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‘Quiet quitting’ and ‘slow dumping’ – why breaking up is not so hard after all

The factors that drive employees to ‘quietly quit’ and clients to ‘slow dump’ their lawyers have a lot in common and represent a significant threat to law firms unless steps are taken to address them, writes Trish Carroll.

In short:

  • This article outlines the dangers of ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘slow dumping’ for law firms.
  • Some firms are losing client trust because of poor communication, delayed responses to emails and calls, and contentious invoices.
  • Great communication and genuine care provide the foundation for a sustainable and satisfying practice.

Quiet quitting refers to a scenario in which people put in the minimum effort to keep their job. Randstad, the world’s largest talent company, undertook research in 2023 that identified quiet quitting as a widespread business issue.

Quiet quitters often start disengaging after they voice their concerns and feel no one is listening or acting. In response, they institute their own minimum work rule. Their employers, in turn, are often mystified about why this is happening and express surprise when the quiet quitters finally decide to leave.

Another factor influencing heightening levels of quiet quitting is people’s desire to exert more control over their work conditions and effort levels. COVID-19 prompted many people to assess how they wanted to work and live. Many people loved the freedom they experienced working from home and the benefits that went with it – greater flexibility, better family and community engagement, and replacing commuting time with more enjoyable activities.

Pushback from employees

Post COVID-19, there has been a strong push from law firm leaders for people to return to the office full-time, and an equally strong push back from many staff resisting the directive.

Similarly, corporate culture has a part to play in fuelling this trend. Law has for decades had a culture of encouraging and rewarding workaholism. Look at those who attain the prize of partnership in most large firms. They are expected to at least meet, and preferably exceed by a decent margin, high financial targets, while attracting and retaining clients and leading a high-performing team. At the same time, they are encouraged to do two or more of the following: attain post-graduate qualifications, participate in pro bono and community activities, mentor younger staff and be a champion of some sort (e.g. for issues such as LGBTQ+, sustainability and climate, cultural diversity, First Nations reconciliation, and health and wellbeing).

Most quiet quitting is caused by a combination of people feeling that there has been a breakdown of trust and confidence and of them wanting better experiences – and it is the same with ‘slow dumping’.

Clients ‘slow dumping’ their lawyers

Slow dumping is what happens when one party in established relationships wants out, but cannot face having the difficult conversation to communicate that decision. Instead, they make themselves less available, disengage and fade away – leaving the other party feeling miffed and mystified.

The stories I know of clients slow dumping their lawyers suggest there are many parallels between quiet quitting and slow dumping. Law firm clients sometimes just find it easier to slowly dump their lawyers, rather than formally advise them that it is over. Often, nothing grotesquely wrong has occurred (otherwise, litigation would follow). Instead, there has been a series of seemingly small things that have diminished the client’s confidence or trust.

These issues might include poor communication, delayed responses to emails and calls, suggestions about courses of action that have already been canvassed and rejected, and invoices that are out of kilter with the work done.

Sometimes, clients will slow dump by continuing to reduce the criticality, scope and frequency of instructions over time. Sometimes, they use tender processes to sever relationships.

By contrast, it is rare for lawyers to slow dump their clients. When this does occur, lawyers slow dump by being unavailable, or by pricing themselves out of work. The issues that lead to this break-up include clients being slow payers, constantly disputing invoices, being unwilling to accept legal advice, or failing to show the acceptable levels of reverence.

Whether it is slow dumping or quietly quitting, the motivation for disengagement is driven by feelings of not being heard or valued, of having little control over workloads/outcomes/costs, and of experiencing lost or diminished trust in advisors/employers.

Changing aspirations

There is also another related trend emerging – which, at the risk of taking my relationship analogies too far, I am going to call the ‘I’m just not that into you’ phenomenon.

A friend of mine recently attended an elite private school’s 50-year reunion. He told me of conversations he had had with fellow alumni who had sons (yes, sons; it was a boys-only school back then) who worked in prestigious law firms. Those sons had witnessed the life quality of the partners with whom they worked, and decided they never wanted to be partners. Their career plan was to find more life-enabling roles in either in-house corporate or public sector organisations, or in smaller private practice.

These old boys’ sons are not alone. There are about 90,000 lawyers in Australia and since 2011 the government legal sector has experienced the strongest growth (+108%), followed by the corporate sector (+104%) and private practice (+40%).

During the past 20 years I have helped countless law students and graduates prepare their CVs to gain employment as either summer clerks or graduates. Years ago, they all wanted to work in the biggest firms. That was the goal; anything less was inconceivable. For the past five years, few of these talented, high-achieving law students have had that goal, even though they have CVs that would appeal to elite law firms. They are not interested in working in what they refer to as ‘factories’.  Their decisions are based on listening to the stories of their friends and their observations of the type of people who like and thrive in those environments.

They prefer to work in medium-sized firms, niche firms, community legal centres and the public sector.

It is like an extension of the ‘slow movement’ – a cultural movement advocating slowing down the pace of life. Many of these next-generation lawyers are rejecting a workplace culture characterised by long hours, high billable targets, low levels of control and internal competitiveness and rivalry. It is not dubbed hustle-culture for nothing. They are choosing a quality of life that has a different and more sustainable pace.

Many clients who slow dump their law firms seem to be fans of the slow movement too, because they value retaining legal advisors who take the time to effectively communicate, explain, and engage in discussions that help them make the best decisions. They want to work with lawyers who spend time, often without charge, to help them fully appreciate their options.

Poor communication still the culprit

For decades, most complaints about lawyers have stemmed from poor communication. Being a good communicator requires a few things – including desire and time. It takes time to communicate effectively (a lot of time, in many cases). Law firms’ billable targets do not always allow for taking things more slowly and thoughtfully. Fixed-fee arrangements or fee estimates that have been made without factoring in sufficient communication invariably cause tension between lawyers’ desire to be profitable and their need to properly look after their clients.

For those focused on shorter-term goals, the billable target trumps. Those with longer-term ambition understand that time spent building relationships based on effective communication and genuine care will provide a foundation for a sustainable and satisfying practice. That is likely to mean they will never be slow dumped by a client. If they also take the same approach with the people with whom they work – in other words they genuinely care, show it through their actions and build lasting, trusted relationships – then they are also likely to be immune from the quiet quitting phenomenon and be that bit more attractive to the next generation of talented lawyers.

The Kantian wisdom of treating people as ends, not means that can be controlled and used, seems a good starting point to avoid these workplace dilemmas.

Trish Carroll is the principal of Galt Advisory, a business that helps law firms and individual lawyers devise and implement successful marketing and business development strategies. Contact her at