Sept. 4, 2019 – The Class of 2020 just began their third year of law school. If they attended straight from college, most of them were born around 1994. The Internet, and social media, is hardwired into their brains. This is the last of the millennial generation.
Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials account for about 40 percent of America’s working population.1 Thus, millennial lawyers are the largest target group for law firms hoping to attract and retain talented entry- and mid-level attorneys within their ranks. The oldest of the millennial generation, born in the early 1980s, are nearing their 40s.
So what do millennial lawyers want out of law firms? What will attract them, and keep them there? Law firm management experts say law firm culture plays a big role.
“In this millennial age, much is being written about turnover in law firms,” wrote John Trimble, former managing partner of a 36-attorney firm in Indianapolis, in 2018.2
If young lawyers do not see open doors and do not feel that the firm cares about their life issues, they will leave.
“Firm culture is at the heart of this issue. If young lawyers do not see open doors and do not feel that the firm cares about their life issues, they will leave.”
Creating the right law firm culture will help law firms retain talented lawyers they have invested time to train because retention is often tied to law firm culture.
“No single element of culture alone reinforces retention, but certainly mentoring, transparency in communication, consistency in policy, open decision making, and some acceptance of work-life balance are critical factors,” Trimble noted in his article.
But What Do They Want?
Megan Heneke, director of career development at U.W. Law School, says many later-career lawyers have a negative perception of millennial lawyers – that they are disloyal, entitled, or not willing to earn their stripes before climbing to senior or partner roles.
Megan Heneke, director of career development at U.W. Law School, says many later-career lawyers have a negative perception of millennial lawyers. “The truth is, law students today want what all of us want ... [and] are eager to add value, find purpose, and use their degree in fulfilling ways.”
“The truth is, law students today want what all of us want,” wrote Heneke in a 2018 Wisconsin Lawyer article, “Dispelling Workplace Myths About Millennial Lawyers.” “They are eager to add value, find purpose, and use their degree in fulfilling ways.”
Society and culture change over time. Technology and all it has to offer (good and bad) is the norm for younger generations adept at leveraging its capabilities. But generational differences “may be related more to age and life stage than to the unique characteristics of today’s generations.”3 Or, could it be that millennials are just more self-critical?
Baby Boomers “tend to have favorable impressions of their generation, though in most cases they are not as positive as [the Silent Generation],” one study notes.4
“By contrast, Gen Xers and Millennials are far more skeptical in assessing the strengths of their generations. And Millennials, in particular, stand out in their willingness to ascribe negative stereotypes to their own generation.”
Although millennials may have different attitudes about their professional lives and what they value, various studies have debunked myths and negative stereotypes about them as working professionals. Older generations may point to job-hopping among young professionals as proof they are disloyal, or don’t have the right work ethic.
Early-career mobility exists, across generations.
More than one-third of lawyers who graduated in 2013 jumped ship at least once in the first four years. But lawyers who graduated in the 1980s had nearly identical job-hopping rates, early in their careers, as the millennial lawyers graduating today.5
“Early-career mobility exists, across generations,” Heneke wrote. “In other words, millennial lawyers are switching jobs not because they are millennials, but because they are young.” Young lawyers, like most young professionals, want to find the right fit.
Thus, law firm culture can greatly influence a lawyer’s decision to stay or leave. Heneke says today’s law students are looking for environments where they will be mentored and coached. “They want to see a formal system for receiving feedback and opportunities for professional development,” Heneke said in emailed responses to questions.
“Students also care about the diversity of a firm – not just how many people from under-represented groups the firm recruits – but what the firm’s plan is for retention as well.”
Heneke says law firms can market themselves to law students by being transparent about exit options. “Most students and firms hope the pairing works for a candidate’s entire career, but both sides are aware of the realities,” Heneke said.
They want to see a formal system for receiving feedback and opportunities for professional development.
“Students are impressed to learn that associates from firms have gone to U.S. Attorney’s offices, corporations, and higher education,” Heneke noted.
Heneke also said that law students, in assessing law firms, care about pro bono opportunities and work-life balance. “Students know they’ll be working hard and that firms are businesses, but they want to see a commitment to the community and a realistic assessment of what their lives will look like at a given firm,” Heneke said.
