Cross-Generational Teams: Building A Balance For The Right Price

Client relationships are the foundation of any law firm's success and oftentimes those relationships are built—and maintained—by the most seasoned members of the firm. But how does a firm maintain those relationships with talent ebbing and flowing—and getting younger? The answer: developing well-rounded multi-generational client teams.

At Thomson Reuters' 23rd Annual Marketing Partner Forum, I moderated an in-depth discussion titled The Ties that Bind: Building Cross-Generational Leadership in Client Relations and Business Development, where three corporate counsel and two law firm leaders shared their experience with and expectations of multi-generational teams.

Understanding client expectations is front and center for Melissa Margulies, client service counsel at Ballard Spahr, as she directs their firm's client feedback program. Ideally, no matter the age breakdown, any team must have subject-matter expertise, be responsive, work collaboratively and get results. Where age becomes a factor is in what each team member brings to the table. Steve Burres, associate general counsel for Rotech Healthcare Inc, described the expected team structure as a senior partner with expertise, an associate willing and able to do the heavy lifting and a paralegal providing support. Different pieces of a project are more appropriate for people at different levels, explained Michele Martin, legal personnel partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius. Each generation of talent brings something imperative to the mix that the other generation lacks:

  • Senior lawyers:
    • Judgment—They are confident in their abilities and able to guide a decision within the business context based on their expertise.
    • Demeanor—They have seen it all and very little will shake them; they know how to remain the calm one in challenging situations.
    • The trusted relationship—They most likely have the history with the client and proven track record, which engenders client confidence.
  • Associates:
    • Technologically savvy—They know the technology that is driving business and society today—from social media to the newest operating system on their computers.
    • Desire to learn and work—They are personable, work hard and want to know the business (and do what they need to to learn it).
    • A cost savings—They should cost the client less than a senior lawyer thus helping clients manage any budget concerns.

But as Burres pointed out, the elephant in the room is cost. Corporations continue to move their counsel in-house in order to control spending. Corporate GCs want the best, most experienced lawyers on their outside counsel team but at the least possible cost, so it isn't surprising that client teams skew younger to meet budget constraints. Despite the traditional training model, GCs don’t want to pay for training young lawyers at firms, and Gen X GCs seem even more insistent on this point. Internally, some law departments provide training programs for their attorneys, thus not charging anyone else for the time, and they believe law firms should figure out how to do the same. Interestingly, Steven Kaplan, EVP and GC at XOS Digital, views firms with pricing professionals as "higher functioning" firms with whom he would prefer to work, given the option.

In the event an organization chooses to rely on outside counsel, they are expecting an attorney skill set tailored to each matter. Age then doesn't remain the focus. Ultimately, they want people on the team with whom they feel comfortable and know will be looking out for their best interests and be proactive if they need to be made aware of something. Corporate counsel on the panel agreed that everyone on the team should be empowered to interact with the client, regardless of their role. In fact, Amanda Perry, corporate attorney at A. Duda & Sons, noted that she can often tell who is really doing the work by who is communicating with her.

Law firms face this dilemma from the other side. They must figure out how to put the "best athlete" on the client team, so as to meet client expectations on work product while managing workflow and costs. Straying beyond an established budget requires explanation to either the client (if they are expected to cover the additional cost) or to firm management, who might have to adjust bills to keep clients happy.

It is clear that representatives from all generations are needed to structure a well-rounded team and satisfy a client in both the near and long term. What is less clear is exactly how firms will meet these demanding and fast changing expectations. But the law firm representatives assert that they are all trying to make it work. And all the panelists agreed that communication is key.


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