The Millennial Lawyer. They ARE Our Future.

(This is a little long but I hope you’ll find it worthwhile)

In a recent article entitled “Startup Generation Ready to Fix Economy” we are learning that today’s millennial is not only not a slacker but those who are taking their job security into their own hands is increasing exponentially.

Forty percent of those in Generation Y, roughly defined as Americans born from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, envision starting their own business, and about 20 percent already have, according to a report published last month by The Affluence Collaborative, a research partnership.

“They understand that if they want security and they want to be assured of having a job, now more than ever, it makes sense to create your own job,” Fenn said.

There has been so much discussion about the Millennial in the workforce and particularly in law firms.  I need to weigh in yet again because I feel very differently then those in the legal community who have been quite vocal about their disdain for this generation and maybe it’s because I’m more involved with those who are actively looking to build their own practices and those who have started their own businesses.  I view this generation much differently then many.

Maybe it’s because, even though I’m two generations removed from a millennial, I understand some of what they feel. I don’t believe the mindset of the Millennial is a new one. I think in large part they just harbor more entrepreneurial drive then previous generations….and I get entrepreneurial. They are not willing to put off starting their dreams. They are certainly less inclined to sacrifice unless their career goal is attainable within a relatively reasonable period of time. But they are very happy to sacrifice when it means working for those dreams. They don’t see their world segmented – work life in one corner and personal life in the other.  They just see ‘life.’ And there is a stronger belief in one’s self but it has been nurtured on a fast food mentality.  They are simply in the fast lane 24/7.  It’s saying ‘no’ to the old model of doing business…not to a strong work ethic.  And it is by saying ‘no’ to an old business model that some interpret them as arrogant, disrespectful and dismissive of those who did work within the old model to get where they are today.  I believe this is what irks those who have trudged the more traditional path….barefoot through 10 feet of snow…to school…without a winter coat.  We can’t be mad at an entire generation because they don’t want to play by the rules most of us felt we had to abide by or were forced to abide by.

Of course, there is much more (positive and negative about this generation) that can be (in)appropriately broad-brushed.  Yet, as in any generation there are those who are driven to achieve who have a strong work ethic and those who are slackers.  But for some reason, this generation is really getting slammed.  I believe it is unfair.

What role has corporate America (you and me) played in this?  Let’s see.  These kids grew up:

  • watching their parents slave away at jobs only to be laid off over and over, again,
  • lose their pensions and health benefits to criminals like Enron, corporate shill politicians, and now to mismanagement of federal, state, and local government;
  • watching corporate America outsource their jobs overseas while stock-piling cash and NOT creating new jobs;
  • seeing a corporate culture change from one where employees were valued and shown appreciation to a culture of poor treatment and being told they should be grateful to have any job;
  • being told if they didn’t like ‘any job’ there’s ten one hundred more people who look just like them lining up to take their place.

The days of feeling proud for having given all your working life to one company and getting the gold watch and retirement dinner have disappeared. Today’s young worker sees working for another based upon the old model as indentured servitude  on a path to nowhere with no realistic brass ring and they want no part of it.  This is especially true after being told over and over again that their generation will be the first generation to not do as well as their parents.  Now there’s an exciting future to consider as they carry $150,000 + in non-dischargable student loans.

So, if they want to do an end run around the old model because they think it’s broken can we really fault them?  If they want to look up at the sky and see endless possibilities of their own creation rather than the big round butt of a middle manager who blocks their innovation and creativity can we blame them?  If they want to try and figure out a new and better way that works for them should we tell them they’re wrong and publicly ridicule them for trying?  Who are we to say what is best for them? Now who’s being arrogant, disrespectful and dismissive?  What I have heard over and over, again, is, “I wish I hadn’t been so scared?  I wish I had their guts.

Bravery, stupidity…call it what you will.  But those brave or stupid people created Facebook, Twitter, Google, Zappos, Amazon, SurveyMonkey  and today’s technology and smartphone apps we live and die by and so much more than we could ever have dreamed  because they DIDN’T follow the traditional models and all of these new models are totally driven on customer service and regard for their employees.

In a recent article it was suggested that 65% of grade school children will work jobs that have yet to be created. Who will be creating these jobs?  Today’s millennial entrepreneurs, that’s who.

And for those who are in management at law firms, have you ever heard of ‘internal marketing?’  It is a wonderful phrase coined by Sybil Sterchik who discusses the concept during an interview with Toby Bloomberg at the very popular Diva Marketing Blog.  She says that when you value your employees, your employees value your customers. Today, the law firms from solo to Big Law who put their client first will succeed.

Internal Marketing is a strategic blend of marketing and human resources focused on taking care of employees so they can take care of customers. While that still sounds warm & fuzzy, nonetheless it’s critical because if your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your legal clients!

Appreciation, involvement in the process, being part of a company’s dialog and success, the creation of a community, translates into loyalty by the employee and profits to the company.

And this is not a new concept.  It is a forgotten concept,  I know because I experienced it in the companies I worked for in the 80′s. I worked at not one, but two, companies who had office happy hours every Friday afternoon hosted by the president.  One company president drove his motorcycle through the company offices giving employees rides.  This same company handed out turkeys to every employee at Thanksgiving, held birthday parties for each employee.  Ten year anniversaries were celebrated with a one week trip to London and a stay at their corporate apartment with show tickets.  Was this a small private company?   One was small.  The other was the U.S. headquarters for an international corporation where I worked for 3 years.  This was a time before executives took $50 million dollar bonuses while telling their employees the company can’t afford to give COLA raises while simultaneously reducing their health benefits. When I left the company with the motorcycle-riding president, it was the only time I actually grieved for ‘family” because the company invested in creating a culture within the workplace…a culture the employees didn’t want to leave.

