Bottom Up: The Next Generation Is Changing the Profession

As more firms embrace younger generations, the way law firms conduct business, interact with clients, and incentivize Gen Xers and Millennials is also changing. Taking a cue from the savvy tech industry, front-line ideas from junior partners and associates are enhancing productivity, client service, and firm culture.

Our panel of Gen Xers and Millennials discuss how new ideas are bringing change to their organizations and the practice of law.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is the founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, CA and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

Our Panelists

Marie Gribble (MG) is an associate in Hopkins & Carley’s Real Estate Practice Group in Palo Alto. Her practice focuses on commercial real estate and real estate-related transactions including lease negotiating and drafting, acquisitions and dispositions.
Thomas Schiano (TS) is an associate with international IP firm Harness Dickey. His practice focuses on the strategic development of patent portfolios in the mechanical and chemical fields. He focuses on all aspects of the preparation and prosecution of patent applications, product lifecycle management, as well as providing support for dispute resolution and litigation related to intellectual property matters.
Mollie Sitkowski (MS) is an associate in Drinker Biddle’s Customs & Trade Practice Group. She assists clients in ensuring their internal processes meet Customs’ “reasonable care” standard. She assists clients with various aspects of trade law, including valuation, classification, free trade agreements, country of origin determinations, and auditing their import documentation to identify potential issues and risk areas.
Jeff Wehmer (JW) is an associate in Sandberg Phoenix’s Products Liability and Business Litigation practices. He focuses his practice on business litigation, fiduciary litigation, products liability, guardianships and conservatorships, and accounting malpractice defense. Working with diverse clients from industries including insurance, heavy machinery, transportation, and real estate, Jeff has experience in wealth planning, commercial litigation, corporate formation, employment contract disputes, shareholder litigation, and insurance defense matters.
Zachary Young (ZY) is a member of Archer Norris’s On Call Trial Counsel team, specializing in taking tough cases to trial at a moment’s notice. He has represented a wide variety of businesses and professionals, handling cases ranging from contract disputes, fraud, employment discrimination, intellectual property rights, including trade secret misappropriation, class action matters, and other complicated business disputes.


NG: From where you sit, how do you see the practice of law changing?

MG: First, the dynamics and makeup of both law firms and the clients they serve are changing. We are seeing a lot more diversity in the clients we serve, and law firms are becoming more reflective of that with practitioners of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and genders. Second, technology is continuing to transform how, when, and where we practice law. Technology provides us with nearly instantaneous access to documents and information anywhere and at any time, but also allows work to demand almost constant attention. And third, the younger generation of lawyers is placing greater importance and emphasis on flexibility and the elusive work-life balance, which is necessitating law firms to implement more flexible work policies. These changes are not exclusive to the practice of law but are substantial changes in a practice that is historically traditional and slow to change.

TS: The practice of law continues to be competitive—younger lawyers continue to experience pressure due to higher billing rates, while clients ranging from individuals to corporations are looking for better value from outside counsel. To keep up with these conflicting demands, lawyers in private practice must become more efficient in their specific practice areas. One way this seems to occur, particularly among the younger lawyers in law firms, is that individual lawyers are becoming more specialized or narrowly focused on particular legal tasks or industries.

MS: In two words: increased flexibility. From a client perspective, I think clients will focus more on alternative fee arrangements, such as limited-duration retainers, or flat fee projects. They will move away from a standard hourly fee in a search for flexibility. From a law practice perspective, I see increased flexibility in working arrangements. I also think there may be a distant possibility of moving away from evaluating associates solely on hours billed for a focus on value-add.

JW: I see the practice of law changing in a variety of ways, from the amount of time one is physically present in the office to the avenues in which client meetings are conducted.

For the most part, it appears the days of being present in the office as long as it is light outside are fading. More and more attorneys are permitted to work from home (due to the advances in technology) and are able to set their own schedules. This permits young attorneys to spend quality time raising their families, with the understanding they may be up until the early-morning hours meeting deadlines. In addition, this flexibility allows attorneys to take longer breaks throughout the day to go to the gym or run other errands and come back more refreshed to grind out work until late in the evening.

