Multi-Cultural and Multi-Generational Issues in Law Firms

Many law firms place a great deal of importance on building and supporting a diverse workplace – and for good reason. Boasting a team with a wide array of cultural and generational perspectives and experiences can go a long way in communicating effectively with an equally diverse clientele. This month’s roundtable discussion brings together an impressive team of panelists to discuss the benefits of multiculturalism—and its inherent challenges—as well as to address the dos and don’ts of cultivating a modern organization in which employees from different cultures and generations can thrive.

Round Table Moderator: Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and veteran public relations practitioner.

Our Panelists

Jeanne A. Fugate (JF) – Jeanne is a shareholder at Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC, where she chairs the firm’s Diversity Task Force. She has a wide-ranging practice, focusing primarily on employment litigation, complex civil litigation, and securities litigation. In addition to her regular practice, Jeanne serves as a Commissioner on the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission and is on the California Bar Foundation’s board of directors.

William T. “Toby” Eveland (TE) – Toby is a partner at Arnstein & Lehr LLP and focuses his practice on business and class action litigation, premises and product liability defense, and complex insurance disputes, in fields such as real estate, construction, higher education, risk management, professional liability, health care, employment, intellectual property, and governmental law. He earned his J.D. in 2004 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

Jennifer G. Gallinson (JG) – Jennifer is the director of attorney recruitment and professional development at Much Shelist, P.C., a mid-size law firm with offices in Chicago and Irvine, CA. Jennifer manages all aspects of lateral partner and lateral associate recruitment and is responsible for the development and implementation of attorney professional development, training, and CLE programming. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the University of Michigan.

Christy Lea (CL) – Christy is a litigation partner in Knobbe Martens’ Orange County office. She has represented clients in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries for well over a decade. Her practice is primarily handling high-stakes patent cases at both the trial and appellate levels. Christy is a founding member of Knobbe’s Diversity Committee.

Bahar Schippel (BS) – Bahar is a partner in the Phoenix office of Snell & Wilmer. Her practice focuses on tax planning for mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and real estate transactions, drafting LLC and partnership agreements, tax planning in connection with fund formation and operations, structuring tax-efficient debt workouts, designing service provider equity compensation for LLCs and partnerships and representing taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.

NG: In today’s workplace, what can management do to go beyond the rules of employment law to cultivate an environment in which different generations of employees can thrive?

BS: Understanding generational differences is essential. As research demonstrates, many of the differences between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y are quite profound and provide insight as to the unique work and communication styles of each generation. Management, often from the ranks of Baby Boomers, should understand and value these differences and encourage partners and mentors to do the same. Doing so would help establish and foster a culture of understanding, acceptance, and inclusiveness.

TE: Deliberately work to create an atmosphere where each employee, regardless of generation, can be true to him or herself, can freely express him or herself, and where each employee enjoys coming to work and feels valued. That happens in a variety of ways, big and small. Big ways include engendering respect and professionalism in the workplace through policy and action. Small ways include compromise on issues like dress code (i.e., if certain generations prefer business attire, and other generations prefer casual attire, then meet in the middle—business attire where clients or court appearances dictate it, business casual where otherwise appropriate, and casual on Fridays, snow days, etc.). Or if certain attorneys enjoy entertaining clients at a golf course and other attorneys enjoy entertaining clients in a cooking class, encourage both mechanisms as ways to build client relationships instead of dictating one way or the other.

JF: It’s important to understand the strengths that each generation brings and to cultivate a workplace that uses those strengths, as well as to educate all employees about ways in which different generations may respond differently. As one example, to older generations, emails require an immediate (or at least quick) response; for younger generations, text messages have taken their place. By the same token, however, a text message is not an appropriate means of meeting and conferring with opposing counsel. A screenshot of one’s cell phone can hardly be attached as Exhibit “1” to a motion. Lawyers of an older generation feel similarly about the telephone, suggesting that the best means of starting a communication is to try to resolve it by the telephone, as opposed to emailing or writing a sharply worded letter. Recognizing these differences, of which they are many, and where they can strengthen a practice, is key to a thriving multigenerational environment. By the same token, it’s also important not to overgeneralize the perceived negatives of any particular generation, emphasizing the importance of training.

