How one millennial and his firm see law practice today
Photo courtesy of Michael Moradzadeh
Millennials now make up the largest single generational group at big law firms, according to a report by the American Lawyer. While most millennial attorneys are still associates, it is only a matter of time before they become the majority of partners.
And millennials are likely to have a very different take than previous generations on what a partnership is and what they want out of their careers.
The organizational mindset that made sense for generations saw law firms (and other businesses) as stable and secure, the object of a lifetime commitment. But millennials are the product of a different world. The past three decades have seen monumental changes in the way business operates, and the business of law has been no exception.
Firms have exploded in size. In 1987, the world’s biggest law firm had less than 900 attorneys; now the biggest firm, Dentons, has over 7,700 lawyers. As global businesses, law firms have faced pressure to abandon the old collegial attitude for an unsentimental devotion to the bottom line. Repeated failures and massive conglomeration have exemplified the new business atmosphere in which attorneys must practice their traditional craft.
Law firms have faced significant pressure from clients to run “lean and mean” shops—a model that removes all but the most necessary charges. Clients are willing to pay $2,000 an hour for a premier partner to save their company in a high-stakes litigation or navigate a complex transaction, but they don’t want to spend a dime paying for legal secretaries or even training lower-level associates. Law firms have responded by moving back offices to less-expensive locations. They have also cut the number of associates and—as it has been widely reported—begun making heavy use of nonequity partnerships.
Much of this change has been driven by technology. The automation that over the years replaced blue-collar jobs with machines has now become digital and has entered the white-collar workplace. Millennials have come of age watching rapid changes in technology loom over the careers of even the best-trained professionals.
A McKinsey survey published in 2017 estimates that by 2030, automation could displace between 400 million and 800 million individuals. Lawyers are seen as potential winners in this automation revolution: Professional services providers are not facing the same threat of wholesale replacement as factory workers, truck drivers or other blue-collar workers. That does not mean, however, that younger attorneys can securely look forward to the same career trajectory as their predecessors.
For millennials, this is not entirely bad news.
We millennials grew up with digital technology. And as it has shaped our world, it has also influenced our outlook: on work, on society and on life in general. In 2013, an article in Forbes identified 10 ways that millennials would likely change the workplace as they moved into positions of power, based on millennial values that tend to differ from those of previous generations. Those changes included an emphasis on collaboration; a leveling of hierarchy; transparency in leadership; a sense of comfort with digital communication that would facilitate working from many locations (thus diminishing the importance of physical offices and in-person face time); and an expectation that work and corporate culture should be fun. It’s not difficult to see how the digital experience—for example, online gaming and social media networks—might have contributed to such attitudes.
With digital technology as their native language, millennials unsurprisingly tend to view tech firms as the Zeus of the business Mount Olympus. And the tech world prizes controlling your own destiny: having the ability to seize new opportunities, unbound by a sentimental connection to any particular organization. For example, while law firm partners used to view the use of nonequity partnership as an embarrassment, millennials are more likely to see nonequity status as free agency, a springboard from which to jump to the next opportunity.
Similarly, some older workers may have viewed the increasing demand to be always on call and to work from home as an unwelcome intrusion of business into private life. But millennials are often accustomed to being digitally connected 24/7. For us, that’s normal. Many of us, before we ever made career plans, had already enthusiastically embraced the video, social media and instant-messaging technologies that are opening up the legal world.
And so, while technology and globalization have created a new business environment for law firms, those firms are also increasingly made up of a very new and very different type of attorney, one who does not necessarily see equity partnership as a brass ring, but also questions the entire pyramid structure that undergirds the traditional law firm model. Having lost the safety net of the old enduring firm, millennial attorneys are of necessity more entrepreneurial. They tend to see themselves as free agents, and law firms as a means to an end. They are ready to grow a practice and then jump into the “churn,” looking for not only more money, but a better lifestyle.
In 2008, two millennials founded Rimon as a new model law firm. We have embraced both the new technology and the new attitudes. Rimon has been an innovator in using video and digital collaboration as well as software robotics and the latest in time-saving automation. We have implemented technology to help our lawyers work with their colleagues and clients from any location (which not only facilitates communication but saves us, and our clients, the costs of large physical offices). But more than that, we have carefully designed our corporate structure and culture to create the collaborative, transparent and nonhierarchical environment where millennials are likely to feel at home. And we have consciously rejected the “up-or-out” career path of BigLaw: At Rimon, attorneys control their own careers.
Rimon is among the pioneers in adapting to the new millennium, but as millennials take over the legal industry, we can expect BigLaw to feel ever-greater pressure to change. Millennials will not look at law firms as a prized structure to be maintained, but rather as a way to move up the ladder and gain experience and clients, while always looking to jump at the next opportunity. We see this happening already. Firms that don’t follow this pattern and make a legal career fit into the millennial structure will not have to worry about their future much longer.
Editor’s note: This column was updated May 24 to remove reference to a Financial Times article. A spokesman for Cravath, Swaine and Moore says information in the article about traditions at Cravath partners’ funerals is incorrect.
Michael Moradzadeh is a founding partner and CEO of Rimon Law, and represents technology companies in corporate and securities transactions. He has presented on innovations in law firm management and business models at several law schools, and is a 2012 ABA Journal Legal Rebel. He can be reached at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org
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