How can my law firm remain productive in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? How can we support our partners, associates, paralegals, and administrative staff who now must work remotely for extended periods of time? These are the questions on the minds of every firm leader across the country.
The answer may come as a surprise: embrace the work-life blend championed by your firm’s 20- and 30-something-year-old professionals—that is, lean into the wisdom of the Millennial generation (born 1981 to 1996).
As a group, Millennials are socially conscious, collaborative, confident, and diverse. Comfortable blending work with life, these young professionals stand ready to contribute when working outside the four walls of an individual corporate office. Consequently, those law firms that understand how to embrace the Millennial vision of remote work will thrive in the coming months.
But before we delineate the contours of work-life blend, let us first consider the impact of this growing generation upon the legal industry (and the workplace as a whole). In 2016, Millennials became the largest component of the U.S. workforce and, just two years later, became the largest generation practicing law. By 2025, Millennials are expected to represent more than half of all lawyers.
Increasingly for law firms, Millennials are both colleagues and clients. To thrive in this changing environment, firms must understand how to unlock the talents and work ethic of this growing generation—and they have precious little time to do so.
While Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) patiently “paid their dues,” Millennial lawyers will not hesitate to try a new firm, or even a new career, when dissatisfied with their experience. With an average tenure of three years or less for a Millennial in a new job, law firms must rethink their delayed gratification model, the center of which is a seven to ten-year partnership track.
Forward-thinking law firms understand the importance of quickly identifying top performers and convincing them that they have a bright present, not just future, at their firms. In fact, according to the 2019 Millennial Attorney Survey by Above The Law and Major Lindsey & Africa, only 40% of Millennial lawyers currently have partnership aspirations.
To reverse these trends, pioneering law firms are beginning to implement measures designed to inspire, motivate, and retain their best young lawyers—such as ensuring meaningful experiences early in their careers; including exceptional associates in partner-level meetings; building community; and, yes, embracing work-life blend. In a newly destabilized work environment, such programs are only increasing in importance.
Just as the 2007 financial crisis forever changed the business of law, the 2020 pandemic will forever change the practice of law. Simply put, law firms must quickly change how they operate internally to navigate a new reality of remote work. Once out of the genie, there will be no “old normal” to which law firms will return in 2021 or beyond.
For better (and hopefully not for worse), every law firm is experiencing a crash course in how to blend—not balance—work and life. To a Millennial, work should be an enhancing and interesting aspect of life, not a counterweight to be balanced. Like puzzle pieces fitting seamlessly together, work and life become intertwined.
As professionals, we have always been lawyers, of course, but also parents, spouses, sons, daughters, friends, community members, and so on. Traditionally, however, we have tried to erect steep divides between these various aspects of our lives.
In a matter of weeks, however, these barriers have come crashing down. We are all juggling our numerous responsibilities, professional and personal, on a continuous spectrum. To succeed, we must embrace our whole selves.
Fortunately, a cohort within your office feels most productive in this type of blended environment. They are, by and large, your firm’s Millennials.
Importantly, work-life blend is not about working less; rather, a blended environment allows each individual to access their highest achieving self in the most productive place at the most productive time. Five essential freedoms apply to work-life blend:
- The Freedom to Rethink When and Where Work Happens. In study after study, the vast majority of Millennials asserts a strong desire to have some autonomy in setting their work hours and location. While some firms have been hesitant to trust their associates to work occasionally outside the office, all firms must now learn to trust and supervise their associates remotely.
- The Freedom to Think of Workspace as Living Space. Forward-thinking law firms recognize that Millennials seek community and friendships at the workplace, and therefore create opportunities for relationships to emerge. Although we must remain socially distanced at this time, law firms should focus on building vibrant digital communities—through messaging apps, virtual happy hours, and other means—to nurture that sense of connection.
- The Freedom to Bring Life into Work. Millennials report that the social aspects of work are often more important than their paychecks. Rather than viewing life and its richness as a distraction at work, we must come to see each other as whole individuals.
- The Freedom to Work, Think, and Connect Digitally. To the younger Millennials, the internet is not a highway onto which they merge on and off; rather they are digital natives who fully live in the digital and non-digital worlds. Firms would be wise to tap into the knowledge of these super-connected Millennials.
- The Freedom to Unplug. Lawyers may be superheroes, but we are not robots. We must give ourselves—and each other—the time and space to step away from the stresses of work. After a healthful break, we can return our focus to work with renewed focus and enthusiasm.
Before the pandemic struck, the notion of a standard workday was already becoming unrealistic and unsustainable—and not just because of Millennial demands. For years now, our clients have not operated on a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 (or 8 to 7), schedule. To the contrary, clients rightly expect their lawyers to help them as needs arise. Meeting our client demands requires us to destabilize the traditional workday.
Work-life blend has always been the solution. To implement this new blended work environment successfully, however, law firms must follow the lead of their youngest attorneys.
The payoff will be a productive and motivated workforce—one that can carry a law firm through the challenges of practicing in the midst of a pandemic and into a brighter future as well.
About the Author
J.P. Box is a lawyer, entrepreneur, consultant, and author of The Millennial Lawyer: How Your Firm Can Motivate and Retain Young Associates (ABA 2018).