JG: Management should continue to think outside the box to find ways to create a culture that is collaborative and meaningful for all generations—but don’t be afraid to have a little fun, as well. At our firm, we have converted our library into a space with a ping pong and pool table and a few couches. Our attorneys agree that pool and ping pong tournaments, along with the occasional happy hour, are great ways to get to know each other better, which in turn create a collegial culture. Another idea is to focus on giving back to the community. Every quarter, we organize hands-on community service events that bring our attorneys and staff together. Whether it is beautifying a park, stocking shelves at a food pantry, or serving a meal at the local Ronald McDonald House, we maintain a culture of giving back year-round. These events provide a platform for personal and professional fulfillment that transcends any generational lines.

CL: I believe that management can stay relevant to all generations (and therefore effective) by recognizing and encouraging the cross-sharing of information among the generations. Management should encourage the younger generations to bring their fresh ideas to the table while respecting the tried and true ways of the older generation. In turn, management should encourage the older generations to mentor the younger generations based on their own success and failures while respecting the fresh and provocative ideas of the younger generation.

NG: On an individual level, what can a younger, less-experienced lawyer do to set themselves apart when they first begin work for a firm whose staff consists of more experienced attorneys?

BS: At times, younger lawyers lose sight of the forest for the trees. I find that the most successful young lawyers are those that understand the importance of a given task within the context of a larger objective. In addition, they need to identify the most effective ways to add value to the attorneys and practices they support. This frequently requires a strong team-focused approach, the desire to think beyond the established ways of doing things, and the ability to manage up the organizational structure.

TE: Always be respectful of those who have come before you. Learn from their successes and their mistakes. Seek out their input and guidance, and get to know them. Have lunch, coffee, drinks, etc. with them. In essence, be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge from them as possible while developing your own practice and style.

JF: Less-experienced lawyers should observe how other lawyers act and model themselves after those lawyers, both in terms of the way they practice and the way they present themselves, both in terms of conduct and attire. They should also seek out mentors who have been at the firm and ask for guidance. When lawyers have been in practice for years-to-decades, they will have established certain expectations about work product. For instance, lawyers have different expectations as to the formality required of a research assignment. If a partner expects a formal memorandum on letterhead, even brilliant research and analysis sent in an email will not meet expectations, and an email setting forth bullet-points and containing various abbreviations and slang would obviously be much less well received. Different lawyers have different expectations about when assignments need to be submitted, and whether they need to be ready for court filing at that time, or if a rougher draft is acceptable. More senior attorneys also may have different expectations of proper work attire and behavior. These are just some of the potential pitfalls for the younger attorney that can be avoided with good mentoring and observational skills.

The opportunity to work with senior attorneys is great, as each of those experienced practitioners will bring a different skill set and style to the table from which junior attorneys can learn and adopt as best befits themselves. Junior attorneys should be encouraged to reach out to more senior colleagues. I have never heard a more senior lawyer turn down the opportunity to talk to a more junior attorney about their practice, about what they have learned, and what they expect from their junior colleagues.

JG: From the day that the less experienced lawyer steps into the office for the first time, they should know that they are building a brand. Every interaction is an opportunity for you to enhance (or detract from) that brand. Be professional in all contexts, including email. Every email should be spell-checked, proofread, and read out loud for tone and context. Seize every opportunity to showcase your work and just as importantly, your work ethic. For the less experienced lawyer, this means getting up from your desk to have face-to-face interactions. I hear from many experienced attorneys that the junior attorneys email too much. Often times, it is more efficient to walk down the hall and have a conversation or ask a question. That’s also the best way for junior attorneys to gain meaningful insight from partners who’ve walked in their shoes, perhaps many years ago.

CL: Do good work and make the partner’s life easier. Anticipate deadlines. Check in often (and in person where possible). Own the case or matter; don’t just complete an assignment. When a document (whether it is a letter, motion, or other document) comes in that will require a response, the junior lawyer should inform or ask the more senior lawyer if they can begin the response. I know one of my favorite things when I am drafting a brief is when I leave a note to insert a citation or a figure and the next time I open the document the citation or figure is there without me ever having mentioned it to anyone. Also, junior lawyers often are more current on the latest technology and can help the senior lawyer learn and incorporate the latest and greatest in their practice.

NG: Are there any taboos a more mature lawyer should avoid when interacting with younger colleagues, and vice versa?

BS: Beyond the obvious areas one should avoid in these interactions, I think it is also important to refrain from sharing experiences or drawing comparisons with older or younger colleagues, usually premised on perceived generational differences or standards. Whether intentional or otherwise, such actions can cause resentment and create an unpleasant working environment. If such differences are raised, it should be done in a more constructive manner where the objective is to help colleagues develop a more productive and beneficial professional relationship.

