The great resignation: nonprofit law edition
December 29, 2021 – Millions of Americans across the board are quitting their jobs. The highest increase in resignations has come for people between 30 and 45 years old, and in the tech and health care sectors. There are many theories on why people are leaving their jobs, but primarily, the rationale seems to be that people don’t want to keep doing more work for less money, and that they are seeking meaning in their lives and in their work. Also, for many, the pandemic made going to work literally a life-or-death issue. COVID-19 taught us, sadly, that life is short.
The legal world will likely see its own version of the “great resignation.” During the pandemic, we have all heard about people walking away from high-paying legal jobs in big cities, citing stress, cost of living, or the need to be near family.
However, some in the corporate legal industry seem dismissive about a potential mass exodus of legal talent. A job counselor at Harvard Law recently said: “I’m not hearing of people dropping out [of corporate law] completely — it’s not like they’re suddenly discovering they have a trust fund.” Corporate law firms assume that there will always be lawyers willing to sacrifice time and lifestyle for money.
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In nonprofit law, we aren’t bound by the golden handcuffs of corporate work. In fact, people aren’t paid enough. Nonprofits are built around the “meaning” that people seem to be seeking. Often, meaning and purpose are the reasons nonprofit lawyers choose their fields. They are a self-selected group of mission-driven do-gooders, who made sacrifices and choices along the arduous journey through college and law school to land in coveted nonprofit jobs. The assumption is that they love their jobs and are motivated to work by that passion and commitment to whatever the cause might be: indigent defense, immigration rights, housing justice, etc. But are these traditional lures enough to keep public interest lawyers hooked in the post-pandemic world?
According to Sarah Jaffe, host of the podcast “Belabored,” and the book “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone,” (Bold Type Books 2021) too many of us expect identity and meaning from our jobs. As Jaffe describes, over the past 40 years, work has gotten worse — more demanding and less fulfilling — for most of us. COVID literally forced many workers across the country to confront their own mortality as a price to pay for their jobs. Frontline workers in healthcare, retail, and food service, had to confront people who were infected with COVID-19 or who refused to wear masks. This sense that it is just not worth it is being felt even in “good jobs,” chosen by workers who had choices.
Nonprofits are notoriously bad at encouraging work/life balance. We have a hero culture in which we idolize those who never take vacation and who advocate for clients or issues with unrelenting, self-destructive, ferocity.
Nonprofits, like all employers, must deliver on the values that workers require: trust, fairness, flexibility, inclusion, equity, and work/life balance. (Warzel and Peterson, “Out of Office,” (Knopf Doubleday 2021)). The continuing saga around “working from home” or “returning to the office” demonstrated that many employers don’t trust their employees to get their work done on their own terms. Similarly, many workplaces revealed a dogged inflexibility around issues like measuring productivity and value. Traditional metrics of productivity favor traditional workers: white men. Requiring work in person in physical offices, which are often located in fancy neighborhoods in unaffordable cities, reinforces exclusion and inequity felt by people of color.
When nonprofits don’t deliver on these values, morale suffers. Workers, trained to spot injustice, immediately turn sour on their own workplaces. The pandemic forced a reckoning around these issues. It also forced many public interest lawyers to reassess their needs and their goals. To paraphrase Peterson, people are resetting their axes and recalibrating their internal clocks. And so the exodus will begin.
In New York City, public interest law firms are struggling to fill new, open positions for lawyers. Meanwhile, attrition seems to be higher than ever. This month, two attorneys quit my team. One is working in politics and the other, a new father, is moving back home to Minnesota. Another attorney on my team is taking a long leave to work on a memoir.
Just the other day, a senior manager at my nonprofit announced that she was leaving to take a position at a local law school. Days later, the head of another major New York City nonprofit law firm announced that she was stepping away from her job to return to the “basics of litigation.”
Nonprofit lawyers are learning that their jobs won’t love them back. For too long, we believed that our work, like caffeine, would fuel us throughout our careers. During the pandemic, we learned that we were wrong. Like with caffeine, we will eventually run out of pep, crash, and burnout. Eventually, if things continue in the way they were going before the pandemic, our senses of self and self-worth may melt away into our professional identities, leaving us empty.
As employers, nonprofit law firms must consider that the work itself is not enough to sustain their workers. We must acknowledge that there are great personal sacrifices and tradeoffs, even in nonprofits, that we are asking our workers to make.
The “mission” alone won’t be enough to lure and retain good workers in the post-pandemic world. We need to rethink what we do and how we do it. If we can’t pay people more, we can reward them by giving them back control over their time, and in turn, their lives. We should trust that legal professionals will get their work done outside of a factory model.
We can also recognize that people, even in nonprofits, need to find balance in their lives. And when we hire, we can no longer expect people to surrender completely to the work for the majority of their professional lives. If we don’t adapt and evolve, the “great resignation” may be coming for us all.
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