Further, technology is undoubtedly changing the practice of law. Whether it be conducting a client meeting over Skype or accessing entire files from your cell phone, improvements in technology have permitted the practice of law to take substantial steps toward catching up with the tech craze. The legal world is no longer the stone-and-chisel profession it once was, and the acceptance of new technologies have permitted law firms and attorneys to advance their practices and specialties by making resources, clients, and information more readily available.

ZY: In the coming years, I believe we’ll see an increasing demand for attorneys and law firms to address the economics of litigation. With increased case volume and limited judicial resources, the path to trial is becoming longer, with most cases never making it that far. In my own practice, I am constantly evaluating how I can reach a resolution in the most efficient manner possible for my client. Even in those cases that go to trial, the length of time that it takes to get to a courtroom makes for greater risk of increased litigation costs. Because of these concerns, the legal industry will need to adapt and find ways to reach resolutions in an economically responsible manner. One of the primary values emphasized from the top down in my own firm is to show our clients that, not only are we confident in being able to obtain the best possible result for them, but we can do it in a more cost-effective manner than other law firms.

NG: Why do you think more firms are embracing front-line ideas?

MG: Law firms, like other businesses, seek to be competitive in the marketplace. Law firms are embracing front-line ideas out of a necessity to compete for talent and clients and to evolve. Just as junior associates benefit from the knowledge and experience of more senior partners, the firm as a whole benefits from the perspective, insight, and ideas of those on the front-line. Top-down management styles are not necessarily the most effective, and law firms recognize that the collective intelligence of the organization facilitates growth and benefits the entire organization.

TS: Due to the pressures discussed above, it seems that law firms are increasingly willing to try new ideas to boost efficiencies. In many cases, this translates to implementing customized technology packages to streamline certain types of work products. Additionally, law firms seem to be particularly interested in “non-traditional hires,” for example, seeking individuals who are not straight out of law school but rather have developed a specific expertise in a particular industry or type of legal work.

MS: Everyone has a front-row seat to initiatives firms are undertaking, which increases the pace of change in the legal industry. This change is partly the result of a kind of peer-pressure to keep up with the Cravaths. However, it also reflects firms’ view that clients and laterals also have the same visibility, so if there are important issues for those groups, firms are going to move quickly in that direction. From an associate perspective, we see firms making a lot of concessions to issues important to this generation of associates, such as maternity and paternity leave and flexible work arrangements, not just because of peer pressure, but in response to the myriad of news articles on millennials and the way they work.

JW: Although there are certainly many reasons, I believe the most important is two-fold. First, with the speed at which technological advancements are made and associates’ and junior partner’s access to information, these are the individuals who usually are informed of new, trend-setting ideas first. Second, law firm leaders, recognizing the access associates and junior partners have to new technology, are becoming more willing to listen and embrace front-line ideas.

Many times throughout the week I’ll show a shareholder how the use of a new technology can streamline a task or can provide the capabilities to broaden communications to clients. As is typically the case, except for those few shareholders who are active in keeping up with technology, associates, and junior partners learn of new technology and how to use it earlier than shareholders, generally. Recognizing this, shareholders have become more willing to listen to ideas from associates and junior partners related to the use of technology for the betterment of the services and practices offered by the firm and, ultimately, to embrace these “front-line” ideas.

ZY: Looking specifically towards addressing the costs of litigation, I think law firms recognize that ideas can come from anywhere within the firm. So, there is cause to welcome ideas from the front lines. For example, technology is one of the many tools that allows law firms to proceed through litigation more efficiently and effectively. In many instances, it is the younger generations who have more familiarity with how these resources may be utilized.

NG: What are some of the ideas that have had the biggest impact on your firm or how you have handled client work?

MG: The implementation of technology has had a major impact on how, when, and where we work, for both better and worse. We now possess the ability to access practically all of our files, documents, and research at any time, from any location, nearly instantaneously. It provides us with the luxury to work remotely and at any time of the day we so choose and has aided efficiency. Technology, however, is a double-edged sword. The luxury it provides has also opened the work day to be more of a 24/7 on-call schedule and makes attorneys beholden to their laptops, phones, and smartwatches.

