This Old House: Renovating the Legal Profession

June 3, 2016

Many firms and legal departments have begun to notice cracks in the outdated structure of legal employment. Some have responded in novel ways, from innovative programs to bring mid-career women back into legal employment to experimenting with shifting away from the billable hour.  Yet, the question still resonates in the hallowed halls of the profession: Is a new glass ceiling keeping today’s young lawyers (mostly Millennials) from advancing to leadership in the legal profession? I had the honor of speaking on a panel on precisely that question at the recent National Association of Women Lawyers Mid-Year Meeting. The panel discussion and audience input culminated in a number of takeaways that I have translated and transformed into the following tips:

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Beware the Blinking “Exit” Sign

More than a glass ceiling, it is a glass door – mostly a one-way glass door – through which young lawyers are exiting law firms (and even the practice of law). Millennials are not hard-wired for blind loyalty to one employer, so if they don’t find the meaning and fulfillment they seek, they will look through the door to see what else is out there. This is compounded by the fact that what’s out there is actually quite attractive to them: We are in an up-economy where individuals’ careers are so tenuously tied to the subject matters of their degrees and years of experience that the possibilities are endless for a young person with courage, confidence and creativity. In fact, creativity reigns in the market, as it does in the hearts and minds of Millennials. Instead of being stuck in a stale room logging endless hours of doc review (all counted in mind-numbing six-minute increments), they could be out there creating something meaningful and glamorous, and getting to call many of the shots along the way.

Lest the Foundation Crumble: Avoid Crisis, Capitalize and Cultivate Clients

With the outflow of Millennial lawyers comes a succession crisis. Law firms that continue to hemorrhage associates are about to experience a dearth of young partners simultaneous with the retirement of senior partners. Those that want to maintain a competitive advantage must do more now to keep and cultivate the best and brightest.

How they define “best and brightest” is integral to their bottom line. Current clients (many of whom are Millennials) choose creativity and diversity of perspective over perfection and tradition, and although they expect their lawyers to help protect them, they put a premium on out-of-the-box approaches delivered by attorneys with whom they can relate. Millennial attorneys understand Millennial clients, and have similar values and approaches. The legal employers who make the effort to understand and capitalize on the unique strengths Millennials bring (by, for example, providing generational diversity training) and develop them in their unique areas of challenge will have the competitive advantage.

True and tailored investment in attorney development will more likely result in gain than loss. Aside from helping young lawyers contribute their best work to their employer, investment in development gives legal employers a fighting chance of keeping young lawyers who otherwise would leave. Additionally, from the law firm perspective, all is not lost upon the departure of a well-trained associate. Associates who leave often go in-house or leave legal practice to work for other entities, and the goodwill the associate retains towards his or her former employer will foster a positive connection between the associate’s old and new employers, which often grows into a law firm-client relationship, to the benefit of the firm’s bottom line.

Ditch the Pricey Bells and Whistles

Money is important to Millennial lawyers, to the extent that it can address their educational debt and provide them with the lifestyle they seek, which is a far more practical lifestyle than what senior lawyers might expect. To that end, legal employers may be able to consider reasonably reducing salaries of incoming lawyers, but adding a practical loan repayment plan, a perk that some outside of the legal industry are offering. However, that is not nearly enough. Although financial incentives are not as powerful with this generation, they are motivated greatly by other incentives and opportunities that legal employers should provide.

Make Everyone a Builder, and Give Them Each a Stake

One such incentive is ownership. Millennials seek ownership of their endeavors, both personal and professional. They seek more control over their lives and over the work they are doing. They are not afraid of hard work, but need to see that their work aligns with their values and also provides them with a meaningful stake in the process and outcomes. The idea of providing equity at an earlier stage was discussed as a possible way to provide Millennial lawyers in law firms with greater ownership, but the idea of having a greater stake and more audible voice in the work was offered as an alternative (and possibly more effective) way to provide Millennials with the ownership they seek.

Tend the Garden

Millennials seek constant growth and development. The antiquated annual performance review must be replaced by or at least supplemented with regular feedback and alignment of the young lawyer’s goals with the organization’s goals. Legal employers should look outside of the law firm for successful models of performance assessment, and should engage Millennial lawyers right from the onboarding process in creating professional development plans and benchmarks (providing the young lawyers with aforementioned ownership in their own professional trajectories). Personality and leadership assessment tools can be used to help newly minted lawyers best understand their strengths, work to address their derailers, and (in partnership with their supervisors) create a performance plan against which they can be regularly assessed. By engaging Millennial lawyers in this conversation at the gate, employers also can assess and address this generation’s unique development needs, as opposed to providing the traditional training older generations required. Such an investment speaks volumes as to how much the leadership understands, cares about, and believes in their young lawyers.

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Opt for an Open Floorplan

Although Millennial lawyers will dedicate many hours of their lives to meaningful work, this work also must engage their authentic voices and foster fulfilling professional relationships. The legal industry recognizes the importance of building lasting and committed relationships with clients; it needs to equally invest in such relationship-building within its ranks.

Legal employers must help bridge the chasm between different generations of women lawyers (and men as well) for Millennials lawyers to truly understand the benefits of working up to senior leadership at the firm. These young lawyers also need genuine support from senior lawyers in the form of mentorship and sponsorship. Such authentic inter-generational connection also aids older generations, by allowing them to better understand and respond to the needs and values of the younger generation and capitalize on their unique strengths, including creativity, initiative and a growth mindset. Some ways to do this include investing in development of team-management skills, rewarding supervisors who keep their teams cohesive and intact, and experimenting with innovative opportunities for lawyers to connect and share their unique experiences and strengths cross-generationally, such as the Ms. JD intergenerational book club (my passion project), or by creating hybrid open floorplans in the office.

The future of the legal profession rests with the Millennials and generations to follow. To safeguard that future and capitalize on the promising new era these generations can cultivate, all generations must learn together and work together to renovate the structure of legal employment and professional development. Such renovation can begin simply with removing the blinking “Exit” sign above the glass door, and laying out a “Welcome” mat.

 BY NEHA SAMPAT

fountains in Chicago Millenium Park
  • “After taking a brief hiatus from the practice of law, I was looking for a position which would enable me to enjoy a better balance between work and my personal life. I turned to Gary D’Alessio not only for his assistance in exploring opportunities for me, but to provide me with the counseling and guidance I needed. Gary’s personal experiences, familiarity with the Chicago legal market and timely knowledge of various opportunities ultimately led me to a part-time position at which I have never been happier.”

    Michelle K. Episcope, Associate

    Burke Warren Mackay & Serritella PC


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