For in-house lawyers new into leadership positions, being able to tap into the expertise of a “trusted advisor” who has been in their position before can be invaluable, and help protect against the loneliness senior managers experience.

Similarly, thinking more carefully about the structure of roles and the skills required can create opportunities for both young and older workers. Job-shares, flexible hours, part-time and contract roles can all keep a greater overall number of people employed, even if they are each working less hours than they do today.

As the future of work grows more automated, why couldn’t a three or four day week become the norm? And why shouldn’t careers flex to accommodate shifting priorities and commitments? With advances in health meaning an increase in productive years for many, it shouldn’t be unthinkable that lawyers qualify in their thirties or forties – or come back to the industry after a break.

Be the change you want to see

It’s down to all of us in the profession to address ageism and make a difference. And we can start with small adjustments to our own attitudes. If you’re hiring or leading teams, be conscious of making assumptions about where someone is in their life and their career, based on their age. Celebrate experience as a source of treasure to tap into, not a threat. Step outside of the narrative that pits the young against the old and find ways to encourage collaboration rather than competition across the generations.

And if you’re looking to future-proof your career? Stay close to new technologies and new ways of doing things. Experiment and keep learning. Share your expertise and experience in return. Be open to different ways of working and don’t be afraid to change track.

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