The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism held The Future Is Now 2.017 conference on Thursday, May 18, at the Art Institute in Chicago. The conference was dedicated to understanding the changes millennial lawyers, like myself, will have to make to thrive in the coming years. Speakers discussed several topics throughout the course of the day in both presentation and town hall formats. As a current law student, it was a fascinating opportunity to listen to the problems facing the legal market and innovative approaches to solving them.
A topic that was repeated throughout the day was how the legal market will have to adapt to handle millennials entering both as new attorneys and as clients. Being a millennial, it was interesting to hear about the challenges my generation poses to the existing legal market structure. While millennial lawyers were discussed throughout the conference, the presentation given by Darth Vaughn titled “The Myth of The Digital Native: Establishing Competence and Eliminating Tech Bias in The Modern Law Firm” resonated with me. His presentation focused on the need for attorneys to acquire and maintain proficiency in programs like Microsoft Word and Excel. This did not surprise me. However, he went on to explain that firms are dealing with this information gap by hiring millennial lawyers and assuming they have advanced skills on these programs. According to Mr. Vaughn, that is the myth of “digital natives.”
Busting the Myth of Digital Natives
The idea that millennials are naturally gifted when it comes to technology has been a regular occurrence in my life. While interning at various businesses, I was the person turned to for computer advice, despite being the youngest and least experienced person in the room. I was also told by a supervisor only a few years my senior that advanced Excel skills and knowledge about shortcuts was something I was expected to know because of the presumption that I came in knowing how to do these things. In my experience, technical skills are not areas aspiring millennial lawyers are asked about in interviews – they are areas we are presumed to know just because of our age. While I can confidently say that I am proficient in most day-to-day tasks in Word and Excel, there were some items on Mr. Vaughn’s list of necessary skills that I, and that most millennials, could not do. These tasks are not taught at law school, but the majority of millennials would be able to figure out the answer in a self-sufficient manner. We are not new to these programs and have used them throughout their lives, but those experiences do not necessarily include the advance functions law firms are expecting them to know. This mismatch of presumed knowledge and actual skills is the truth behind the myth.
Millennial Lawyers Adapt To Thrive
Millennial lawyers are not “digital natives.” We are “fast adaptors.” We grew up alongside technology. We are comfortable using it and will demand it in the workplace. We learned how to type on a flip-phone using T9 texting. Then we typed on tiny sliding keyboards. Now we can type without looking on our touchscreens. No one taught us how to do this. We figured it out because we wanted to know. This set of skills is resoundingly similar. We want to meet the expectations of our future employers, so we will learn how to adapt to the requirements of a professional environment.
Mr. Vaughn is correct in his belief that millennials are not digital natives and currently there is a mismatch between presumed and actual abilities, but like most myths, this one is based on a sliver of truth. We might not currently have those skills, but we are ready to adapt to build the required professional skill set necessary to succeed in our careers.