Traditionalists: A Generation of Service and Loyalty

TraditionalistsFor 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.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

One thought on “Traditionalists: A Generation of Service and Loyalty

  1. Thank you for your article extolling some of the virtues of those days. In fact, and of course, the so-called “changes” in society require adaptation by us older lawyers, but I am not aware that ANY older lawyers have had any problems with those changes. I do not believe the purported statistics that 80% of the members of our society in American can not be met! Many of us have done our best to push bar associations and related organizations to deal with the “reality” of more recent changes….. and to the greatest degree, we had not been listened to for decades, but NOW all of a sudden, there is a sense of urgency that “things” have changed for lawyers of America almost overnight and now there is a need for immediate action to deal with matters.

    Solos and lawyers in smaller firms have, in my experience, dealt very well with the needs of the public. In some cases, the needs of the public are brought about by bad laws or selective enforcement and the failure of society to deal with our problems. There is example of example, and I will only follow the lead of the author, attorney Michelle Silverthorn: As a kid growing up in Chicago, we could walk the streets without fear of anything! We could go through alleys as short-cuts without fear of attack. In the six flat I lived in for the first 18 years of my life, people seldom moved or had reason to move and many kept their doors open and women at home who cared for children among other chores, kept us kids on very strict routines and knew about what we were doing. Yes, WW II and the Great Depression had a very significant effect on all of us, and you know what, for the first two decades of my life, there was not even an ARDC! Of course, life as a lawyer was NOT perfect, but investigations, like Operation Greylord, dealt nicely, thank you, with some extreme problems.

    The efforts over the last thirty years or so has been to protect the client….. well, what about protecting the lawyer! What about lawyers who do too much for a client and try their best, but the client is NOT satisfied and given how quickly non-lawyers and everyone can become “publishers” of whatever they want to publish.

    I once had some untrue remark on my electronic bulletin board about some topic, and at the time I was a speaker at a program at the John Marshall Law School on defamation and exposure to possible liability for remarks left on a Bulletin Board System (BBS)….. I networked and talked to many folks i knew, which were many in number as I was, twice, president of Chicago Computer Society, a NFP which was about the forth or fifth in size computer users group at the time in the United States. We universally decided it was best to IGNORE false or misleading statements and they would go away, whereas to act like lawyers and defend ourselves, would only serve to have the difference of opinion NOT go away!

    I am not the first to comment on these alleged “resources” to evaluate one’s lawyer! The public needs to be educated about what lawyers can do and how and how to contract with the lawyer, verbal or otherwise, and lawyers really needed the help of bar associations to help them not only select a GIVEN product or products to set STANDARDS and to open up training ….. for what we lawyers do is we believe we can master anything and everything we need to master to make informed decisions about automation, but the bar associations and others involved with the control over lawyers, did not and have not selected products that work and as to which prices can be caused to go down and by working with others in society, can generate lots of reasonably priced technical support to implement to assist law firms to support the legal profession.

    Paul Bernstein, Esq.

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