Motivating Millennial Lawyers: More About Possibility Than Precedent

 By Aimee Hansen


Image via Shutterstock

“Millennials bring new ideas and expectations to the workplace, as did the generations before them,” states a 2016 Thomson-Reuters report on The Generational Shift in Legal Departments. But, as the story goes, senior lawyers are resisting those changes.

By 2025, Millennials will comprise 75% of the workforce. The real question is not if change will happen, but how it will unfold.

What Do Millennials Want?

“Working round the clock for high pay and status is not what motivates many young lawyers today” states the FT, noting, “the partnership track has ruptured.”

Millennials work preferences are characterized as valuing mentorship (vs bossing) and collaboration (vs hierarchy), wishing to be involved in processes and decision-making, receiving regular feedback, having opportunities for growth, working for a firm that aligns to their values, and desiring work/life flexibility.

According to an article in the National Law Review, managing Millennials “means an almost 180-degree change in the way associates have been managed in the past.”

With Millennials, It’s Not About Precedent

Acknowledging the resistance of those who have paid their dues, “Old Lady Lawyer” Jill Switzer notes “The problem with the philosophy of ‘suck it up, this is the way it’s always been’ is that it doesn’t seem to really work with millennials.”

The Thomson-Reuters report agrees, “…in-house leaders must prepare to oversee junior lawyers who will not accept doing things a certain way simply because that’s what has been done before, whether it’s the billable hour or using a more formal tone in communications.”

So what can senior lawyers do to motivate Millennial associates?

Make Mentorship Your Management Style

The first step is to meet the individual in front of you.

“I think we all ought to be sensitive to the concept that stereotypes don’t always play out in individual people, and individual people are where it’s at,” Co-chair of the American Bar Association Business Law Fellows Committee and King & Spalding partner Dixie Johnson told theglasshammer. “I personally don’t ever start out a relationship thinking okay, you’re a millennial – here’s how I should relate to you. And I don’t think it’s healthy to do that.”

A Deloitte study found that Millennials who intended to stay with their current organization were more than twice as likely to have a mentor (68 percent) than not (32 percent), but only six percent of corporate legal departments have a formal mentoring program.

If yours doesn’t yet, then consider making mentorship your management style.

“I don’t think of ‘inclusive mentorship’ as a new thing that is needed by Millennials in a way that was not needed by prior generations,” says Johnson. “I just think that my job is to be a mentor and I should look for opportunities to help people who work with me. Part of my job as a senior lawyer is to train younger lawyers about what they need to do really well as lawyers…in the middle of all the work we do.”

Motivate with Context

As stated in The National Law Review, Millennials “are not content to receive a directive such as, ‘Research a particular point of law and prepare an annotated brief on the subject.’ Instead, they want to know about the case, why the research is important for the case and how it will be used to benefit the case.”

Millennials wish to learn and grow through the experience of doing the work, as opposed to just get the job done. They are “Generation Why.” The value in whatever they are being asked to contribute needs to be explicitly connected to the whole, both to the overall project and their personal growth.

“I do think young lawyers who enter the profession recognize some of the work is tedious and not as exciting, but you can learn from everything that comes your way,“ Johnson says. “It’s on us, the more senior lawyers, to help people understand what they can learn from projects.”

Make Feedback Work For You, Too

Growing up in a digital world where everything is “available at their fingertips”, Millennials desire (and expect) regular feedback (not just performance reviews). Iterative feedback may take more time, but it may also deliver more fluid performance improvements while building more mutual respect.

“I do think that we are more successful as managers when we give more feedback.” says Johnson. “I find that when I label a conversation with ‘I want to give you some feedback’  (eg. on relating to clients, on speech patterns) young lawyers are hungry to hear it, and they do take it well. They want to go back and think about it.”

Lead the One You’re With

Thomson-Reuters found that other generations see Millennials more so as “hoppers” and “disloyal” than they see themselves. 76% of Gen X and Boomers thought Millennials would stay at their current job for less than 5 years. 38% of Millennials intended to leave while 47% intended to stay. Still, a longitudinal study found a third of lawyers had changed jobs once only three years out of law school.

Resisting the assertion that job-jumping is a new trend among associate lawyers, Johnson states, “It’s important for more senior lawyers to recognize that part of the cost structure that is built into their firm is that they will spend a lot of time training somebody who then will go off to do other things. And I think that’s a good thing, frankly. At one point I counted up 40 people (that I helped train) that were in different spots in the federal government, and that makes me feel great.”

“I think approaching a work relationship with the reality that you’re both there by choice, and it may not last forever, is just the reality of it,” says Johnson. ”And it has been for a long time.”

Embrace Change

Millennials bring technology into firms, as a lens through which they’ve always interacted with the world. They are also more globally minded  and gender equal in their outlook, and will offer that to the workplace.

“That’s a really exciting thing about having young people who have really not known anything other than technology joining our teams,” says Johnson. ”They will bring to the teams technical advances and a way of thinking about projects that can helps us do a better job.”

This will also change how lawyers work, in a way that brings greater gender equality. The number of legal employees working remotely is rising. The FT points out that the firm Mr. Beedle now employs lawyers on a “consultancy basis”, meaning “full control over hours they work in exchange for a fluctuating salary.”

In order to stay, Millennials need to feel as though they are being valued and developed as leaders, and making a difference at work. In order for managers to motivate the next generation of lawyers, it will require a perspective less bent on precedent and more open to possibility.