Unlocking the Talents of the Millennial Lawyer

“What can I do to convince you to stay?” So asked a senior partner during a long lunch in which he employed every trick of the Socratic method to try to make me reconsider leaving his firm. You see, a few hours earlier, I had just delivered notice of my imminent move to a new firm.

Like many partners in law firms across the county, he was exasperated by the revolving door of talented young associates coming in and out of the firm. At the time, I did not have great answers to his questions. I was simply following an instinct that pushed me on my journey.

All told, I practiced law for six years at a large international firm in Washington, DC; a large regional firm in Denver, Colorado; and a small regional firm in Denver. At each stop, I quickly earned the trust of partners, the confidence of clients and a generous paycheck, along with yearly bonuses.

But I pulled the plug on each firm after roughly two years of employment. I broke the news to partners who had made me integral parts of their teams, and I struggled to articulate why I had not found a lasting niche at their firms.

Eventually, I walked into an entirely new career path, co-founding a merino wool kid’s apparel company called Chasing Windmills. Nonetheless, I remained haunted by those questions from disappointed partners who wanted to understand how to hold onto promising young associates. After investing so much time and energy into becoming a lawyer, I needed to answer those questions, at least for myself.

Pondering those questions led me to a surprising revelation: my story as the successful-but-unfulfilled young associate was not especially unique. Rather, my experiences as a job-hopping young lawyer shared numerous commonalities with the growing Millennial population (those born as early as 1981).

As I dove into the social sciences and consulting studies analyzing the Millennial generation, I quickly realized that the tensions mounting in law firms across the country could be traced, in large part, to generational misunderstandings. This awareness led me to a second career rebirth as a Millennial authority, with a knack for explaining how law firms can connect with, motivate and retain top young attorneys.

Consistent with my experiences, the average tenure of a Millennial in a new job is less than three years. A Millennial employee will leave a law firm, not just when he or she is unhappy, but when he or she is not happy enough.

While Boomer and Gen X lawyers patiently “paid their dues,” Millennial lawyers are not hesitant to vote with their feet and try a new firm—or even a new career. According to a 2016 study, four of 10 lawyers plan to walk away from their current firms within the year.

This turnover drains significant resources and money from law firms across the country. According to Thomson West, firms spend $1 billion every year to recruit and train attorneys. Due to escalating associate turnover, the average big law firm loses an estimated $25 million each year.

The good news, however, is that this story can be rewritten. Law firms can inspire and retain their young attorneys while remaining highly productive. Boomer and Gen X partners can work harmoniously with their younger Millennial colleagues to the benefit of clients.

Inspiring the next generation of attorneys does not require every firm to spend big money re-making their offices into Google-like utopias with company bikes, on-site cafes, volleyball courts and other amenities. Rather, if your firm is serious about unlocking the talents and work ethic of its Millennial attorneys, then your firm must first understand the Millennial mindset.

Who Are Millennials?

Millennials are young adults born as early as 1981 and as late as 1997. As a group, they are socially conscious, confident, collaborative and diverse. They seek to blend work and life together; show an eagerness to contribute immediately; value mentorship and transparency; opt for great experiences over high pay, and believe in doing well by doing good.

In 2015, Millennials became the largest working group in the United States. By 2020, Millennials are expected to make up 46% of the US workforce, and by 2025, Millennials will account for 75% of the global workforce.

Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) and Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) have experienced varying levels of stress and difficulty in integrating the rapidly growing Millennial generation into their professions. It is not uncommon to hear laments such as, “Associates today just don’t want to work hard,” or “Millennials don’t commit. Millennials don’t focus.” And on and on and on.

These complaints reveal the frustration felt by many Gen X and Boomer colleagues whose attempts to motivate their younger employees seem to backfire. However, the underlying disconnect is reparable.

Gen Xers and Boomers can unlock the talents and work ethic of their Millennial colleagues by simply understanding the Millennial mindset—that is, by understanding the generational trends indicating what motivates and inspires a young person’s best and most committed work.

What Are the Key Pillars of the Millennial Mindset?

First, forget work-life balance and embrace work-life blend.

Law firm marketing materials abound with promises of “work-life balance.” This corporate buzzword denotes serious hard-working professionals who also have a life outside of work.

However, by promoting work-life balance, law firms risk alienating their Millennial associates. Today’s young employees are seeking work-life blend, in which work is an inspiring and enhancing aspect of life—not a weight to be balanced against life.

