Leadership Insights in the Age of Millennial Lawyers

Fifty years or so from now, when histories are written, what will be said about our present age? I think the recent turn of the century and the early 21st century will be seen as a huge turning point. In a 20-year period, we have moved from an analog world to a digital universe. Both generally and with regard to the practice of law, the implications of this sea change reach far beyond technology or the rapid exchange of information. Looking back, I think we will see that our culture changed quickly and in many respects quite dramatically.

The pace of change in the last 20-25 years has been astounding—and I suspect that the next 20 years will make the past seem downright leisurely. In 1984, my first job as an attorney was with a 13-lawyer firm that largely focused on insurance defense. At that time, 13 lawyers were not a particularly small firm. The firm had no word processing abilities (not unusual in the 1980s). Correspondence was done on “Mag Card” IBM Selectric typewriters. Time was input on paper and the books were maintained on ledger sheets. Fax machines were an exotic rarity found only at much larger firms. It was a world of paper and landline telephones. Depositions, hearings, and trials were all in-person events.

Culturally, when I started practicing law, my time as a young associate was in some regards similar to the time I spent as a field artillery lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) before I went to law school. Although the rules were unwritten, it was expected that the associates would come in early and stay late. Saturday was an unofficial workday. While a weekend absence from the office might not have been a dispositive indicator of performance, it was noted. Asking to work from home, even on the very limited basis then feasible, probably would have been considered a joke—and not a funny one. Basically, like children of an earlier age, we were expected to be seen (seen working, that is) and not heard. This is not a criticism of my first law firm. I learned to practice law there, and I have often stated, only partially in jest, that the few good lawyer habits I have, I owe to that early training. Law firm culture at that time was just not warm and fuzzy. Eventually, when I had moved on and practiced in a couple of much larger firms, I found that the environment was different, but certainly no softer.

After 33 years of practice, I am the president of a law firm focusing on healthcare. In its 21 years, the firm has ranged in size from three lawyers to 18. Most of our lawyers and staff were born in the 1980s. Many of them have parents younger than I am. Intellectually, I am sure the so-called “millennials” can understand that there was once a world without computers and 24/7 internet access. Viscerally, however, I suspect that the world of law practice just 30 years ago is inconceivable to most of them. And, based on personal observation, I am fairly certain that most of them don’t really want to hear tales of that bygone era.

Many senior lawyers bemoan the flaws of the younger generation. The primary charge seems to be that their work ethic and commitment is deficient. They are entitled and needy. Go to any gathering of senior lawyers and in some form or another you are likely to find this recurrent theme.

I am a dissenter. My experience has been a positive one and I am sure that I am not alone. No doubt, the willingness of today’s associates to question authority was more rarely seen in my early days. I have even seen some polite defiance of authority. Skepticism is sometimes almost palpable. Deference is certainly not automatic. Yet, at the same time, I have found an intellectual curiosity and energy that often surprises me. Using a tired business cliché, young lawyers are willing to “think outside the box.” Notwithstanding the sometimes-fragile egos of those of us who have been at this a long time, the traits that can be irksome are the same ones that can help our clients and improve our law firms.

Unlike many of my colleagues in similarly sized firms, we have been successful in attracting and retaining young lawyers and staff. I would like to say this was brilliant foresight. It was not. Still, there are several things we have done right:

Keep the focus on the clients. It sounds obvious, but sometimes this simple notion gets lost in intra-office processes, many of which are often just accumulated custom and practice. We are constantly questioning how we operate. If it’s not a benefit to our clients’ cases, then maybe we no longer need to do something the way it has “always been done.”

Make only necessary rules. Arbitrary rules and directives that serve no apparent purpose (other, perhaps, than to micro-manage or exert elements of professional “style”) are generally not of benefit to the practice or its employees.

If you have a rule, enforce it uniformly and fairly. This seems especially obvious, but the execution is easier said than done.

The big picture does not need to be a secret. This is true about how the firm operates and how particular client matters are handled. People want to know how and why their effort matters.

Be flexible about office hours. Technology allows us to work from home or on the road almost seamlessly. We have taken advantage of this for years and it is seen as a huge benefit. We have always stressed that the important thing is to get the job done right.

Avoid micromanagement. Senior lawyers need to accept that something might not be done the way we would do it, but if the product is good and it works, then we should be happy. Sometimes we even learn something new.

Accept suggestions for improving how cases should be handled or office processes. Just because it is the way we have always done something does not mean it is the best way.

Do not be afraid to admit an error. Leaders are not infallible.

Be wary of punishing people for errors. We all make them. When mistakes happen, the key is to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.

A mistake, even a big one, is not a moral failure. It’s easy to extrapolate an error or bad outcome into a failure of character on the part of a colleague. Usually, that is not the case, and if someone is dismissed as a globally deficient individual, you give them no incentive to improve.

Honesty is, in fact, the best policy. I don’t know if the younger generation has a better nose for BS, but I do suspect they have a lower tolerance.

Nothing is magical about any of these points. In some form or another, they are all basic management principles and, with some variation, were applicable 30-40 years ago. In my 20+ years of leading this firm through many changes, my basic management philosophy can be boiled down to two general principles. One is the Golden Rule, a foundational idea found in most religions. The second comes from my doctor clients of many years, the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

Treat people as you would want to be treated. The rule is simple and fair, but it is often hard to implement, especially if you are dealing with very difficult situations. Likewise, we always need to be conscious of the risk of action that makes a given situation worse. That is not to say inertia is okay, but neither is it wise to follow that old Southern adage of “do something even if it is wrong.”

Like everything in life, the general principles are one thing. The day-to-day execution and implementation are another—and infinitely harder. Those details matter. All of us will deal with change, whether we want to or not. It’s a fact of life and will forever be so. One mark of successful individuals and organizations is how well they deal with change. For any law firm to succeed, it must deal with change—and lots of it. Think it through, form a plan, implement it with care, but most importantly treat people right, and you will likely find, as I have, that the business will survive and thrive.

About the Author

Brewster S. Rawls is the founder of Rawls Law Group, a healthcare law firm based in Richmond, VA. Contact him on Twitter @RawlsLawGroup.

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