For the past year, I have been writing about the different generations in the workplace. I’ve talked about Millennials, and Baby Boomers, and Millennials again, and, let’s not forget them Gen Xers. But as the Commission approaches a massive roll-out of an exciting new multi-generational project (stay tuned!), I would be bereft if I left out the oldest generation in the workplace, the generation behind much of how we practice law today, the generation known as the Traditionalists.
The Traditionalists’ Law Firm
Think of a traditional large law firm. A white shoe, 100-year old law firm. How would you describe it? Hierarchal perhaps, partners at the top of the pyramid, associates down below. Focused on dues-paying; to get to the top of the pyramid, one needs to put in the hours, and years, to arrive there. Perhaps your traditional law firm utilizes top-down mentoring, where older attorneys guide younger ones through their careers.
Do you have your traditional law firm in mind? Great. Now think about the lawyers at the very top of that pyramid, the oldest of the firm’s partners. Are they men? Do they wear suits? Have they been with the firm for decades?
For many large law firms, the answer to those questions is “Yes.” Law firms are some of the most traditional workplaces in the world. And that’s because the men at the top who started these law firms, and set out the framework for law firms that followed them, came from a generation of service, duty and loyalty. They are the generation of Traditionalists.
Who Are Traditionalists?
Traditionalists are men and women born between 1926 and 1945. They are the parents of many Baby Boomers and many Gen Xers. As you likely know, their childhoods were marked by the Great Depression and by their fathers and grandfathers serving in World War I and World II. Many of the Traditionalists also fought in Korea and some of the younger Traditionalists, in Vietnam.
Let’s talk about the workplace characteristics of this generation. Remember, as with any generational discussion, these are widespread generalizations for a very diverse group of millions.
What was the Traditionalist approach to work? From a generational perspective, it was a sense of duty and caution toward behavior that could result in unemployment. They wanted economic security for their families, and that often meant conformance to the already set expectations and requirements of their supervisors in the workplace.
The “Normal” Traditionalist Workplace
Conformance included workplace norms that developed at a time when minorities often didn’t have any shared space in the workplace. Workplace norms also didn’t often include a space for middle-class married women. Think of the 1950s housewife stereotype, famously captured by The Donna Reed Show. 95% of Traditionalists are or were married. In 1960, 93% of men aged 25-34 were employed. Conversely, 38% of Traditionalist women 18-33 were employed. The structure of the workplace assumed that family needs would be addressed by a spouse at home who filled the traditional roles of wife and mother, while men put in long hours at work.
What’s the result? A workplace that became defined by set office hours, face-time requirements, structured work arrangements, and both formal and informal opportunities that favored workers without outside responsibilities. Does that workplace sound familiar? It’s the workplace that for many years defined the traditional law firm.
The Traditionalist Lawyer and Mentor
Traditionalists are now the oldest of lawyers. Many were admitted to practice over fifty years ago. Almost all are now retired from both public and private practice. Some in private practice may still come into the office. Many may have started their careers with the organization, or may have even founded it. Those private attorneys who still come in may only come in a few times a week, or month, but they may still have an equity stake in and are very loyal to the organization that they have served. And while nationally about 95% of Traditionalists are now retired, they remain very well-represented in large law firms. According to The American Lawyer, over 10% of AmLaw 100 leaders are Traditionalists, a number higher than that of Fortune 100 and Nasdaq CEOs.
If you’re a young attorney with a Traditionalist managing or working at your firm, take advantage of that opportunity. Meet them. Talk with them. Engage them as mentors. Ask for their advice on recruiting clients, on building business, on reaching new sectors. Listen to their war stories. See their professionalism. And most of all, learn how they structured the way we practice law today. Our profession is rapidly transforming, and both younger and older eyes are needed to see the things that are moving more quickly than we can imagine. Traditionalists can share with everyone their legacy of service, duty, and loyalty. In a constantly-changing world, those are traditions of our profession that will never change.