TE: It is called the practice of law for a reason…it is a practice. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak. Just because one particular method worked for a mature lawyer does not mean that it will equally work for a younger lawyer. Instead, create an environment for young lawyers to learn and grow, and admittedly make mistakes, but then learn from them. Share experiences, but as a colleague, not as a grandparent figure (i.e., “back in my day…”).

JF: Groaning when one learns that a new attorney was born in the late 1980s, while not taboo, should be discouraged. Similarly, informing more senior colleagues that one was not even born when they graduated from law school should also be avoided.

On a more serious note, going back to the original point, each generation brings its own strengths, and the worst thing that either more mature or more junior attorneys can do is to overlook the strengths that the other generation brings, or to make generalizations simply based on one’s generation.

JG: I think younger colleagues tend to be more casual in conversations and may over-share. The younger generation often is comfortable revealing intimate details on social media whereas the more mature lawyer is accustomed to holding personal information close to the vest. This is not to say that you can’t let your personality shine through, but be careful when you are doing so.  Also, more mature lawyers should avoid the temptation to see new colleagues as “slackers” if they are not in the office for 12 hours a day. They should remember that their younger colleagues are working just as hard, but differently. This generation fully embraces technology and even if they leave to go home to spend time with family or significant others, they are logging back in after hours to finish that memo. “Face time” is not something that the younger generation is comfortable with, and the more mature lawyers need to adjust their expectations accordingly (of course, as long as the client work is getting done).

CL: Well, I’m certainly not a fan of when male lawyers call me “honey” or “sweetheart.” It has never happened at my firm, but occasionally a more “mature” opposing counsel will use those words towards me.

NG: What type of atmosphere does management need to create to avoid cultural differences among staff within a firm?

BS: Firm leadership needs to understand, embrace, and communicate the importance of diversity and inclusion. It also needs to recognize that not all diverse individuals have the same experiences. I believe that a firm should do its best to view diverse perspectives in a favorable light. At Snell & Wilmer, our Diversity and Inclusion Committee works closely with members of our Executive Committee and keeps them apprised of key developments and initiatives relative to diversity and inclusion issues.

TE: I think this question is fundamentally flawed. There will always be cultural differences among staff within a firm. Instead of attempting to avoid these differences, celebrate them. As a collective team, our differences make us stronger. Our differences enable us to better relate and communicate with different clients and with different personnel working for and leading our clients.

JF: Management needs to lead from the top and show its commitment to diversity. This commitment ideally includes promoting diverse attorneys within the management structure. It also includes sponsoring necessary training, such as workshops regarding implicit bias, and fostering open dialogue within the firm regarding these issues. It is also important to monitor whether a firm’s diversity goals are being met, and reassess whether further steps need to be taken.

JG: The ideal environment is one where differences are not stressed in a way that is exclusionary, but respected, acknowledged, even celebrated as important elements of organizational culture. For law firms, defining “culture” has often long been a foreign concept, but the importance can no longer be denied. Every firm should have core values and operate in a way that is in line with those values. For our firm, the culture focuses on teamwork, generosity, and collegiality and these expectations run from the top down. When management creates a culture that rewards attorneys and staff based on their commitment to core values, individual cultural differences enhance the firm rather than distract from the mission.

CL: A respectful and positive atmosphere built on trust. Management can build trust by ensuring a level playing field for all to grow professionally, advance, build a practice, and serve in leadership roles.

NG: How can the experiences of lawyers who are from a minority ethnic background assist them when entering into a less diverse firm?

BS: Those experiences can help initiate important discussions and influence positive change across the firm. As a result, it is imperative that these lawyers be themselves. Their diverse backgrounds can enrich a law firm’s culture and the quality of service it provides to clients. Against this backdrop, these attorneys also must work hard and establish a reputation for excellence. It is also important to identify mentors inside and outside the firm. We routinely find that our most successful lawyers, whether from a diverse background or not, have benefited from strong mentor/mentee relationships.

With respect to a less diverse firm, it is important for it to recognize that diversity is a two-way street. While the diverse attorney can offer different perspectives, the firm must embrace and support such expression. The failure to do so could isolate the diverse attorney. If the difference in perspective is embraced, however, the firm might very well be on its way to creating a more inclusive environment.

