Millennial Attorneys: Good Communication Fosters Law Firm Workplace Success

June 3, 2016

The impetus for the recent CLE program, Bridging the Generational Divide: How Millennials Can Communicate with Baby Boomers and Succeed in the Workplace, presented by the Young Lawyer Committee of the ABA Business Law Section at its recent spring meeting in Montreal, was that many programs are geared to helping older attorneys communicate with millennials, but not the reverse. What about millennials communicating with baby boomers and other generations to better succeed in the law firm workplace?

The discussion was interspersed with humorous videos geared toward some of the more serious topics, beginning with this clip on mortality from a promotion for Quarter Life Poetry.

https://youtu.be/wq5qXM3tkQw

The two hour, all-attorney panel featured perspectives from a variety of backgrounds. As someone who interacts daily with lawyers on business development and professional development issues at law firms throughout the country, my perspective was based on interaction with four generations of attorneys over 25 years as a member of the bar. In some instances, I’m working with management on addressing key retention issues for the younger attorney classes. In others, I’m working on professional development training. Often, however, I’m serving as a third-party neutral in finding a formula and culture that will fit the law firm.

Jared Perez of Wiand Guerra King and Amy Drushal of Trenam Law are both shareholders at their respective law firms in Tampa, Florida. As young attorneys, Perez and Drushal are closer in age to the millennial generation than most of their shareholder counterparts. Lynne Barr, a partner at Goodwin Procter in Boston, Massachusetts, and a past chair of the ABA Business Law Section, provided the Big Law management point of view. The program was moderated by Jonathan Stemerman, a shareholder at Elliott Greenleaf in Wilmington, Delaware.

As you might guess, the different perspectives made for interesting debates about effective mentoring programs, the use and availability of technology (include appropriate and inappropriate uses of social media), flexible hours, working from home and telecommuting, management feedback and transparency, and the overall cultures that may or may not lead to a longer stay at the same law firm.

A video clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm, titled “Casual Friday,” served as a starting point for the inevitable conversation about dress codes. If you are a fan of Larry David’s HBO program, you likely remember Ed Asner’s disgust in meeting an attorney wearing blue jeans at work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_9hYMVVv_Q

The “dress code” conversation was a reminder that not all dress codes fit all clients and law firms. The millennial entrepreneur client may dress casually and not feel in sync with an attorney dressed to the nines. The more senior client may feel like Ed Asner. I relayed a recent conversation with a managing partner who was simply appalled by the daily dress of his younger associates. Some firms have to state that “flip flops” are not appropriate footwear. Finding the proper dress comfort zone in the work environment—one that pleases the attorney, management, clients and court personnel—is sometimes harder than you might think.

Program attendee Abiola “A.B” Kalejaiye, of Chicago, Illinois, provided his reactions in Business Law Today’s Montreal Diary. “The biggest takeaway for me, espoused by both Ms. Barr and Mr. Buchdahl, was that communication requires a certain level of trust, and both millennials and boomers must do more to understand each other—to really go beyond the stereotypes to get to know people.”

In referencing the “younger” panelists (Perez and Drushal), Kalejaiye  mentions how they stressed the importance of paying one’s dues and learning the craft of lawyering, with the general sentiment being that young attorneys today take on more (or at least want to take on) substantive responsibility compared to past generations.

While the panel agreed that flexible hours and telecommuting were a reality in today’s workplace, the younger shareholders believed that being present in the office during your initial years of practice was necessary because of the uniqueness of the profession.

Differing opinions from the panel were significant when discussing law firm mentoring programs that work and don’t work. The same held true when addressing the use of social media. Some suggested that millennials could offer firm management help in better identifying the most up-to-date technologies available, although Barr suggested many in IT are millennials already—who else is going to run a law firm’s technology?

In the end, most topics came back to the need to properly communicate—something that millennials, baby boomers and Gen Xers can sometimes use help with. There needs to be trust, transparency and a continuous two-way line of communication. Law firms have adjusted to the reality that their new associate classes are not planning on being around for more than a handful of years. The young attorneys have to flex themselves somewhat in accommodating the veteran leadership of the law firm.

The question to ask is, has your law firm has adjusted to the times? A failure to recognize the generational differences in the workforce likely means your firm also sees  the same issues as they relate to its clients. Addressing these wide-ranging topics doesn’t come easy, and the changes will not occur overnight, but understanding the pressure points is critical.

 

BY MICAH BUCHDAHL

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