Creating the Right Culture
Law firms may talk about improving law firm culture. But what does that really mean? What other factors, in the aggregate, equal positive or improved law firm culture?
“The reality is that law firm culture is not just one thing,” wrote Trimble. “It is a potpourri of important aspects of a firm.”
“Firm culture is an assortment of interconnected aspects and values, beliefs and behaviors of the firm that come together for better (or for worse). If you and your colleagues cannot collectively define your culture, then you have work to do.”
Attorney Sam Glover, founder of Lawyerist.com, recently posted a video about law firm culture. Glover said every law firm has a culture, but it’s usually unwritten.
“You may feel like it is obvious, but it probably isn’t obvious enough to somebody you are thinking about hiring,” he said. “And it may not be obvious enough to know how to ask the right questions around that culture when you are considering who to hire.”
The reality is that law firm culture is not just one thing. It is a potpourri of important aspects of a firm.
Glover recommends uncovering your law firm culture by writing it down. “Try and dredge it up and say what it is that we really value here,” he said. For instance, if all the lawyers in your firm work 80 hours per week, your firm probably values hard work.
“You may want to change some of these things, but for now you just want to uncover what is the current culture of your firm,” he noted. “One of things you may discover in this exercise, if you have a partner or more than one partner, is that there’s a mismatch between what you think is the culture is and what your partner thinks the culture is. That’s a really important thing to uncover and discover, and then try and reconcile.”
Glover also says this exercise can be aspirational. You see that you value something, such as long hours, but you want to change that culture to ensure work-life balance.
“But changing your culture is hard, and it’s something you can only work on once you’ve been clear about what it is and what you want it to be,” Glover noted.
Law firms must understand what their culture is and define what they want it to be. At the same time, law firms that create a positive culture will improve their chances of attracting (and keeping) those who value the type of culture the firm has created.
Yet, understanding law firm culture may not be a priority for many firms, or law firm managers and partners may not realize the importance of culture to long-term viability.
“[E]xperts on law firm management generally agree that a firm culture is important to the long-term success of a law firm,” wrote Trimble. “They also agree that not having a firm culture, or having a bad firm culture, can cause a firm to fail.”
In assessing your firm’s culture, understand that young lawyers aren’t the only ones shopping for opportunity. One study, in 2016, found that “law firm culture was the primary reason partners switch firms, and that 62 percent of lateral partners were attracted by a firm’s culture compared to 15 percent who were motivated by money.”6
Work-Life Balance High on the List
According to a generational study conducted in 2013 by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), the University of California, and the London Business School, millennials aren’t keen on sitting at their desks for 10 hours per day: they want work-life balance.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
“The study revealed that work-life balance is one of the most significant drivers of employee retention and a primary reason this generation of employees may choose a non-traditional professional career track,” according PwC’s NextGen: A Global Generational Study.
PwC commissioned the study when it realized a significant number of young professionals were leaving and were not interested in the traditional partnership track, familiar to law firms, which requires early years of intensive work to make partner.
The company surveyed PwC workers globally and received 40,000 responses, noting 80 percent of its workforce would be comprised of Millenials by 2016. The following are some key learnings from the study, which may apply across generations.
Many millennial employees are unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life. “Millenials value work-life balance, and the majority of them are unwilling to commit to making their work lives an exclusive priority, even with the promise of substantial compensation later on.”
Millennial employees are not alone in wanting greater flexibility at work. “Millennials want more flexibility, the opportunity to shift hours – to start their work days later, for example, or put in time at night, if necessary. But so do non-Millennials, in equal numbers. In fact, a significant number of employees from all generations feel so strongly about wanting a flexible work schedule that they would be willing to give up pay and delay promotions in order to get it.”
Millennials say that creating a strong cohesive, team-oriented culture at work and providing opportunities for interesting work are important to their workplace happiness, even more so than their non-Millennial counterparts. “Millennials place a high priority on workplace culture and desire a work environment that emphasizes teamwork and a sense of community. They also value transparency (especially as it relates to decisions about their careers, compensation and rewards).”
Many – but not all – stereotypes about Millennials are untrue. “Despite a reputation perhaps to the contrary, the Millennial generation of workers share some similarities with older generations in the workplace. Also, while a common perception exists that Millennials are not as committed or hard working as their more senior colleagues, the study effectively ‘busted’ this myth by revealing that Millennials are as equally committed to their work.”