TE: We are all diverse, and we all bring our own special experiences and backgrounds. Be proud of who you are. Teach your colleagues about your background, whether by sharing about your holidays, observances, and traditions, or by being open to inviting them to join you. Have a family recipe for a specific event? Bring it in to the office to share. Have a holiday tradition? Share it with your coworkers. Have dinner with your colleagues and their spouses or significant others. Maybe they pick the restaurant the first time, and you pick it the next time. In short, be yourself and build relationships.

JF: Our economy is now a global one, and the legal profession reflects this shift. Our clients expect that their legal teams will be diverse, and there are opportunities for diverse lawyers to take leading roles as client contacts, and diverse lawyers should look for opportunities to take on these roles. On a more practical level, it is difficult to generalize how any particular lawyer’s background might assist them, but I would encourage lawyers to look to whatever their backgrounds are as potential strengths to promote themselves. For instance, being a native speaker of a second language is an invaluable skill, and one that can lead to getting great assignments. Similarly, attorneys might bring cultural understanding that will be invaluable with a particular client or set of witnesses. There are also a number of excellent bar organizations that can not only provide mentorship and guidance to lawyers, but by joining those organizations and taking a leadership roles, attorneys can demonstrate that they are promoting the firm through that organization in addition to making great contacts for their own future endeavors. Finally, attorneys from an ethnic background will bring a different perspective that, in a well-functioning firm, should be respected, both in terms of contributing to the work product and the culture of the firm.

JG: Each of us has a unique ethnic, cultural, and familial background. If one’s ethnic background is not like those of their colleagues, it is important to remember the similarities that bring you together as a team. You are all working toward a common goal and in furtherance of the organization’s mission. For us, it is our commitment to high quality, sophisticated work and exceptional service. You may encounter people who have had limited interaction with people who are different from themselves. If that does occur, make the first move to engage that person. Sometimes that is all it takes to break down barriers before they are formed.

CL: The world is becoming more and more “diverse” and your experiences can be an advantage.  For example, your experiences can help you relate to clients and potential clients.  Judges and juries are also becoming more diverse and your experiences can help you connect with these diverse audiences.

NG: In what ways does having employees with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures contribute to the health and value of a firm?

BS: In our firm, we believe that the best solutions emerge from diversity of perspective, thought, and talent. Put simply, such diversity yields more meaningful and tangible results. Diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures, in addition to a firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts, can go a long way in securing the best legal talent, building a compelling place to work, providing superior client service, and remaining relevant in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace. As stated in our firm’s credo, “Our mission is to take a genuine interest in our clients, understand their objectives, and meet or exceed their expectations.” If we did not have a deep bench of diverse perspectives, thought, and talent, we would not be able to fulfill that mission.

TE: In what ways does it not is the harder question. To paraphrase M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, we share our similarities, but we celebrate our differences. Our differences—our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures—challenge us, take us outside of the known, teach us to learn, appreciate, and ultimately celebrate the unknown. We are better, stronger, and more capable attorneys because of a diverse team of attorneys and staff.

JF: As noted above, our clients expect that their legal teams will be diverse, so there is a very real bottom line benefit to building and maintaining a diverse law firm. And the reason that our clients are looking for diverse legal teams is not simply a number-crunching exercise, but because of any number of real benefits: a wider variety of viewpoints, leading to more creative problem-solving; a broader set of skills (such as other languages, cultural understanding); in general being more flexible in adopting to growing markets and client demands. There is also the simple fact that it is great to walk into my law firm each morning and work with colleagues who reflect the larger community around me.

JG: At our firm, we refer to the diversity of backgrounds as our “firm fabric” that only serves to enhance our core culture and values. We recognize and appreciate our differences and understand that we are not only lawyers and business advisors but we are people who also have a life outside of the office. The fabric of our firm is built upon the dedication of our attorneys and staff to their communities, each in a very unique way. For some this may be by providing meals through their church, for others it may be by enhancing opportunities for young girls in the inner city, and another may be involved in charities that focus on children with life threatening diseases. Whether on the soccer field or in the boardroom, our unique perspectives and life experiences only enhance the service we provide our clients. Our firm culture has been recognized as a “Best Place to Work” and when employees love where they work, any differences in ethnicity or background simply become secondary to the overall good of the firm.

CL: Anytime someone has had different experiences in life, they bring a different perspective to their work and increase the collective experiences and knowledge-depth of the team.

Send this to a friend