Insightful Questions: Asked & Answered

Over the past several months, I’ve presented The Millennial Lawyer: A Guide to Motivating and Retaining Young Associates to lawyers and HR professionals hailing from the UK to Canada to New York to Colorado to California.

At each presentation, I offer my vision for a productive path forward with the youngest generation of attorneys. Relying upon consulting studies, social sciences, and my experiences practicing law, I highlight how commonly held Millennial values can be integrated into law firm culture in a way that respects the business and practice of law.

Whether I am speaking with partners at a law firm, members of a bar association section, or a trade group, I encourage the audience to be active participants in the discussion. Simply put, I want to hear the audience’s unique challenges and, in turn, offer specific solutions to bring generational harmony to law firms.

Today, I am sharing some of the most insightful and thought-provoking questions from attendees at my presentations over the past few months.

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Question: Why should I have to change my motivation? I wake up every morning and work hard because I’m paying tuition for two kids in college and because I’m trying to save for retirement someday.

Answer & Discussion — This question came from a law firm partner after I had just covered two key elements of the Millennial mindset: the preference for great experiences over high pay and the belief in doing well by doing good.

Our discussion focused on how to motivate a young associate to deliver his or her best work product. Millennials want their chosen profession to be the vehicle through which they make the world a better place. Accordingly, I encouraged the partners in attendance to focus on the noble practice of law to inspire their associates’ best work (instead of trying to motivate a young lawyer through the business side of law).

In response to the partner’s question — “why should I have to change my motivation?” — my answer was simple: you do not need to change your motivation. From all appearances, this partner’s motivation served him well. He ascended the ranks from associate to senior partner with an impressive list of clients and firm leadership responsibilities.

However, what motivated that individual partner as a young lawyer is not always the same as what motivates today’s associates. By understanding the Millennial mindset, firm partners can begin to unlock the talents of the youngest generation of attorneys.

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Question: When it comes to Millennials, I’m having a really hard time. I hire them to do a specific job, and they accept the responsibility of that job by taking the paycheck. Why isn’t that enough?

Answer & Discussion — This question highlights common concerns about Millennial employees: their work ethic and their commitment. At the outset, let me stress that Millennials are willing to work extremely hard and demonstrate an impressive commitment to their employers.

However, if firms believe that a paycheck alone will create an environment where young associates produce inspired results, then they will likely be disappointed. The average tenure of a Millennial in a new job is less than three years. Not shy about voting with their feet, a Millennial does not feel beholden to an employer simply by virtue of receiving a paycheck.

The good news, however, is that law firms can inspire Millennials to work hard and remain committed to their employers. A great place to start is by answering the question why. Many law firms are great at explaining what an associate’s job entails and how to do it. Too few law firms, unfortunately, explain why an associate’s specific task matters.

And, as an added bonus, if you explain why a particular bit of legal research is important within the context of a broader case, then your associate will likely answer that question better anyways!

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Question: Why don’t more young associates jump at the chance to do pro bono work or contribute to a bar association section?

Answer & Discussion — I have heard variations of this question from law firm partners and even a judge. The premise is: if young associates are so altruistic, then why do we still have shortages of lawyers willing to take on pro bono work and contribute to their bar associations?

My answer is twofold. First, Millennials believe in work-life blend in which work is an enhancing and enriching aspect of life (not a weight to be balanced against life). Millennials are not comfortable segmenting their life into separate spheres of interest that never intersect. Simply put, a typical Millennial does not want to view his or her multiple obligations — such as day-to-day client work, pro bono work, bar association work, and so on — as separate endeavors.

Rather, a Millennial feels most comfortable and inspired when work and life coexist on a continuous spectrum. So, if your firm believes in the value of serving on bar association boards, for example, then make that service an explicit part of your law firm’s culture. And, if your firm believes in pro bono, then do not make the mistake of suggesting that pro bono work is to be done during nights and weekends. Rather, pro bono work should be embraced every bit as much as paid client work during the regular working hours.

My second response to this question is: mentorship! As a group, Millennials want autonomy but not independence. From early childhood, Millennials have been coached, graded, and assessed, and they expect a benevolent mentor to help guide them in the workplace too. So, if a young associate is interested in a particular area of law, a great mentor could do wonders by guiding that person to the section of the bar association focused on that area of law.

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Question: Will our associates actually work hard if they’re not in their individual offices?

Answer & Discussion — While the hopes of a corner office sustained the dreams of Gen X and Boomer attorneys, Millennials largely dream of a communal work area. Whether it’s in a converted law library (a “lounge-brary” as they are sometimes called), a comfortable conference room, or a cafe, Millennials want a collaborative and vibrant workspace.

Perhaps the best answer to the above question — “will our associates actually work hard if they’re not in their individual offices?” — came from a chief human resources officer at a top BigLaw firm. One of his offices recently renovated their space to include expanded kitchens on each floor, complete with couches, tables, and flat screen televisions.

Partners at the firm worried that the expanded kitchens were too inviting and that they would take away from productive working hours. However, just the opposite happened. Associates loved working in those expanded lounges. During most nights, groups of associates could be found — laptops open, a baseball game on mute, pizza ordered — working together. Productivity actually increased!

Rest assured, your firm does not need to renovate its office space to achieve this result. However, you must create a space (even a converted law library or conference room) and permission structure for associates to work together and access their most productive selves.

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Do you have more questions? I’d love to hear from you!