And I believe the companies I worked for are being described by Ms. Sterchik when she states:

I find it ironic that many companies (law firms) who do Internal Marketing well aren’t necessarily aware that they’re using Internal Marketing. These are companies with a workplace culture and operations committed to the value of both customers AND employees.  (and I’d like to add – living the company’s mission and workplace values)

If a company who has employees really believes they can skip this step and retain employees, either they are paying their employees so well they can’t afford to leave or they are deluding themselves.

Despite different generational attitudes in the workplace, companies will still need to engage their employees. And that’s where Internal Marketing comes in – enabling organizations to communicate and reinforce a sense of common purpose, a sense of belonging, and a sense of being part of something special, particularly in workplace that’s becoming increasingly insular. Internal Marketing will continue to be relevant as a ‘high touch’ people-centered management approach in a ‘high tech’ world.

So, you see this isn’t a generational mandate unique to the Millennial.  This is just good business. And in these crazy times to hold on to quality talent even with unprecedented unemployment is still critical to growth.

This new generation can’t work within an environment which does not respect their goals and values, a management hierarchy which can’t conceive of, never mind nurture, a new way of doing things which actually benefits the company and the clients foremost.  If law firm managers, even solos looking to hire an associate, choose not to recognize this and behave antagonistically, then they are going to lose the talent they have and certainly not attract new talent.  If this talent strikes out on their own without regrets why are the law firms so mad?  Why should these new lawyers have to take 20 years to figure out they don’t want to waste their time at that law firm?  There is ‘paying your dues’ and then there is selling your soul out of fear.   This generation didn’t create disloyalty.  It was the previous generation of employers who were disloyal and dishonest and gave this new generation permission to say, ‘screw you.’

So, there are some mea culpas to be made by employers.  There are some steps they have to take to create environments to attract today’s young worker and get the best out of them.  Today’s generation is suspicious and self-serving to a degree because they’ve learned no one is going to look out for their best interests better than themselves (or their parents.) And yet, when it comes to fighting for real change and the welfare of others they are fearless and committed and do things we would never dare for their causes.

This generation grew up (and is continuing to grow up) connected to a vibrant and diverse community through technology and they can no more leave this connectivity when in the workplace then they can leave their left arm. To not capitalize upon this connectivity is just plain bad business.

Employers should capitalize on this connectivity and the freedom they, too, can experience released from the confines of the 9-5 workday and sterile cubicle and harness the additional strengths of the millennial worker instead of straitjacketing them. And when there is a strong work community it mitigates the need for a rigid caste system. The caste system is least for this generation.

That is why I believe, more and more lawyers will strike out on their own and invent the future law practice. Millennials will be more inclined to pursue their entrepreneurial bend, especially in the law.  And you will see those who have worked so hard within the current system who get the boot or law grads who simply get no opportunity or document reviewers who are not rewarded in ways which are meaningful to them more inclined to become solo practitioners.

Then consider the economic times we are facing.  In a time of uncertainty, the direction this world is going, extraordinary debt, health care in crisis, climate change, endless war…there is a certain ‘live for the moment’ feeling which propels them to say, ‘if this isn’t working for me, I’m outta here.’  They don’t just say, “time is precious.”  They live and work knowing time is precious.

Rigidity and lack of consideration for the mindset of this generation is a recipe for economic disaster for businesses of all stripes. Law firms are definitely not immune.

As a solo, there may come a time when you may choose to bring on an associate.  Remember this. And remember why you chose to go solo, the freedom to control your own time, your own destiny. You realized you’d rather be responsible for your own financial security and you have faith in your abilities to do this. And when you made (or make) the decision to go solo didn’t you, regardless if you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X or Gen Y, basically say the very same thing?  I think the phrase was ‘screw you.’

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3 comments on “The Millennial Lawyer. They ARE Our Future.

  • Wow. And amen. What surprises me is when solo and small firm lawyers don’t get this. I have turned down a few jobs and had the solo lawyer with the downtown office and ridiculous expenses tell me I am nuts. Why would I create $400k in billables for you and only get paid $50k because you have to pay for an outdated, over-leveraged business model? So I can work 60 hours a week with no benefits and nowhere to move up as 5 person businesses don’t exactly have a corporate ladder? Insane. One day solo and small firm lawyers will realize just how much freedom and control they have. And if they don’t we youngsters will gladly help their clients. It isn’t rocket science, but you must always be thinking and looking for knowledge and opportunity. The same rules that apply to recent grads also apply to the more aged among us.

  • Sadly, some experienced attorneys start with the assumption that young lawyers who leverage technology or simply go after their goals now rather than waiting for the seemingly required 5 years at someone else’s firm to gain “experience” (even though many report that such experience was not relevant and/or useless for going solo), are lazy, providing terrible service to clients and basically haven’t got a clue. When you start with such a big assumption it is very difficult for the different generations to have the opportunity to really get to know each other and, therefore, understand each other and each other’s practices.

    The reality is that the understanding of experienced attorneys is no longer a requirement for young lawyers to go after what they want. Experienced lawyers are no longer the gatekeepers. Millennial lawyers don’t have to wait for a job offer, promotion or partnership anymore. Millennials also do not need the approval of experienced lawyers to start their own practices.

    However, the profession is much better served when different generations within the profession find win-win opportunities to unite and help each other. And thankfully, there are lawyers like you, Susan, who totally “get it.”

  • Based on the year range, I would be a generation Y entrepreneur. I don’t know how many in my generation are “lazy” and how many are productive. I do believe that the competitive nature of law will only get worse as we pump out more legal minds. Fees may even go down.

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