Millennials Leading Law Firms

Meet the new bosses—and indeed, this generation of leaders is definitely not like the old bosses. As the legal landscape continues to evolve at a blistering pace, law firms also change exponentially as millennials take the reins as managing partners at high-profile enterprises.

Suddenly, millennials are managing baby boomers and Gen Xers, invigorating and transforming the field with new ideas, innovation, strong business discipline, creative thought, and of course, the latest technologies. Huge challenges, however, also loom ominously on the horizon as the number of attorneys in the legal field continues to rise, up 1.3% this year, while the demand for legal services remains flat. What changes? What stays the same? And what have we not even imagined yet?

We recently sat down with some of “the new kids” now at the helm of law firms across the country for this dynamic millennial managing partners roundtable.

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 ngaffney@zumado.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

 

 

Our Panelists

James Goodnow (JG) is Fennemore Craig’s president and managing partner. He is a contributor to Forbes, and he writes a legal innovation, leadership, and management column for Above the Law. He is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which debuted at #1 on Amazon in the business management category. He has appeared on or been covered by CNN, CNBC, Good Morning America, Today, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial PostEntrepreneurInc., and many others. James volunteers his time mentoring business owners on strengthening their enterprises. After recovering from a treatable form of kidney disease, he spearheaded The Kidney Challenge and became a board member of the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona.
Anthony L. Marré (AM) is managing shareholder at Wilson Cribbs + Goren, PC. Anthony joined the firm in 2006 and practices real estate and land use law. He earned his J.D. at University of Houston Law Center. In 2010 he was named a Rising Star by Texas Super LawyersLaw & Politics/Texas Monthly Magazine.
Nicole Mason (NM), is the founder of Mason Counsel Group and a national trademark attorney for new and seasoned business owners who want to protect their businesses and intellectual property. Her practice revolves around client satisfaction, including quick response-rates, explaining the steps and process in easy-to-understand terms, and a thorough approach to cover their needs.
Matthew Odgers (MO) founded Odgers Law Group in San Diego in the summer of 2013. His initial goal was to help families and small business owners create, grow and protect their wealth through business law and estate planning. As his client base grew so did his firm. In 2016, Odgers Law Group opened an office in Poway, California and in 2017 in Cardiff-By-The Sea. Odgers Law Group currently works with start-ups, entrepreneurs,  dentists, physicians and mid-market companies for all of their business transactional needs.
Shaunette Stokes (SS) is the managing partner of Stokes Law Group, PLLC, founded in 2014. Her experience as an entrepreneur and small business owner gives her insight into the needs of entrepreneurs and makes her uniquely qualified to counsel her clients. Her practice focuses on assisting creative entrepreneurs and specializes in small business formation and maintenance, intellectual property law, personal injury, and probate/estate planning.

 

NG: Does the office environment change when millennials assume leadership roles in law firms?

JG: Absolutely. Millennials bring a much less hierarchical mentality to the table, one that values obtaining meaningful input from every level. This kind of approach has its strengths and weaknesses like any other, and a leader has to account for it. The sorts of flat, egalitarian structures favored by millennials are fantastic at generating ideas and finding unique approaches to problems. That can come at the cost of quickness and clarity since you need to find the time to actually take in all those ideas. But properly managed, the millennial mindset is fantastic for both problem-solving and teambuilding.

AM: For the better, yes. Law firms love to dream up new programs/initiatives that they think will produce positive change, but often put older partners in charge that don’t have near the energy or enthusiasm to actually accomplish the firm’s goals. This is often true of recruiting, where the “hiring partner” is a senior member of the firm and will often have little to lose when it comes to making bad hiring decisions, seeing as how they’re on the back end of their career anyway. Putting millennials in charge of law school recruiting is a great way to add energy to the office environment. They are excited to go back to the law schools and sing the law firm’s praises. They become invested in the outcomes of their efforts, as they will be spending more time over their career with the new hires than anyone else.

NM: It does. The most glaring change is likely to be the incorporation of technology into all aspects of the firm, from digitizing and streamlining systems to providing portals and forms to clients electronically. However, other environmental changes are less apparent, such as a more casual negotiating style and more often trying to come to agreements from all sides, rather than focus on shark-like litigation tactics throughout an entire case, if there is a path that lends itself toward an agreement.

MO: The biggest environment change that millennials bring to the table is they do away with the traditional hierarchical management structure for a flat management structure. Everyone in the firm is treated as an equal, and their ideas are valued. While only the lawyers can provide legal advice to clients, staff who have been around the law have incredibly valuable input. Under a millennial’s leadership, people are more open to speaking up when they have an idea.

