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Lessons from Law Firm Management: The Multigenerational Workforce
Today one of the more complicated challenges facing law firms is the ability to bridge cultural divides and expectations within a multigenerational workforce. Law firms are often comprised of a wide swath of generations, from partners in their early sixties nearing retirement to young associates in their mid-twenties. The McBrayer group is no different. While our oldest attorneys are Baby Boomers, our newest associates are Millennials, a generation of people who have come of age in the shadow of today's modern technology. To add to this mix is Generation X, sandwiched in between. Each generation brings with it its own life experiences and expectations about the culture of the firm, the amount of work required to be successful within the firm, and what it believes is the appropriate balance between work and life. Often times, these expectations do not appear compatible. However, reflexive leadership responds to these varying expectations and applies these unique generational characteristics in the ways that best serve the firm and its clients.
Just when the Baby Boomers and Generation X figured out how to work together, organizations are now faced with bringing the Millennials into the workforce. These young people are not unlike previous generations in that that they are products of their discrete moment in history, and this informs their expectations at every level of how they view their profession and how they view themselves within their profession. Millennials come to the workforce in a time of changing career attitudes. A 2010 study in the Journal of Management found that twice as many Millennials rated having a job with more than two weeks of vacation as "very important" than Baby Boomers did at the same stage, and Millennials were less likely to work overtime. In the survey 75% of Baby Boomers expected work to be a central part of their lives, only 63% of Millennials agreed. The study suggested Millennials have an increased focus on leisure, as well as decreases in both work centrality and work ethic, stressing the importance to the generation of greater work-life balance. Such changes may conflict with entrenched attitudes about performance within the firm and thus trigger generational conflict. For example, the Baby Boomers still often put in 80+ hour work weeks at the office and perceive anyone who is not doing the same as lacking a work ethic and failing to carry his or her weight within the firm.
At the same time, the Millennial generation has an excellent ability to multitask, network and adapt to changing technology in a way that can positively benefit any firm (according to a report by the US Chamber Foundation, some studies even suggest that increased use of technology and media by this generation is literally retraining the brain to process information faster).
Good leadership will acknowledge that the notion that work can only be accomplished in the office or "onsite" fails to accept that with mobile devices, portable computers and all types of new technology, an attorney can "practice law" in almost any setting. It is the responsibility of the firm leader to educate the older attorneys on how very similar they are to the Millennials. When the Baby Boomer would leave the office at five to have a family dinner or attend a soccer game or school function, the attorney would often return to the office in the evening to complete a memo or brief. However, today attorneys can actually attend the soccer game and still work on the brief with his or her laptop. The work that once required the attorney to sit in an office may now be accomplished while sitting on a park bench. Accepting that the work landscape is consistently changing and therefore building flexibility in work schedules or added telecommuting opportunities acknowledges both a desire for an appropriate work-life balance as well as acceptance of the new cultural standards that will work with the standards of an older generation.
This is not to say that younger generations cannot learn to adapt and accept those cultural standards that have allowed the law firm to succeed all these many years. It is important for the younger generation to realize the firms they are joining are successful because the older partners have clearly been doing something right. Law firms are especially adept at pairing experienced partners with junior associates. Mentoring opportunities within the firm allow younger attorneys who are facing a tremendous learning curve to seek counsel and advice from individuals who are in the best position to impart knowledge of the firm's practice and the overall culture. Such mentoring allows for better communication between the generations, thus creating less chance of misconceptions and a more positive work environment. Studies and popular literature also continue to suggest that the Millennial generation needs more feedback, open communication and structure than prior generations. This can be accomplished through providing clear expectations and instructions, guidance whenever possible, and consistent evaluation where practicable. Older generations in a firm may not have had this communication and were expected to forge ahead regardless, but the Millennial generation expects it.
Workplace flexibility, work-life balance, mentoring opportunities and enhanced communication can help the Millennial associate adapt to life within the firm. Rigid adherence to any generational culture in a law firm setting is a recipe for disaster and can only widen the divides. While the Millennial generation may require some adaptation, it comes with its own set of talents and abilities. Law firms that fail to realize some firm culture can be changed to accommodate new ideas on work and communication do a disservice to their attorneys and to their clients. By embracing the ideas and mores of each generation rather than stifling them, a firm continually evolves and hones a competitive edge. The drive and experience of the older generations coupled with the innovation and savvy of our youngest generations provides a dynamic to change the firm from within and allows the firm to meet the newest challenges. Therefore, leaders should always be looking for ways to create a collaborative and flexible work environment for all the generations while at the same time capitalizing on the strengths of each group. Without such, the firm runs the risk of becoming stagnant.
James H. Frazier, III is the Managing Member of the firm, a position he has held for over 18 years. Mr. Frazier's practice focuses on real estate, bankruptcy, mergers and acquisitions and general corporate practice with special emphasis on mineral and energy law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 231-8780, ext. 303.
This article is intended as a summary of state and federal law and does not constitute legal advice.
 Jean M. Twenge, et al. "Generational Differences in Work Values: A Review of the Empirical Evidence" Journal of Management (2010)
 Sally Seppanen and Wendy Gualtieri "The Millennial Generation Research Review," National Chamber Foundation (2012)
 Karen Myers & Kamyab Sadaghiani "Millennials in the workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials' Organizational Relationships and Performance" Journal of Business & Psychology (2010)