“It must be nice to leave at 5:30—when I was your age I was in the office until 10 every night.”
This line, spoken in a skit performed by panelists at the CLE presentation, “How Will Millennials Transform the Future of Law?” illustrates the disparate generational gap in the workplace today. Representing a multitude of age and cultural differences, four groups currently span diverse office demographics within the practice of law.
As a result of this growing gap, 60% of legal employers report generational conflicts. The recent CLE discussion addressed this issue by way of identification of the generations and their general characteristics, as well as the examination and comparison of communication and work–life balance.
“How Will Millennials Transform the Future of Law?” was presented by the CBA Committee for Balanced Legal Careers. The three panelists included Kathy Holmes, President of Holmes Consulting Group; Shelly Dill Combs, a staff attorney at JAG; and Kenneth Stern, an immigration attorney.
After introducing the topic to the crowded room with a role-play scenario, the panelists dove into an outline of the four generations present in the legal field today.
Millennials: Ages 18 to 29
Known as the “Internet generation,” millennials are the largest group—and the future of law. Even though they’re characterized as hopeful, they’re also said to be overly protected and entitled. They communicate differently than other generations, because they are the first of the natively tech savvy to revolutionize the workplace. Given this digital inclination, millennials expect instant gratification and feedback.
Gen Xers: Ages 30 to 45
Gen Xers grew up in a transitory time, when it became common for women to work full-time and families leaned less toward nuclear and more toward fragmented. Thus, they cultivated an independent, entrepreneurial spirit with anti-institution undertones. They value direct communication and responsibility, as well as education.
Baby Boomers: Ages 46 to 64
Baby Boomers were, in a sense, trailblazers who redefined the idea of hard work — possibly even putting work over family. They are a confident, sometimes idealistic generation. They typically prefer the people side of business, and respect go-getters who are willing to put in the hours.
Traditionalists are influenced by protocol, formality and family, and have great institutional loyalty. They typically value communication that demonstrates thought and purpose. It’s important to convey respect and honor in relation to experience.
To move into the future of law with millennials, it’s vital to understand these generational differences. The chart above further breaks down each generation in terms of how they think, act and react in the workplace. Realizing and accepting the basic ideals present will help to improve communication, bridge the expectations gap and change value perception, as well as increase future success.
As you can see, communication and feedback both noticeably shift from traditionalists to millennials. Work ethic and the idea of time at work is greatly changing as well—advancing technology has blurred the lines between punching a clock and emailing at all hours of the night. This constant connectedness can make it more difficult to find work–life balance.
Although Baby Boomers might scoff at the Millennial/Gen X idea of finding work–life balance, it’s becoming more the norm to choose alternative schedules. As one CLE audience member remarked after the presentation: “Baby Boomers wore their careers like a badge of honor. I’m always hearing stories about how they ruined their personal lives and family for their career; so why would I want to follow in their footsteps?”
That question—posed by a millennial—identifies the current struggle facing young professionals. They don’t have a good example of that work–life balance, and so they are trying to create it themselves. However, their bosses are still closer to the Baby Boomer generation, which leads to misunderstandings and unmatched expectations.
The model of work–life balance has gone from traditional to anything but. Millennials are seeking flexibility and efficiency through technology, with balanced hours, including options such as remote work and job sharing. When other generations do not understand millennial goals and fail to communicate, it impacts turnover rates, tangible and intangible costs, fairness and equality and firm succession.
“Every generation has their own truth. How do we bring them together?” asked Ken Stern.
To improve generational relationships, Stern, Holmes and Dill Combs all agree that we have to identify what everyone brings to the table to make them work together. There certainly are lessons to be learned from the traditionalists, and vice versa, as millennials provide a fresh perspective on the legal community. For a step-by-step solution, they shared The Seven Solutions to the Generational Differences:
- Make a commitment to generational blending. Create internal discussion with leaders and peers on company culture and employee blending.
- Implement a process for setting expectations. This should begin in the recruiting process—know exactly who you are looking for and how they’ll fit in.
- Implement a mentor program. This should be highly strategic in selection and training. Reverse mentoring has been very successful (match younger generations with older to teach each other through the feedback loop).
- Implement a technology program that is future forward. Create a “best fit” plan for the firm and include training and educational opportunities. Don’t lose out on clients because of a lack of future adaptation.
- Embrace and respond to differences. Create inclusiveness and diversity sessions where ideas and challenges can be aired.
- Explore, define and implement changes in the existing workplace. Are you willing to consider offering balanced hours or an alternative plan? There are different tracks to success.
- Commit to training and coaching. A recent survey found that many millennials and gen Xers would rather have effective training over a year-end bonus.
Law firms have much more to lose than just employees and company relationships if they fail to take these steps toward the future. Clients are similarly advancing and expect an equally “with it” company who cultivates a balanced workplace and can be found online as well as offline. Just imagine how helpful your millennial employees can be when it comes to improving your website SEO* and therefore increasing your digital presence and client base! If you want to attract younger clients—and bright attorneys—consider this article on the future of law your catalyst for change.
*Ask a millennial.
By Courtney Gibb