My Generation

Generation“Are you tired of people complaining about Millennials?” That question was met with a hearty, “Yes!” at the recent NALP Diversity and Inclusion Summit. The presenter, an expert on generational trends, echoed what our table had discussed only moments earlier: we were sick and tired of attending generational presentations where the speakers complained about Millennials.

The current generational debate usually pits Baby Boomers (my parents’ generation, born between 1946 and 1964) against Millennials (my generation, born between 1981 and 2000). It often poses Boomers and Millennials as so diametrically opposed, so completely opposite, that it seems miraculous that many in these two generations existed in the same household for eighteen years.

I am an elder stateswoman of the Millennial generation, having been born in 1982. As such, I often find myself in spaces where I am the only Millennial in attendance, forced to speak in defense of my generation. The common themes? Millennials are selfish. Millennials don’t work hard. Millennials don’t commit. Millennials don’t focus. And on and on and on until I start to think that I wouldn’t want to spend any time with these self-absorbed, scatter-brained, “special snowflake” children either.

And now the generational debate has made its way into the legal sphere. Boomers currently lead the legal field; Millennials will very soon. (Though that now-forgotten generation, the X’ers, will be there first). In order to smoothly transition between the generations’ leadership styles and preferred work environment, the two generations must first coexist and embrace each era’s strengths, and weaknesses. Here’s my own Millennial perspective on how we can start.

  1. Reframe The Discussion. I’m often told that Millennial lawyers lack commitment to their employer, that we start looking for another job five minutes after starting a new one.  That’s a fair criticism, but look at it from a different angle. Assume that, on average, the youngest Millennial lawyer completed law school at 26. That means that, on average, the youngest Millennial lawyer started practicing in 2007. The majority will be starting their practice in 2014 and later. This entire generation of attorneys will therefore have started working in an utter paradigm shift in the legal market, where traditions have been upended, expectations have proven false, debt seems overwhelming, and jobs simply aren’t there. Not to mention the whirlwind of layoffs, stalled promotions and hiring freezes that started in 2009 and continue today. In other words, when you ask why Millennial lawyers won’t stay committed to an organization, ask yourself what in the past seven years has demonstrated that an organization will stay committed to them?
  2. Mentor Each Other. Mentoring works in both directions. Millennial attorneys need to get away from their screens and find an in-person attorney with whom they can develop a mentoring relationship. Boomers need to open their doors (literally) and make themselves accessible to Millennial attorneys. They also need to recognize that, save for the most intimate ones, the majority of Millennial relationships are now conducted via screen. That said, Millennial attorneys have to remember that despite the changes in the legal world, we are still a profession in which older attorneys have always mentored the younger ones.
  3. Recognize Strengths. Millennials are digital natives; Boomers are not. We always hear that the primary benefit Millennials offer Boomers is the ability to move Boomers into the Web 2.0 age. But what good is finding a client on LinkedIn if you can’t nurture the relationship? There are dozens of websites to help efficiently write a brief, but at the end of the day, all that matters is what the judge wants to hear. Boomers have the experience of developing in-person client relationships. They have extensive knowledge of the courts. They know their legal field inside and out. Online expertise may confer speed, but speed by itself won’t confer success. That’s where Boomer lawyers can and should step in.
  4. Life-Work Fit Is A (Different) Reality. For Millennial lawyers, work and life are intertwined. It’s not about balancing two heavy loads on a see-saw, work on one side, life on the other. Rather, it’s about putting two complex puzzle pieces together and making sure they fit together permanently. And for a generation that, according to social science, isn’t taking out mortgages, buying cars, or having children, the primary benefit of work (money) isn’t as important as it was in previous generations. That could change in ten years. But for now, realize that your 26-year old associate might be far more productive if offered shortened Fridays, work-from-home privileges, or vacation time in the first six months of work, instead of the promise of a bonus at the end of the year.
  5. Everyone Does Get A Trophy. For a generation that spends so much time alone behind screens, it might surprise you to know that Millennials are team players. We believe in team work and group trust. After all, we are the generation that invented the “sharing economy.” Conversely for us, age and authority do not automatically confer respect. What does confer respect is how well an older attorney shares knowledge, appreciates efforts, offers guidance, and acknowledges mistakes. If Boomers want to lead a successful team of Millennial attorneys, their first step should be to replace “lead” with “collaborate.”
  6. It Gets Better With Age. Socrates once said about the youth of Greece: “They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” So here’s the final truth about Millennials: we’re the youngest generation in the legal workplace. Many of the problems that Boomer lawyers have with Millennial lawyers are problems that many have had with young people since time immemorial.  That will change as Millennials age. Until then, let’s keep trying to work together by recognizing strengths, understanding differences, and building a successful, collaborative legal practice.

This post was published on July 14, 2014 in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

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