Optimizing Your Multigenerational Law Firm

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.

If the current narrative on millennials is to be believed, you might assume the above quotation came from a beleaguered law firm partner earlier this year.

You might be surprised to learn this particular comment is, in fact, attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, speaking all the way back in the 8th century, B.C. That’s how long older generations have been complaining and worrying about younger generations: essentially for all of human history.

What probably won’t surprise you is the fact that new generations keep arriving and confounding many of the rest of us. As you look around your firm today, you will likely find that members of the millennial generation (born approximately 1981 to 1996) make up a large proportion of your attorneys and staff. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials will surpass baby boomers as the country’s largest living generation in 2019.

What also might not surprise you is that, for the most part, the legal industry has been relatively slow to adapt to the expectations and preferences of the millennial generation.

But increasingly, my law firm clients know that something has to change. As they face a potential onslaught of baby boomer retirements, they are concerned about how to attract star millennial talent and retain them for the long haul.

My research over the past decade has identified five key factors that matter the most to millennials and provide a blueprint for firms that want to hold onto their future leaders. As a bonus, you will likely find that these preferences are often just as appealing to members of other generations as well.

Personal development and coaching

Move over “command-and-control” leadership. Today’s high-potential young professionals are looking for coaches. In fact, Google’s comprehensive study of 10,000 people managers of all generations, dubbed Project Oxygen, found that the quality employees most wanted in managers was making time for one-on-one meetings. (No. 2 and 3 were similar at “Help employees solve problems” and “Take an interest in them.”)

How to apply this to your firm
  • Create more opportunities for observation and apprenticeship by including junior associates in more meetings or conference calls.
  • Give more explicit directions when assigning work, and provide examples of emails or briefs to clarify exactly what excellence looks like.
  • Be more generous with acknowledgment, encouragement, and gratitude. One firm, for example, gives all lawyers and staff blank thank-you cards every month to encourage a culture of recognition and appreciation.

More variability in career paths

Millennials have grown up in a world in which change is constant and industries rise and fall overnight. This means they do not believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to career development. While many law firms traditionally offer one path, “up or out,” today’s associates are looking for more opportunity for detours and customization. In other words, not every millennial associate longs to be a partner. Firms that want to retain the best talent will need to offer alternative paths of advancement.

Put it into practice
  • Consider flexible work arrangements, sabbaticals, and other alternatives to traditional work schedules and hours.
  • Make a point of more openly discussing career paths at every stage of an associate’s career. Acknowledge that partnership is unlikely for most associates and discuss other paths to achievement and success.

Variety in tasks and functions

Worried your stars are planning to leave? It is a concern: according to the 2016 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 44% of millennials said they planned to change jobs within the next two years. But a savvy way to keep your associates loyal is to provide the variety and challenge they crave.

Put it into practice
  • Create a program of micro-rotations or project pools to let millennials learn about other roles at the firm or alternate practice areas.
  • Invite millennials to serve on committees or task forces to expose them to different people in the firm while taking advantage of their creativity and fresh eyes.
  • Allow them to select pro bono projects that speak to their interests and sense of purpose.

A desire for experiences

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Pictures or it didn’t happen.” Millennials are living their lives on social media, which has turned “experiences” into an important commodity.

A survey from Expedia reported that 65% of millennials would prefer to spend money on experiences rather than products. No matter how high an associate’s salary, they will likely crave time to spend on travel, concerts, social engagements, and a variety of other experiences.

Put it into practice
  • Build events into your summer internship programs or make after-hour plans to help associates socialize. There is always an opportunity to inject some balance and experience into a demanding schedule.
  • Invite a junior associate to join you in attending a meeting, conference, or other events. The desire for experience includes professional exposure.

Access and transparency

It wasn’t long ago that information was meted out on a “need-to-know” basis. But today’s new cohort of workers is used to being “in the know” thanks to the internet and social media. Almost all business and world leaders are now accessible on social media, so it feels like a disconnect when an associate feels in the dark about their own firm and its leaders.

Put it into practice
  • Invite more access and connection to partners through town halls, mentoring opportunities, and all-team meetings.
  • Invite junior associates to participate in volunteer events alongside senior lawyers and firm leadership.

If you are ready to implement some of these changes, the best first step is to connect with a millennial at your firm and ask them about their preferences and ideas for successfully integrating their work style into your firm. As entrepreneur Cary Smith has said, “My millennial employees are my best recruitment and retention tool.”

About the Author

Lindsey Pollak is a consultant and speaker on the multigenerational workplace, and the author of Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders. Find her on Twitter @lindseypollak.

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