TS: A recent trend has been splitting out work by the specific practice area or task as opposed to distributing a variety of work to each younger lawyer. This way, younger lawyers can quickly get over the steep learning curve associated with legal work, which may allow them to deliver better value to clients earlier in their careers. Once a younger lawyer has become proficient in a particular area, additional areas may then be assigned to expand the individual’s skill set.

I am also noticing an increase in the use of non-lawyer specialists, who may have a particular skill set and are supervised by lawyers, to bring even greater value to clients.

MS: Everyone has a front-row seat to initiatives firms are undertaking, which increases the pace of change in the legal industry. This change is partly the result of peer pressure to keep up with the Cravaths. However, it also reflects firms’ view that clients and laterals also have the same visibility, so if there are important issues for those groups, firms are going to move quickly in that direction. From an associate perspective, we see firms making a lot of concessions to issues important to this generation of associates, such as maternity and paternity leave and flexible work arrangements, not just because of peer pressure, but in response to the myriad of news articles on millennials and the way they work.

JW: Probably the two most-impactful ideas have been cross-practice selling and technology. Working for a larger firm, we have the benefit of providing a number of different services spanning numerous practice areas, which truly benefits our clients. For instance, if we have a trucking client who retained us to primarily handle its liability work, we have been able to demonstrate the benefits of cross-practice marketing and become a “one-stop shop” for all of that trucking company’s needs. Specifically, we can handle employment issues, real estate issues, contracts, business litigation, products litigation, etc. Our firm’s recent focus towards cross-practice selling has definitely had a large impact on our firm’s growth and success and how we handle client work, and the true benefactor has definitely been our clients.

Undoubtedly, advances in technology have also had a large impact on my firm and how we have handled client work. The use of apps and other services have provided us the ability to expedite work for our clients, fast-track key issues, and more-quickly resolve pertinent disputes. In addition, technology has allowed us to eliminate many costs which have then been passed on as savings to our clients, and much of the technology has bettered our client service by creating easier processes for repetitive legal needs such as mechanics’ lien work.

ZY: My practice is dedicated entirely to the firm’s “On Call Trial Counsel Team.” The team specializes in litigation and handling the minority of cases that make it to trial. Many of the tools and programs that have been adopted by our trial team were ideas that were suggested by members of the front line, including non-attorneys.

NG: Do you see recent changes as reflective of the clients you work with and how they operate/what they value?

MG: Clients expect us to be technically capable and that law firms have all the technological resources available to efficiently and competently generate high-quality work product. For example, a client would at least be surprised if we could not access necessary materials remotely but rather had to physically go into the office to do so.

TS: Yes—clients, whether in-house counsel for corporations or other businesses, also seem to be experiencing increased pressures and growing lists of responsibilities. As a result, the use of sophisticated software packages and other forms of technology are often used to help create more organized ways of compiling information and work products for clients to easily review.

MS: I do see these changes as reflective of what clients value. We want clients to know that we want to provide the best service to them while still being mindful of the fact that we are a cost center to the client. We can provide better service to our clients when we are trained and properly recording our time.

JW: I believe all good law firms remain cognizant of client needs and the work clients require be performed, which simultaneously pushes change on law firms. However, I also believe recent changes are the result of law firm leaders taking more risks in stepping out of the box and implementing new bold strategies to better client service and the product which is being presented. Essentially, I believe change is primarily driven by two factors: client need; and staying ahead of the curve.

ZY: I believe the values of my clients are fairly representative of most litigation clients. The clients are reacting to some of the trends that I have mentioned—increased litigation timelines and increased costs. My firm specializes in trying cases and is often substituted in just before trial, but it is also important to my clients that I am exploring ways to resolve their case before trial. A costly trial, even a trial victory, may not be the best outcome for my client, so I am constantly evaluating how I can resolve the case most efficiently or save costs through trial.

NG: How are younger generations impacting your firm’s culture?

MG: The practice of law is historically bound by traditions. It is one of the few industries with formal dress codes, traditional office space, and an adherence to the assumption that to be a good lawyer you must put in long hours in the physical office. Younger generations are expecting a more satisfying work-life balance regardless of their chosen career and this expectation is compelling law firms to evolve. For example, law firms are providing practitioners with the opportunity for more flexible schedules and the ability to work remotely.

