[Article] Understanding the Millennial Lawyer

I'm sharing an article I wrote for the Cook County Bar Association's Winter Edition of the Sidebar newsletter.  Enjoy!

The millennial generation encompasses those born anywhere from the early 1980s to the late 1990s and make up the largest portion of the U.S. workforce. Despite being the most educated in comparison to previous generations, they are often stereotyped as entitled, lacking work ethic and job hoppers. The millennial that went to law school and passed the bar doesn’t escape this stereotype either. The truth is that the millennial lawyer is accomplished and has high expectations for themselves and their employer.

In law firms across the country, there’s a large disconnect between more seasoned lawyers and the younger crop of millennial lawyers. Millennial lawyers often challenge the status quo with their nontraditional approach to getting things done, leaving the older generations to shake their head in dismay. They simply don’t believe in doing things a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done. However, just because their working style is different, doesn’t make it wrong. Like it or not, the millennial lawyer is the lawyer of the future. Therefore, it’s important for law firms that want to continue to grow, to embrace them and understand their values and motivations to foster a more cohesive environment. 

Millennial Lawyers Value Flexibility and Efficiency

The baby boomers and Generation X lawyers often sacrificed their personal life for the sake of making the big bucks, either by trying to make partner or building a thriving legal practice. However, millennial lawyers are less driven by salary as previous generations were. They truly believe that they can have it “all”. They don’t believe that they should have to give up their desires for a family and fulfilling personal life to work 70+ hours in the office. 

This doesn’t mean that they are lazy and just want to goof off. Since they are often proficient in technology, they believe that as long as they have a laptop and a wi-fi connection, they can get work done anywhere and at anytime. They reject the notion of being in the office solely for “face time” when they can get the same amount, if not more, work done at home, in a coffee shop or on the beach. 

Practical Tip: 

Embrace technology to aide in communication. Emails and texts are often preferred methods of communication, rather than face-to-face conversations and in-person meetings. No need to alleviate face time interaction completely, but integrating technology into the practice will go a long way. Employers may not be as up-to-date on technology, so seek out millennial associates for ideas on how to advance the firm and actually listen and implement those ideas if it’s a good fit. Offer flexible hours or alternative work arrangements. Don’t discourage millennial attorneys from leaving the office early in the day. As long as they continue to produce a stellar work product and are responsive to client/partner needs in a timely fashion, display that you trust them to get the job done by foregoing the required face time. 

Millennial Lawyers Are Motivated By Growth and Purpose

Contrary to popular belief, millennial lawyers actually want to work and work hard. However, they want their work to have a purpose and opportunities for growth. Nothing discourages a millennial lawyer more than being stuck doing busy work that does not aid in their growth or development as an attorney. Too many attorneys in the older generation take the “sink or swim” approach by giving assignments with little direction and even less feedback. Partners should be clear about what is expected and what millennials can do to improve and advance. The more open, the better. Millennials don’t want to feel like advancement is some secret or unattainable feat at the firm. They want to feel like their firm cares about their development and that they just aren’t a faceless worker bee. This motivation for growth and opportunity is one of the reasons that millennials don’t hesitate to leave firms. Long gone are the days that a young lawyer comes into a firm as a first-year associate and stays to make partner and work 30+ years. Law firm layoffs, stalled promotions and lack of opportunities have taught them that even if you work hard for an employer, the employer has no loyalty to them. So they get what they can and move on to a more fulfilling opportunity where they will be appreciated and think nothing of it. 

Practical Tip:

Tell them how the project they’re working on fits into the scope of the entire case. Make them feel like they are a valued member of the team and that their ideas and contributions are valued and taken into consideration. Offer leadership training and professional development opportunities to demonstrate your commitment to their growth. Partners and senior associates should mentor their millennial associates to increase collaboration and build rapport. Don’t wait until the annual performance review to share kudos and critiques. Offer regular, structured and constructive feedback throughout the year. However, do not micromanage. Give clear instructions and give them the space to work on it themselves. Have an open door policy and be accessible for answering questions and providing guidance. 

The millennial lawyer has different values and motivations than lawyers from prior generations. However, there’s much to be learned from them. Firms that choose to implement technology, flexible work arrangements, clear work assignments, regular feedback and mentoring opportunities will see an increase in employee engagement, a better work product and find themselves ahead of the curve.