Cracking The Millennial Code


Whatever you think about Millennials, every business needs them. Defined as those born between 1981 and 1999, Millennials already comprise the majority of the workforce, and by 2030, they will make up 75% of the workforce, according to a November 2015 article in Forbes. As the largest generation in history, they are already shaping how we communicate, consume information and work. If you are the general counsel of a corporation, the future success of your team will depend on how well you learn to attract, retain and manage Millennial lawyers—who are not your average Millennials.

Millennial Values

If a corporation maintains a culture that address the four elements of Millennial motivation—learning, work/life blend, autonomy and meaning—it will reap the rewards of attracting the best talent of a highly creative and technology native generation. As a 22-year-old recent college graduate explained to me, "Millennials are all about humanized companies that have a social responsibility aspect or a mission statement that reflects a personal side."

Learning—Create a corporate lattice, not a ladder

Deloitte Consulting coined the term corporate lattice in 2008 to describe a customized career path that allows people to move laterally—up or down—in accordance with their interests and priorities. The lattice concept suits Millennials well because of their focus on learning and flexibility.

Unlike prior generations, Millennials are not very impressed with titles or seniority. They are far more impressed with the quality of ideas that people contribute. From the beginning of their tenure at a company, they seek a range of experiences and stretch projects that will help them learn and grow. Millennials also tend to be less risk averse than their older colleagues, which can mean that they bring fresh, creative ideas to the table. However, that higher appetite for risk also increases the likelihood of mistakes—and for in-house legal teams, mistakes can be costly. To create an environment that encourages creativity but minimizes the risk of mistakes, one of my clients encouraged their legal managers to hold regular brainstorming sessions with their direct reports. This allowed even the most junior lawyers to come up with ideas for problem-solving with the safety net of a manager's experience and perspective.

Millennials want mentors but they don't want to be lectured. For a mentoring relationship to be truly satisfying and sustainable, mentoring should be a two-way street. Recently, I was invited to lead a mentoring workshop in Mexico City for a group of female Mexican lawyers called Abogadas MX. Mentoring is the signature program of the group because they understand that the best way for women to succeed in the legal profession is to have good mentors. Many of the mentors who attended the training said that they learned a great deal from their mentees; Millennials can teach older generations about more than technology and social media. The mentors in Mexico said that they were inspired by the idealism and entrepreneurial spirit of their Millennial mentees.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers will get more from Millennials if they approach the relationship with openness and humility. In an article recently published in the Harvard Business Review, Chip Conley recounts his experience joining Airbnb at the age of 52. He says that he found his success in being curious and approaching the work like an intern even though he had decades more experience than the rest of the team. By asking "why" and "what if," instead of trying to give the answers based on his experience, he showed that he was open to learning from his Millennial colleagues. Conley describes himself as a "modern elder" who is "both student and sage."

Meritocracy to a Millennial lawyer means rewarding the people with the best ideas, not the people who work the hardest or the longest. If they find a way to get the job done faster and with less effort, they feel they should be rewarded for that – either with time off or by getting more interesting assignments. They reject the old expectations of "face time" in the office as a measure of value to the team. Recently, a Millennial lawyer I was speaking with told me that the reason she was looking to leave her company was that promotions were given based only on seniority. "It doesn't matter how many great results I get or how much my internal clients praise my creativity and responsiveness," she noted. "I won't be promoted until it's my turn. That just doesn't seem fair."

Work/life blend, not balance

While they fiercely protect their life out of the office, Millennials want to enjoy their time at work and want to get to know their colleagues. Rather than looking to achieve a work/life balance, Millennials strive for a work/life blend. They want to work for companies that encourage a collegial relationship where coworkers know and trust each other.

Millennials seek a supportive, collaborative culture. Companies can create a sense of community through small but concrete steps. It begins with an on-boarding process that is genuinely warm and welcoming. Monthly team lunches, happy hours or game nights help team members get to know one another. Creating discrete projects and assigning a mix of people to each project will give Millennials a chance to learn new skills and interact with various people in the group. By creating an environment in which Millennials get to know their colleagues, they are more comfortable sharing creative ideas that can benefit the organization.


Flexible work environments are extremely important to Millennials and have a direct impact on motivation, productivity and retention. Flexibility refers to working hours, work location, role and types of employment contracts. The 2016 Deloitte Millennials Survey shows a strong link between flexibility and improved performance and employee retention. Millennials with flexible work environments reported being more accountable and loyal to their employers. For example, 34% of those with flexible workplaces say they take "a great deal" of personal accountability for their employer's reputation vs. 12% of those in low flexibility environments.

When it comes to managing Millennials, "manager as coach" is a winning strategy. Managers should be clear about their expectations and step back while remaining available to answer questions and give guidance.


Millennials seek meaning in their work and want to know that their efforts matter. According to the Deloitte survey, 87% of Millennials believe that the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just financial performance. Interestingly, law firm associates are less idealistic. Major, Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law recently published the results of a survey of more than 1,200 law firm associates from 132 law firms that showed that only 4.82% of Millennial attorneys felt that it was important for their clients' values to align with their own.

Corporations and law firms appeal to Millennials when they create corporate citizenship initiatives that their Millennial employees can engage in directly. Whether it is teaching at underprivileged schools or building homes, Millennials like to be hands-on. They want to know that their company is doing something positive in the world. Managers and leaders should clearly communicate the value that the company creates in its for-profit ventures as well.

Retaining Millennials

Millennials are an important part of the workforce today and in the future. The cost of losing Millennial employees is high. The Major, Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law survey found that one third of the respondents planned to leave their law firms in two years or less. The cost of replacing a second- or third-year associate ranges from $250,000–$500,000, and the cost of losing an in-house lawyer is generally estimated at 1.5 to 2 times the employee's salary. In addition to the cost of replacing a departing employee, workload and stress levels increase and lower the engagement and productivity of the employees that remain.

To harness the creativity and energy that Millennials bring, corporations and corporate legal departments need to create a culture and a work environment that addresses the motivations and expectations of Millennials. Those who get it right will be rewarded with the top talent of this generation.



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