SS: I really believe it does. Millenials have a different approach in yielding productivity from their employees. My office is very digital. We use iPad Pros and Apple Pencils for a wide array of office tasks, from taking notes to having our clients sign documents. I have implemented numerous cloud-based programs and servers. I cannot stress enough how being digital boosts overall productivity and saves the firm money. It has been my experience working for and with older attorneys that they do not trust or believe in relying too heavily on technology, let alone converting their files into a digital system or utilizing the cloud-based software. Like many millennials, I am very conscious of how my actions impact the environment, so if I can help reduce my carbon footprint, I will try my very best. Nearly all of our files are completely digital. When we do have paper in the office, we are diligent about using a secure shredding service that recycles 100% of the paper and we reuse supplies like file folders. We utilize an online client portal to communicate with our clients that reduces the need and costs of providing case status updates. Through the portal, we are able to securely transmit documents and provide access to invoices. My employees love that our firm is digital because it makes their jobs easier and they spend less time on monotonous tasks. Older generations, especially in law firms, tend to be more stuck in their ways and resistant to change whereas most millennials are willing to adapt to changes within the industry.

NG: Do you find that more of an emphasis is placed on things like alternative career paths, flexibility and family leave—and less importance placed on titles and success —under millennial leadership?

JG: I’d actually argue there’s more emphasis on both. Millennials are certainly more open to alternative career paths, blending together work time and home time, and taking time off to travel and build their families. But they’re also very conscious about their titles and using titles in a way that few previous generations have. Titles are a useful tool for helping employees understand and define their role, and feel empowered to make a change in the workplace. Millennials care less about the prestige of classic titles like “director,” and more about what the title communicates about their unique skills and responsibilities. I see a lot of millennial managers experimenting with titles like “director of first impressions” instead of “receptionist,” or otherwise finding ways to help their teams feel less like replaceable cogs and more like unique components of a sophisticated engine.

AM: We don’t spend much time thinking about alternative career paths or family leave, specifically, but do spend quite a bit of time thinking about flexibility, which is a much broader concept. We have invested quite a bit in technology that makes working remotely more seamless for whoever wants to do it, and don’t require “face time” the way some other firms do. We don’t require attorneys to check in or out if they have to leave the office. We expect them to be responsible with their time and service the clients appropriately. We feel our trust is rewarded several times over with an extraordinary commitment to their work and a high level of responsiveness. Titles are much less important today than in the past. We stopped using the word “associate” on printed material and on our website. “Associate” never carries a flattering connotation. It implies to others that you aren’t yet “good” enough or too young to be a partner while attempting to elevate the status of the partners. I hated that when I was an associate, so we trashed the title when I became a partner. Culturally speaking, we try to focus on the overall success of the firm and what each attorney contributes to that effort, as opposed to celebrating individual success alone. We don’t pit the attorneys against each other by posting their billings for all to see. That sort of manufactured competition is old-fashioned and doesn’t create good results with millennials.

NM: I think that’s where the biggest misconception with millennials lays—millennials are and want to be successful. However, working 100-hour weeks is not the definition of success for millennials. Millennials watched their parents and grandparents work backbreaking hours and soul-crushing jobs to make, generally, a middle-class retirement. Millennials have been told from the day of their birth that we could be and do anything we want. We still want good jobs, high incomes, deserved recognition—but, we also want to maintain a balance of time with our friends and family, pursuing hobbies, living our lives. We spent our entire lives involved in extracurricular activities in order to be accepted into college and get good scholarships. Pursuing our interests and skills, even outside of our careers, is not something we are willing to neglect after being “trained” to be involved for 20-30 years. Further, millennials realize that time is the only finite thing in our lives, and we want to take advantage of that as much as possible. We don’t give up opportunities to spend time as we want it, and we leverage our skills and positions to make that possible for everyone we can, whether that be provided family leave or flexible working arrangements. We’ve been told we could have it all and we believe it; the old system didn’t work as well with that, so we’re designing systems that align with our values while upholding the standards our predecessors have implemented.

MO: Yes. In our firm, our only concern is that the work gets done consistently with the time promised to our colleagues and clients. We embrace software and technology, which enables us to work remotely and more efficiently. This allows for much more flexibility and happier employees. We still strongly value success, however, we judge success based on merit, not on the number of hours a person is in the office.

SS: Yes! In my office, I am big on flexibility. As a millennial who runs an office with millennial employees, our firm culture is more laid back than the traditional law office. I understand that the practice of law is extremely stressful and that sometimes life happens. At my firm, we take mental health days at least once a month to help decompress from work. In addition to taking mental health days, I allow my employees the flexibility to work remotely a few times a month. We take days off for non-traditional holidays like International Women’s Day. My employees never feel stressed about needing to take time off for personal appointments that have to occur during the workday.