As Michelle Silverthorn, diversity and education director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, said: “For Millennial lawyers, work and life are intertwined. It’s not about balancing two heavy loads on a see-saw, work on one side, life on the other. Rather, it’s about putting two complex puzzle pieces together and making sure they fit together permanently.” Instead of merely seeking “balance,” today’s young associates expect their profession to be an important component of their lives.

Work-life blend includes a willingness to rethink when and where work occurs. The vast majority of Millennials desire more autonomy in setting the location and hours of their work—whether that is in their individual offices early in the morning, a communal work area at your law firm (such as the law library), at a coffee shop, or even at home from time to time.

Importantly, work-life blend does not mean short-changing work or cutting back on overall hours. Rather, this system allows attorneys to access their most productive selves at their peak performance time and location.

Of course, law firms must adhere to some boundaries in a blended work-life environment, especially to ensure the necessary collaboration between partners, associates, and staff. However, if firms are to benefit from a motivated and productive workforce, it is imperative to loosen the rigidity of the standard 9-5 workday. By blending work and life together, firms empower their employees to meet their professional and personal obligations on a continuous flexible spectrum.

Empower your associates to contribute immediately.

Millennials are arguably the most confident generation in history. Over three-quarters of Millennials believe that “At this time of my life, it still seems like anything is possible.”

On the flip-side, only one-quarter of Millennials believe their employer makes full use of their skills.

Often, employers interpret this confidence as the classic case of the “entitled Millennial” (or worse). By recasting “entitlement” as “confidence,” however, law firms can position themselves to take advantage of an eager stable of young attorneys who are excited to make real contributions early in their careers.

Of course, this eagerness places more pressure on law firms to train and accelerate their young attorney’s career development. But isn’t that why you hired those smart young attorneys in the first place? In the words of a partner who clearly saw this confident desire to contribute: “JP, I like my job, but I like it even better when you can do it for me.”

Mentor, mentor, mentor!

Millennials can be a paradox. The most confident generation also wants unprecedented levels of mentorship to help train and chart the course of their careers. Millennials seek autonomy but not necessarily independence. Simply put, Millennials want to learn from their more senior colleagues.

As a generation, Millennials grew up receiving ongoing feedback from parents, teachers, and coaches. They have literally been trained to process mentorship and adjust their performance accordingly.

Not surprisingly then, 90% of Millennials would like to have regular check-ins with their superiors. If your firm’s partners embrace their roles as mentors, they just may be surprised at the receptiveness and coach-ability of today’s young attorneys.

Focus on improving the law firm experience, not just the financial rewards.

In study after study, Millennials report that they want a meaningful and fulfilling career that makes a difference in the world. For example, three-quarters of Millennials say that “it is more important to enjoy their work than to make a lot of money.”

Of course, law firms must pay their young associates competitive salaries; however, a big salary alone is no longer an effective carrot to ensure years of loyal service from a Millennial associate. Consequently, law firms’ historic motivators—for example, billable hour bonuses and the prospect of partnership years down the road—often fail as consistent motivators for this generation.

Instead, law firms must focus on the experience of practicing law. For starters, firms can promote collegiality and collaboration at their law firms. As The Washington Lawyer pointed out, “Thanks to Millennials, the notion that an office can be both a workplace and a social center is becoming de rigueur even in law firms.”

Furthermore, instead of seeking to inspire hard work through the business of law (such as trying to motivate hard work with billable hour bonuses), law firms can inspire consistent and committed effort by refocusing on the noble practice of law. At its best, our profession is a model of selfless service to others.

Nearly nine out of 10 Millennials desire “a career that does some good in the world.” As lawyers who represent others’ interests daily, we have an incredible opportunity to focus on our profession’s contributions to society. And, if we do so, the youngest generation of lawyers will be ready to throw themselves into their work.

The Millennial Opportunity

The future of the legal profession is bright, especially for those firms willing to pivot in the direction of the country’s largest working generation. Increasingly, Millennials will be your colleagues and clients. Cracking the Millennial code is not a luxury, but a necessity, for those firms that will excel in the newly emerging legal marketplace.

About the Author

JP Box is a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur and author. He left the practice of law after six years to co-found and run Chasing Windmills, a manufacturer and retailer of merino wool children’s clothing. He is the author of The Millennial Lawyer: How Your Law Firm Can Motivate and Retain Young Associates (ABA Law Practice Division) and offers consulting services to law firms. Contact him at jpboxjr.com.

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