TS: With the explosion of available online resources and virtual “classes” or continuing legal education opportunities, younger lawyers have taken advantage of these resources to quickly become familiar and up-to-speed on particular legal issues or problems. These tools are helping the younger generation of lawyers meet the demands of today’s legal economics.

MS: Younger generations are impacting the firm culture greatly. First, firms are no longer the Luddites that they used to be. Drinker regularly provides the latest and greatest software and hardware to its attorneys, which is important to the younger generation. Second, and most importantly, Drinker has revised its attorney policies to embrace the idea that both men and women deserve time off for family issues. Finally, while Drinker has offered flexible work arrangements for the seven years I have been there, there is an increased focus on and acceptance of individuals who take advantage of such policies. Drinker understands that our generation works in ways that may be non-traditional, but at the end of the day, however we work, we still want to provide great service to our clients.

JW: Much of what has been discussed here is driven by or the result of the impact of younger generations. Bringing new technology to the forefront, using new technology to solve issues or to streamline/better older processes, etc. are, from my experience, typically driven by younger generations.

Normally, the younger generations have more access to and are more adept at changes in technology, so that impacts firm culture. With that said, the use of new innovative technology is only impactful when it does not fall on deaf ears. As a result, the law firms who encourage idea generation, group brainstorming, and putting forward ideas are seeing the greatest impact from its younger generations by providing a platform to share and implement these ideas. The impact on culture is not only affected by the technological knowledge of younger generations, but by the law firm leaders’ willingness to listen to and integrate the ideas suggested by younger generations.

ZY: The legal field is a challenging, exciting industry to be in. In terms of the future of younger generations in the legal field, I am excited about the cooperative mentality and approach that younger attorneys appear to be bringing into the legal arena. Whether it is a product of the younger generations’ general nature or some other factors, on average, my experience with opposing attorneys has been the most cooperative and the least adversarial when dealing directly with another member of the younger generations. While litigation is inherently adversarial and sometimes it’s appropriate to be adversaries, clients benefit when opposing attorneys can also cooperate with one another to avoid unnecessary disputes, law and motion costs, etc. I think future generations will continue to drive the practice of law in this direction because the demand for economic considerations will push for it.

NG: What excites you most in your practice/the future of law practice?

MG: As a female in the legal profession, seeing more female partners and females at the management level of law firms is inspiring and enlightening. The practice of law has traditionally been a male-dominated profession and slow to embrace change. I think with more females in leadership positions in law firms we’ll see continued emphasis on workplace flexibility and how the collective intelligence of the firm benefits the entire organization. For me, working with female partners with great clients has instilled the confidence that I can have it all in the sense that I can be a successful attorney and have a family without feeling the need to sacrifice one for the other. I’m excited to see the continued transformation and evolution of the practice of law with greater influence from female attorneys.

TS: Ultimately, the practice of law will continue to have a human element and will largely be based on relationships between lawyers and clients that are built on trust. The interesting challenge to watch will be how today’s younger lawyers will begin to forge and maintain these relationships by bringing increased value to clients.

MS: I am excited to see how law firms can leverage this increased flexibility and awareness of client and competitor changes to run more like businesses. I am excited to see how law firms can retain younger associates by acknowledging that they may have different goals than other generations and working with associates to accomplish those goals.

JW: What excites me most is being able to pass along to younger attorneys the knowledge I have gained and lessons learned so far in my career, and the opportunity to assist younger attorneys in growing professionally. I’ve been very fortunate to have many great mentors up to this point in my career, and those individuals have had a substantial impact on the lawyer I am today and my success.

As to the future of law practice, I think I’m most excited to see the impact that technology’s closing of the communication gap has on the legal profession. Our ability to connect with anyone at any time has led to new opportunities to work with new clients and expand practices. As we continue to be able to streamline processes and become more efficient, along with accessing a greater deal of information through the uses of inclusive technology, I believe the legal practice can reach new heights and efficiencies and even catch up to tech-advanced industries. Overall, law is known as a stubborn profession which falls behind the technology curve at times, but I believe we are working to change that.

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