Through the implementation of cloud-based software and servers, as well as having apps on their phones that allow my employees to have their office extensions ring to their cell phones, my employees have the freedom to work outside of the office just as effectively and efficiently as they would in the office. If it is a nice day outside, we can grab our tablets and work outside. The freedom of being able to work remotely drastically boosts overall productivity and strengthens our reputation with our clients.

Millennials take pride in their work, especially when there are processes in place to encourage them. In my office, my employees are just as dedicated to the success of the firm as I am, because I acknowledge how their contributions have helped the success of the firm. Millennials want the comfort of knowing that they can grow with the company and that they will continually be appreciated for their contributions.

NG: Can millennials indeed lead their fellow millennials? What about leading older Gen Xers (now hitting 50) and boomers?

JG: Any time a younger person is asked to supervise members of an older generation there’s always going to be the possibility of conflict. More hierarchical-minded team members may bristle at having to answer to someone with less work experience (and life experience). That’s nothing new to the current crop of generations in the workforce. Millennials’ emphasis on ensuring all voices are heard is actually a powerful antidote to those exact feelings. Millennials that can make their older team members feel valued are in a prime position to succeed as team leaders.

AM: Our millennials lead each other and the older attorneys on various firm tasks/initiatives quite often. When it comes down to practicing law for clients, you still have to let experience lead and develop the young attorneys. They want to be mentored, so I don’t feel like their clamoring to take control over a deal/litigation file when they truly aren’t ready for the responsibility. On the other side, the older attorneys have to be willing to be led for it to work. If they are open to it, I think they will be surprised by how much the millennials can accomplish with some mentoring.

NM: Absolutely, to both questions. Along with my response to the above question regarding upgrading and designing systems that align with our values, millennials take learning very seriously. We’ve had the internet most, if not all of our lives, so we’re constantly learning or researching something. Millennials tend to lead with the “why” of doing things. We don’t do well with simply being told what to do, so we give that courtesy up front when leading—we need to file this objection to the subpoena because it is overreaching and is fishing for information; not just, go file this objection – figure out the why on your own. Millennials understand that “throwing someone in the pond” is not always the best way to learn—not for employees and not for clients. Once someone understands the “why” of doing something, they’ll easily be able to associate the “why” with other things and will be better able to think critically and do more things on their own, at a quicker rate. I don’t think the age of the individuals you’re leading matters so much as the level of respect the leader is providing, the knowledge the leader has, the willingness to be approachable and listen, and the appreciation the leader shows. It also helps that millennials care about using people’s strengths and passions, because when those things are encouraged in a workplace, people are generally happier and better employees, even when they have tasks they don’t particularly like.

MO: The trick to lead different generations is flexibility, tracking success metrics, and collecting regular feedback. No matter who you are trying to lead, it is important to come with goals and track those goals. When someone is struggling with their goals, requesting and being open to feedback will build respect between you as the leader and your employees. Once you have those goals in place, you need to be flexible in allowing each of your employees to accomplish those goals in any manner they see fit. To lead older Gen Xers and boomers, you can allow them to do things the way that they have always done them, provided they are able to meet the deadlines and goals you outline. For other millennials, you can allow them to work on their own schedule, provided they are able to meet their goals and deadlines.

SS: Yes, I believe that most millennials can successfully lead their fellow millennials. There’s a sense of comradery amongst millennials that lead each other because it’s very reassuring working with someone who respects you and understands the life obstacles you face. Millennials do not typically have a dictatorship style of leadership, nor do they see the sense of working to the point of exhaustion. Millennials typically work in a collaborative way and they like feeding off of each other’s work vibe.

I believe that millennials offer a fresh and new approach to leadership that some older Gen Xers and boomers can be resistant to because they are creatures of habit. That being said, I totally believe that a millennial can successfully lead older workers. It’s my opinion that the onus is on that individual person as to whether they would be receptive to the often progressive leadership style of a millennial. Without generalizing, I believe it depends on the person and whether or not they are willing to adapt to an innovative environment. If they are not flexible with change, then I would not suggest working for a millennial.

NG: Having witnessed the tipping point of the #MeToo movement, and public backlash in regards to mandatory arbitration and NDAs, have millennial men and women forever changed how we interact in law firm environments?

JG: Social media played a huge part in the #MeToo movement, and anywhere there’s social media, millennials make up a disproportionate part of the population. So yes, millennials played a part in the sea change that we’re going through culturally and as an industry. But it took people of every generation contributing their stories and their outrage to turn a hashtag into a phenomenon, and to give all the credit to one generation would diminish the overall impact of the movement. We all have a part to play in helping our society learn the lessons of #MeToo.

AM: I think it’s probably changed how millennial men and women interact in all professional environments, not just law firms. Unless you are consistently working to foster a culture of mutual respect amongst men and women within your law firm, you will be susceptible to those types of conflict. Putting women, young and old, in positions of leadership within the firm is an important part of that.

