The new generation of legal leaders: Millennials make their mark on workplace culture


In the several decades span that millennials have been members of the workforce, they have seen an unprecedented amount of change, both within and outside of the office. In 2008-9, the Great Recession, for a time, placed upon many severe career and financial limitations (and to this day, has made it all the more challenging for millennials to tackle the astronomical student debt with which they are faced).


The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, upended cultural values around work and life, and resulted in many wanting to see their core values like diversity, equity and inclusion more overtly reflected by their employers. Now, record-high interest rate hikes and inflation make homeownership and raising a family particularly challenging for this generation.


As lawyers from the millennial generation start to assume leadership positions in the legal industry, distinct patterns are emerging in values and preferences on how the workplace should look and feel, how work gets done and what greater responsibilities law firms have in addressing larger issues.


In fact, it's safe to say that millennials, who currently account for over 35% of the U.S. labor force have become the most influential generation in the workplace given their impact on redefining workplace norms. Millennials — the most senior of whom are now entering their early 40s — have shifted discussion about work-life balance and culture. This article discusses some of the issues raised by millennials about the workplace, career plans and law firm and company engagement in recent surveys and other research.


Millennials have radically shifted discussions about workplace culture and work-life balance, especially amid the pandemic-era rise of remote work. Work-life balance and flexibility have become increasingly important to millennials, with 75% of those who work remotely or in a hybrid format saying they would consider changing roles if their employer asked them to work in-person full-time, per a recent Deloitte survey, "2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey".


Workplace priorities


Millennials have also pushed for their organizations to enact workplace initiatives that reflect their values, including fostering work-life balance, wellness, and opportunities for advancement. The same is also true of hot-button social and political issues, like climate change. In fact, the Deloitte Survey found that 50% of millennial employees are pushing their employers to act on climate issues.


Among the action items revealed in the survey were:


  • Create programs that feel like ownership programs, which allow everyone to feel invested in the company and its mission This also reflects a desire to engage in more collaborative work with colleagues across an organization.
  • Allow for a flexible working environment. Millennials have grown up in the internet age and were the first generation to do so. They understand how to work remotely and appreciate when they are given the flexibility and trust to do their jobs anywhere, a trend that has only accelerated during the pandemic. Indeed, over half would trade a portion of their compensation for more time off, according to the 2023 Millennial Survey conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law, which explores how COVID and other factors have influenced millennials' working preferences. 2023 Major, Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law Millennial Survey.
  • Create a culture where wellness is valued. Millennial leaders expect their organizations to prioritize the mental health of their employees by fostering a safe and inclusive working environment while providing resources for wellness and mental health. Per the Deloitte Survey, 80% of millennial employees say mental health policies and support are important to them in considering a potential employer, and 40% are disappointed with how their employers handled mental health during the pandemic.
  • Provide clear and flexible family-friendly policies, so that employees know they can continue developing in their careers while having the opportunity to have a family.
  • Offer monetary support aside from compensation to help pay off student loans. While a traditional 401k may have been more attractive to previous generations, millennials have been saddled with student loan debt and often forgo retirement to repay student loans. This is especially true in today's high-interest rate, high-inflation environment, where affordability remains a persistent challenge (and has been throughout millennials' working lives).
  • Provide constant and constructive feedback. Instead of implementing a yearly or biannual review, these leaders will proactively provide feedback and praise to better engage their employees.


Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)


Millennials have pioneered the mainstream discussion surrounding DEI. As they take the reins in leadership positions, millennials will push the boundaries to increase DEI in the workplace and society at large, because surveys have demonstrated time and again their wholehearted beliefs that the workplace should reflect the diversity of their communities and that company culture should be equitable and inclusive for every employee.


Moreover, millennials believe in creating a space that values their identities, yet they often feel excluded from company culture. For instance, 71% of millennial attorneys of color believe law firm culture is inherently biased against racially diverse lawyers, and more than 80% of women attorneys believe that law firm culture is inherently biased against women (while less than half of male respondents do). 2023 Major, Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law Millennial Survey.


Indeed, according to the survey, millennials want to make sure their companies are not only paying lip service to DEI. They will take steps to make sure their organization is visual and upfront about the role DEI plays in the organization and team by:


  • Drafting a clear mission statement, vision statement, and values statement that reflect an inclusionary culture. In turn, they will uphold these statements and help ingrain them into the fabric of the company culture.
  • Encouraging affinity groups that allow employees to build relationships and find community.
  • Establishing mentorship and sponsorship programs that provide equitable opportunities for employees, particularly by matching employees with more senior and established employees.
  • Pushing for diversity across the organization. If diversity is promoted, but C-suite and other higher-level employees do not reflect diversity, potential employees will question whether diversity is a true priority.
  • Implementing surveys to gauge employee satisfaction related to DEI.
  • Empowering employees to shape policies to increase belonging.
  • Supporting the Mansfield Rule (i.e., requiring any slate of candidates for employment to come from a diverse background) — a rigorous tracking and documentation program piloted by the Diversity Lab to increase diversity in the legal industry.
  • Ensuring candidates applying to positions interview with diverse employees so that they can understand how their identities are valued at the company.

The millennial generation has shaken up the workplace. They bring a unique perspective from their lived experiences through some of the most complex challenges our society has faced in the past several decades — and they can serve as an important bridge between the current and future generations of the legal profession.


As they increasingly move into senior roles within the legal industry, they will continue to make an even more indelible mark on the profession. In order to help millennials maximize their potential, it's critically important that their mentors and current leaders truly understand their values and what drives this generation's distinct workplace preferences.



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