Law firms are not just businesses; they are cultures. They include players for good and players for bad. They can uplift, or they can corrupt. Examples of bad law firm cultures seem to be everywhere these days. They are replete with negative behaviors and eroded values. Common decency and respect have been replaced with devotion to money and power.
Millennial lawyers want something different. Some of the values that millennial lawyers bring to the workplace are the result of family experiences, which they do not want to replicate. Many were raised by parents whose unbalanced and workaholic lifestyles, alcohol and substance addictions, failed marriages, and severe health problems can be traced to the stresses of law practice, including high billable hours, demands for new client development, fierce competition, and lack of collegiality. Some of these problems are so significant that the American Bar Association has announced an initiative to address issues of alcoholism and substance abuse within law firms.
So, it appears that millennial lawyers are “on to” something important about our profession. Graduation from law school and bar passage demonstrate that millennial lawyers are capable of hard work, but they dismiss the need to work all of the time and, especially, all of the time at the office. They are tech savvy, and they know that the need for facetime all of the time is a ruse.
Most millennial lawyers, who were raised with at least one attentive and sometimes hovering parent, were rewarded too easily, complimented too freely, and received constant positive feedback. Their parents ran interference for them with teachers and coaches, and millennials came to expect it.
This is not a good platform for success in today’s highly competitive world. However, as pointed out by experts on multiple generations in the workplace, we senior lawyers raised them, and now we need to learn to work with them. We must recognize the values that we encouraged in them, and we must be responsive to those values.
Research confirms that the values of millennial lawyers include a desire for inclusion and an aversion to isolation. They also want clarity about their work and feedback on a regular basis—not merely once a year. They enjoy being part of a team, and they want to be involved in projects and not simply follow directions as cogs in a wheel. They want purpose and meaning in their work, and they want client contact and professional development training.
Generally speaking, millennial lawyers care less about big salaries, bonuses, and extravagant law firm social events than they care about healthy law firm cultures and work-life balance. Many of them still aspire to be partners in law firms, but they want partnership on more reasonable and less destructive terms.
We should be encouraged by this generation of lawyers. They demonstrate a desire to return to bygone practice when lawyers behaved with respect for each other and exhibited interest in inspiring a younger generation and protecting the fundamental principles of our profession.
Those principles can best be examined in their absence. It is disrespectful to ignore young lawyers. It is disrespectful to expect them to sit behind computer screens day after day without attempts to bring them into the fold. It is disrespectful to deny them the effective mentorship they crave. It is disrespectful to fail to acknowledge receipt of their work product. It is disrespectful to speak to them in raised and harsh voices and lambast them for minor mistakes. It is disrespectful to meet them in the hallway and not say “hello” or “would you like to go to lunch one day?”
Anecdotal information from young lawyers demonstrates that these kinds of failures and oversights are more the rule than the exception in large law firms today. Feedback from career counselors is consistent with this information, and studies confirm these conclusions. The number of young lawyers leaving our profession because of dissatisfaction with the failed human elements of practice is perhaps the strongest evidence.
Some firms are revising policies to respond to these concerns, but not enough of them. Too often, it is business as usual, especially in Big Law. It is painful for senior lawyers to try to understand this odd new generation of lawyers who often lack communication skills and would rather text message from across the room than engage a person in real conversation. It is hard to relate to young lawyers who demand work-life balance and appear to define their work responsibility as punching a clock five days a week. It is hard to understand a generation of lawyers that does not seem to be defined by “all work all of the time.” But we must educate these young people about the realities and business models of the profession, while at the same time respecting their values and being responsive to them.
If you are asking yourself why you should care about this new generation of lawyers, consider the following:
- The Millennial Generation is the largest generation since the Baby Boomers, and millennials will make up nearly 75 percent of the workforce by 2030;
- By virtue of their numbers alone, millennial lawyers are the future of law firms, and effective law firm succession plans depend on their continuing presence in practice;
- Law firm clients will be run by millennials in the future, and those millennial CEOs will identify with millennial lawyers and want them as their counsel; and
- IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.
Begin with the last one and work backwards. Money, power, and greed is not who we are. It is not what we do. It is not sustainable. It will crash us like it did Wall Street in 2008. We need to expect more of ourselves.
Susan Smith Blakely is the founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally recognized author, speaker, and consultant on issues related to young lawyers. Ms. Blakely’s new book, What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2018) explores the realities of modern law practice through the lens of today’s young lawyers. She also is author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for women lawyers.