NM: How we interact or how we always should have been interacting? If you’ve had a respectable law firm environment, then no, there probably has not been much change. However, if the firm had an “old boys club” type of environment, there are likely things that are changing, as well as things that still desperately need to change.

MO: Yes. Millennial men and women are more in-tune with treating work relationships more formally or professionally. In addition, with a flatter management structure, staff feel more empowered to speak up and be heard if someone oversteps their boundaries.

SS: As a millennial attorney, I am more cautious in maintaining the integrity of my firm and the practice of law. I make sure that I have clear policies in place that help prevent situations from occurring. I also have quarterly training from outside HR professionals on how to interact with one another in the workplace. Also, we document everything. I believe it is important to have a true open door policy where your staff can comfortably discuss with you any situations that arise. I believe most millennial leaders are sensitive to these types of situations. Millennials have been silenced for a very long time by older generations and have often been told that they are overreacting and/or not being truthful when they speak out. I believe that with knowledge of these experiences, millennial leaders approach leadership more compassionately and in a more receptive manner.

NG: What’s the biggest surprise now that you’re in charge, and what do you look forward to changing the most?

JG: The biggest surprise about stepping into management is the uptick in intensity that it imparts on every facet of your life. Everyone tells you that your whole life is about to change, but it’s impossible to truly understand the commitment it takes until you’re actually on the job. The demands of the job are immense and require learning a whole new suite of skills in a very short time. I definitely feel that responsibility to the hundreds of colleagues and staff members that have entrusted me with maintaining and growing our firm. It’s challenging, exhilarating, exciting, and unrelenting.

The changes I want to see are the changes needed to keep current with the market, or even move ahead of it. Law firms across the country are feeling pressure from clients to keep rates down and billable hours limited, and are finding new ways to play firms against one another in a race to the bottom on cost. Fennemore wants to remain competitive on rate structure, but we’re also reshaping how we operate and how we communicate our value to the client in order to maintain the high level of service we’ve always provided. We’re putting our emphasis on working smart and fostering client relationships based on something more than the bottom line. Everything is geared to educating the market on why retaining Fennemore’s high-quality, high-efficiency attorneys is a smarter long-term play than chasing down whoever will shave another five dollars off their hourly rate. If you want legal services that are truly best-in-class both in terms of quality and efficiency, we want you thinking Fennemore Craig.

AM: The biggest surprise is how personally invested you become in the success of the law firm—not just for yourself, but for all the attorneys and staff. To some extent, they are all relying on you to lead them, move the ball forward, and to create a working environment where everyone can thrive. That’s a lot of pressure, so you have to love it. I like to think we’re “evolving” more than we are changing. We are fortunate to have had some very forward-thinking founding partners who laid down some great groundwork and built a great reputation for us. We recognize that you don’t need to run from your founding principles or constantly look for things to change in order to be a modern law firm. We want to be flexible and dynamic, but steadfast in the core principles that have made this firm so successful over the past 30+ years.

NM: The biggest surprise for me is how hard it is to mentor and supervise attorneys who work remotely, especially when they’re learning new things. It’s hard for millennials to pick up the phone, myself included, and ask for help or guidance, but scheduling regular check-ins and having an open-phone-line policy, as well as promoting a collaborative environment, can help make those things easier. I look forward to maintaining boundaries for my firm and all those who work in it; for example, I do not take client calls unless they are scheduled. I provide my scheduling calendar to all my clients so they can set their own call appointments, but I am not typically available for them at their whim when they call in. Often, my assistant can help them, but if it’s something I need to provide direction or answer for, they must schedule a call. I do not play phone tag with anyone. This makes me a better attorney—I do not get sidetracked throughout the day, taking calls as they come in. I respect my clients’ time and it allows me to get most of my work turned around within one or two weeks, which they appreciate. When you make boundaries clear and consistent, and the client can see the arrangement also benefits them, they are much more receptive to the minor hassle of having to schedule a call.

MO: The biggest surprise for me was how hard everyone is willing to work when you listen to them. The biggest change that I have implemented is a monthly sit down (or lunch) with each employee, where we go over everything related to work. This builds trust and from there I am able to make changes to the way we operate. When a change can’t be made, it gives me an opportunity to explain why we are operating the way we do, and at the very least the employee walks away with a better understanding and less animosity.

SS: Now that I am a leader, it was shocking to discover how much respect my peers and even significantly older individuals have for me. When I first this leap into leadership, I had concerns that I would be dismissed because of my age and while I have had some challenges, for the most part, people have been very receptive about it. I look forward to the continued growth and changes in the industry thanks to the technology we have access to.

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