Want to Motivate Your Associates? Money Isn't the Answer.

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Know who said that? No, it’s not a millennial. It’s a guy who lived over 150 years ago: the quintessentially American author and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. Not every millennial value is new. Some are old ideas that have been reinvigorated in today’s workplace.

Like Thoreau, millennials are focused more on the experience and less on the paycheck. In fact, 3 out of 4 millennials say that how they spend their time is more important than how much money they make. See Neil Howe, Millennials in the Workplace, at 188 (2010) (citing a Harris Interactive Poll). Simply put, millennials are less willing to defer life's big dreams for a big paycheck.

Furthermore, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center analysis, only 15% of millennials believe that having a high-paying career is one of the most important things in their lives. They ranked being a good parent, having a successful marriage, and helping others in need as significantly higher on their scale of importance.

That’s not to say that Boomers or X’ers don’t also value being great parents, spouses, and citizens. They unquestionably do. The critical difference is that Boomers and X'ers view high-paying careers as the means to achieve those very important values.

From a Boomer’s perspective, millennials are putting the cart before the horse. Be that as it may, this is actually good news for law firms. Motivating millennials is not a money problem.

Law firms must improve the associate experience, not increase the paycheck. Consider my own experience: in my first year as an associate, I made $60,000 more than in my sixth year as an associate. I migrated from a large firm to a small firm, looking for a better fit at the expense of a bigger paycheck.

My decision isn't that remarkable, especially considering the fact that a majority of college students would gladly accept a 15% pay cut from a future employer in order "to work for an organization with values like my own." Cliff Zukin and Mark Szeltner, Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012, Filene Research Institute (2012).

Therefore, it's critical for law firms to create an office atmosphere receptive to the shared values of a millennial generation with 50 million-plus people in the US workforce. By focusing on the experience instead of the paycheck, law firms can unlock this generation's talents.

So, what are some steps a law firm can take to improve the associate experience, thus boosting associate productivity and helping a law firm's bottomline? Here are a few that will generate big results without costing big bucks:

  • Promote your firm as a place where associates can work hard and socialize (that is, a place where work-life blend happens). Millennials work best in teams, not grinding away by themselves. So, keep your office doors open, create space for associates to talk about their cases and their personal lives, and strive for a professional yet collegial atmosphere.
  • Give your associates a voice. Millennials want to be heard now (not just when they become partners), and they want to work closely with you. Take advantage of their youthful eagerness and confidence!
  • Give them a purpose. 92% of millennials believe that businesses should be measured by more than just profits and should focus on societal purposes (Deloitte & Touche survey). Too often, lawyers get lost in the daily grind of billable hours, client demands, and looming deadlines. It’s critical to remind yourselves and each other about law’s inherent nobility — its transformative societal effects and its position as a centerpiece of any civilized society.

Together, these three measures create: an improved office atmosphere, a voice at the firm, and a purpose to inspire an associate’s best work. For millennials, it’s an experience worth living. For your firm, it's an experience worth creating.