Let’s start with a reality check. It’s kind of silly to talk about “the millennial generation” as if it’s some monolithic hive mind. If you’re setting out to describe the attributes of a demographic wave several hundred million people wide, then you’re going to over-generalize to the point of absurdity. So the first thing I want to acknowledge is that there are myriad exceptions to the broad strokes painted below.
In several recent conversations I’ve had with the managing partners of large, mid-sized, and small law firms, the issue of millennial lawyers kept coming up. Sometimes it was in the context of succession planning sometimes when discussing business development, and sometimes on the topic of firm leadership. The fact that millennials are implicated in all these critically important areas speaks to the urgency of law firms needing to figure their millennials out.
What’s remarkable to me is that many law firms and their leaders haven’t yet gotten past the “figuring out” stage. It’s not as if we haven’t been talking about the ascendance of this generation for more than a decade or that the general attributes of its members have been a closely held secret. Yet the firm leaders with whom I spoke still seemed to be not so much upset with their millennial employees as perplexed and baffled by them. I’d always heard about generation gaps, but it’s been revealing to see one play out in real time.
The fundamental problem is that baby boomer lawyers (and to a lesser extent, gen-x lawyers like myself) keep trying to interpret the behavior of millennials through the lens of their own cultural assumptions and practices. That’s going to work about as well as using a dictionary to understand software code. Here are corrections to some misconceptions you might have about millennials:
- Millennials aren’t entitled. They’re preternaturally confident in themselves because they were raised to have the utmost belief in their own abilities. Whether that confidence is justified is mostly beside the point. Millennials speak to their elders with a degree of self-possession and authority that their listeners can find off-putting: “Who are you to talk to me this way?” But that’s the way they are. You might as well complain that they walk about on two legs.
- Millennials aren’t lazy. They work very hard, in fact—but they won’t work stupid. They can figure out pretty quickly if a task is make-work, pointless, or counterproductive, and they’ll resist and resent your attempts to make them perform it. You might argue that Millennials don’t want to pay their dues, but that’s not true—they don’t want to pay your dues. They care not the slightest for how you made it in the world. And they’ll have difficulty being polite with you about that.
- Millennials aren’t disloyal. They’re peripatetic, and that’s a word you should get used to hearing. They move on quickly from roles and workplaces, primarily because there’s an astoundingly exciting world out there and they want to experience as much of it as they can. Oh, and they’ve seen their friends laid off from associate positions and watched partners jump laterally from firm to firm, so they won’t listen quietly to your lectures on “making a commitment to this firm.”
- Millennials aren’t slackers. They’re ambitious because they crave external praise and internal affirmation and they want to over-achieve to obtain these rewards. They do not subscribe to a linear model of responsibility and advancement: they believe that if you’re capable of doing something, you should do it, regardless of whether “it’s their job” or whether permission to try has been extended. They are very impatient for accomplishments and their subsequent payoffs.
Law firms struggling with their millennial lawyers are all coming up against the same fundamental problem: The millennial personality is a poor match for traditional law firm culture. Law firms are conservative, hierarchical organizations that sell time, value experience, reward seniority, and encourage personal sacrifice. It’s hard to overstate how little this interests your average millennial, who is drawn to a workspace that offers open collaboration, occupational creativity, rapid advancement, and personal fulfillment.
There’s no point scoffing at that list of priorities. Whether or not you, the experienced lawyer, respect any of these desires is mostly irrelevant. This is the operating system that came fully installed with your millennial lawyers upon their arrival in your firm, and you can’t replace it with any of the DOS-based programs you grew up with.
The millennial personality is the unstoppable force that’s colliding with the immovable object of law firm culture. Which will win? Well, in about five years’ time, millennials will constitute the majority of lawyers in virtually every law firm in North America, and the majority of partners within ten. Boomers, whose values produced and underpinned the culture of the traditional law firm are leaving the building. My money is on the unstoppable force.
So what can law firms do about all this? My shorthand advice to law firm leaders goes something like this.
- Stop fighting your millennials. Stop resenting them for being different from you. That might not be what you think you’re doing, but it’s what’s coming across. “I can’t understand why they don’t value the same things I do” is not a leadership statement. You don’t have to like them. You do have to accept them.
- Work with their best qualities. Personally, I’d love to have confident, hard-working, ambitious, collaborative people on my team. Wouldn’t you? Focus on the attributes that make them great workers and future leaders, not on those aspects of their personality that drive you nuts. Accentuate the positive.
- Let them move around. Millennials get bored quickly and like to see what else is out there. Give them a variety of opportunities by rotating them through different roles in your firm, especially client secondments (which your clients love, by the way). Give them R&D and even strategic planning responsibilities. Let them see your firm (and the law) from all angles.
- Shorten and tighten the partnership track. Millennials will make up their minds about partnership long before you did. If they don’t want it (and most won’t), they’ll be gone within two years. But if they do want it, they’re sure not hanging around ten years to get it. They’re not your leveraged monkeys.
- Redefine “commitment.” Firms are accustomed to senior associates willing to be groomed for equity partner roles. Those days are ending. Identify your future leaders as early as you can and tell them what you foresee for them. Be prepared that they might not be interested. But if they are, ask them what they need in order to commit to growing into this role.
- Let them show you what they can do. Millennials are champing at the bit to show off their talents; loosen the reins and let them work with clients and opposing counsel early in their careers. When they succeed, praise them. (They need it.) When they fail, buck them up. (They also need to learn how to fail properly.)
You might be objecting, “But none of that matches with our culture!” And that’s precisely my point. A massive generational change is underway in law firms, which means one set of values is replacing another. If you’re feeling your organization’s habits and customs coming under strain from millennials, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. The more you fight it, the longer it will take and the harder it’s going to be.
Here’s the bottom line: Law firms need millennial lawyers more than millennial lawyers need law firms. The millennials can take or leave the law firm life: they can go in-house, go flex-time, go to a startup, or go home. Firms don’t have that choice: their rainmaking boomers are leaving, and they need someone to take their place. A law firm that adopts a confrontational or adversarial position with its millennial lawyers is taking a short road to obsolescence.
Millennial lawyers are your future. You might as well embrace them.