While the same basic drivers of retention exist for both Millennials and non-Millennials, their relative importance varies, with Millennials placing a greater emphasis on being supported and appreciated. “Millennials have a greater expectation to be supported and appreciated in return for their contributions, and to be part of a cohesive team. Flexibility in where they work and how much they work is also a key driver in Millennial satisfaction. This view differs in importance from that of the non-Millennial generation, which places greater importance on pay and development opportunities.”
Trimble notes that profitability need not suffer at the hands of good law firm culture. “A firm with a good culture has people who bring positive energy and who want to come to work and put in a productive day,” he wrote. “They tend to be more compliant with firm policies and procedures if the policies are spelled out and enforced uniformly and fairly.”
However, longstanding traditions within law firms means some of the firm’s culture may be inherited and difficult to change. Older generations may feel younger ones should endure the same hardships, and suffer the same struggles to climb the ladder.
But that may lead to a rotating door. “[I]f we are really honest with ourselves about why most people leave law firms, we conclude that those departures are caused by feeling undertrained, disrespected, undervalued, or left behind,” according a recent article.7
A diverse set of employees is imperative to building rapport and trust with clients across all legal practices.
In addition, one study reveals that law firms that focus on “personality” rather than “skills” may exclude minorities and women who don’t fit the firm’s cultural mold.
“Fit is a way for embedded histories and power relationships to make it more difficult for minorities, women, and people who do not possess the cultural capital represented by golf, for example, to succeed in particular settings, including the corporate law firm.”8
As Heneke noted, the millennial generation is the most diverse adult demographic in American history. “A diverse set of employees is imperative to building rapport and trust with clients across all legal practices and to bringing the most well-rounded opinions and perspectives to the table,” Heneke wrote in her 2018 Wisconsin Lawyer article.
What is Your Firm’s Culture – Find Out, Ask Questions
Uncovering your law firm’s culture requires some exploration. Here are some questions to get you started on a path to improving your law firm culture:
Is your firm relaxed or formal? Do you have a dress code, and if so, is it enforced?
Is decision making open or secretive? Is it autocratic, or are decisions made through consensus?
Are internal communications frequent or infrequent?
Are your policies in writing and enforced, or are they ad hoc and inconsistently followed?
Are the lawyers collegial or competitive?
Do you have a clear and defined partner track with standards that are uniformly followed?
Do you have a compensation program that incentivizes and rewards good behavior, or does it encourage hoarding?
Do you have a plan for succession (that you follow)?
Does your firm have a reputation for fair pay and benefits, or are you viewed as a sweatshop?
Do you have diversity among all ranks of the firm, or does everyone look alike?
Does the firm have a “social life,” and is there attention to work-life balance?
Is your firm known for strict adherence to the billable hour above all else?
Do you encourage and support bar association involvement?
Do you mentor and train young lawyers, or do they simply sink or swim?
Is there organization in your substantive practice areas, or does everyone do their own thing?
Is your firm intentional about planning, or does the firm simply move forward on cruise control?
John Trimble first published this list in DRI’s For The Defense (November 2018). Published with permission from DRI.
1 Richard Fry, Millennials Are the Largest Generation in the U.S. Labor Force, Pew Research Center (April 11, 2018).
2 John Trimble, Know Your “WHY” Law Firm Culture: It Matters!60 No. 11 DRI For Def. 24.
3 Pew Research Center, Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label (Sep. 5, 2015).
5 Megan Heneke, Dispelling Workplace Myths About Millennial Lawyers, Wis. Lawyer (June 2018).
6 Danielle Braff, Is Culture Overrated? Law Firms Place Great Importance on Hiring Lawyers Who Fit Their Culture, but Are They Merely Perpetuating the Status Quo?, ABA J. (September 2018).
7 Sheila Engelmeier, Sue Fischer, Improving Law Firm Culture the Beginning of the Discussion, Bench & B. Minn. (March 2018).
8 Bryant G. Garth & Joyce S. Sterling, Diversity, Hierarchy, and Fit in Legal Careers: Insights from Fifteen Years of Qualitative Interviews, 31 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 123 (2018).