Are you harnessing your millennial power?

  • Print


Photo by Shutterstock

How much are you thinking about millennials? If your answer is “not much,” you are not paying attention to business.

Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, so boomer and Generation X workers had better learn how to effectively integrate them into their businesses. And that is especially important for law firms. The power of millennial lawyers is huge—by virtue of numbers alone. 

Most of the people I talk to at management levels in BigLaw report that the issues of millennial lawyers are definitely on their minds. But it is not always clear whether that is because they are annoyed at the behaviors and attitudes of millennial lawyers or because they are in problem-solving mode. 

The legal profession is facing a complex generational divide with the advent of millennial lawyers. And questions of how to motivate and foster leadership in a generation with values that differ significantly from those of immediate-past generations should keep law firm leaders up at night. 

A shifting balance

In my work, I speak at law schools, law firms and law organizations throughout the country, and the values conversation is a constant theme. One thing that I have come to know about millennial lawyers is that they are very serious about their lifestyle preferences, and they will bet their futures on them.

Millennial lawyers know that boomer and Generation X lawyers need them in the profession to take our firms into the future. They know that the boomer lawyers are retiring and that there are too few Generation X lawyers to pick up all the slack. These young lawyers know they are the hope for law firm succession plans. 

Millennial lawyers have learned to travel light, and they will vote with their feet. They are not likely to be constrained by the “golden handcuffs” of huge mortgages and consumer debt because they know that kind of baggage reduces their mobility, their career choices and their ultimate happiness.

If the profession fails them, they will walk. It is that simple.

That is the kind of power that millennial lawyers understand and respect. It is the kind of power that can make positive changes in a profession that desperately needs change.

So law firm leaders need to think long and hard about how they are going to meet the needs of millennial lawyers and continue to deliver high-quality legal services.

Making the changes that millennial lawyers want will involve enhanced mentoring and career development, pro bono investment to give young lawyers experience early in their careers, and positive changes in law firm cultures to create more flexible and human workplaces that are responsive to work-life balance and young lawyers’ values.

Law firms will have to examine their mentoring programs to make sure that the connection between mentees and mentors is organic. The days of assigning mentees to mentors based upon gender, undergraduate and law school affiliations, and convenience are over because they did not work. Matching has to reflect interest on both sides, considerations of personality types and a commitment to creating successful mentoring experiences that will help develop talent in lawyers who will become future law firm leaders.

Law firms also should share some of the details of firm business plans with young lawyers to help them understand the impact of their contributions. They need to get the “big picture” early to grasp the need for large numbers of billable hours and the relationship of those requirements to keeping the lights on, the doors open and clients coming.

Senior lawyers must be careful not to assign false deadlines to projects for the sake of making the young lawyers of today experience law as it was practiced “in the day.” Today’s young lawyers are savvy, and they see right through the ruse. Certainly, there will be times where late-night and weekend work is necessary to respond to client requests, but senior lawyers need to be “in the boat” on the project and not just make the demand and disappear. Millennial lawyers are not nearly as inclined to be work-averse when they see the purpose and importance of the work, as demonstrated by partners sharing the pain.

Firms also can provide the attention that millennial lawyers crave by providing programs that acknowledge the millennial value system and encourage cooperation and shared solutions. Many of those programs can be provided by outside speakers who are not perceived as judgmental and can play the neutral role to encourage best results.

And, more than anything, law firm leaders must take time to get to know the young lawyers in their midst. Talk to them. Learn their names, and address them personally. Ask them about their experiences and even their weekends. Send them messages of inclusion and interest. It is not beneath senior lawyers to do this. 

These kinds of initiatives and changes will go a long way toward taking young lawyers out of isolation and allowing them into the sunshine of a profession they want to admire. It will involve allowing them to see what they can be.

The future: a value proposition

The difference in values lies at the heart of the generational divide. Millennial lawyers are rejecting the values of baby boomer and Generation X lawyers, and it begs the question “why?” What has made them turn on us? What do they hope to gain? The answers might surprise you—and even disappoint you.

Many millennial lawyers have at least one parent who is a lawyer or have lawyers in their families. They have witnessed workaholic baby boomer or Generation X lawyers up close and personal, and they have seen the workaholic lifestyle played out in absentee parents, work-related illnesses associated with stress, drug and alcohol dependencies and high rates of divorce.

Money, power and greed are the gods that these prior generations of lawyers have worshipped, and that reign is coming to an end. Millennial lawyers have its destruction in their sights. Millennial lawyers are more interested in effective mentoring, respect in the workplace, regular feedback, helping the disadvantaged, being part of teams, and collaborating to make positive differences in their communities and in society.

Previous generations blame them for not wanting to work all of the time—and all of the time at the office. They blame them for wanting more time with families, and they blame them for “wanting to make a difference” in their communities and societies.

In all of that blaming, previous generations refuse to consider that they are the helicopter parents who raised these millennials, made all the decisions for them, blocked and tackled to make it smooth sailing for them, and allowed them to spend too much time with technologically advanced devices and on social media, which limited their ability to communicate face to face, inhibited relationship-building and encouraged instant gratification. As a boomer lawyer and helicopter mom of two millennial lawyers, I know firsthand how I shaped children of the millennial generation. 

And Generation X and boomer lawyers refuse to take millennial values seriously because they are not their values. They treat the values of millennial lawyers like newfangled notions.

What’s old is new again

These are not newfangled notions. These values have been proven by the midcentury lawyers of the Greatest Generation—those who came home from war and saving democracies abroad to take the law profession to new heights by paying attention to the values of respect, honor, service to communities, making positive differences in the lives of others, and mentoring young lawyers to take the profession forward. It turns out millennials have the same values.

Millennial lawyers understand that progress in the global economy does not allow us to return to past methods of practice. But they also understand that there is no reason not to return to proven values that are consistent with who and what we are as professionals.

In making the choice for change, we need to remember that they are not widget-makers. We are professionals, and it is time that we acted like it—according to the values of a generation that risked their lives for ours—and to benefit a generation that we created.

Susan Smith Blakely is a former partner, law career counselor and author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for female lawyers. Her most recent book is What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers, 2018).

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.