When a new generation enters the workforce, there is a natural adjustment period during which companies must choose whether to stick with tradition or attempt to make changes to attract new talent. The uproar over millennials entering the workforce seemed unprecedented, but in reality it mirrored many of the same growing pains that pitted Generation X against baby boomers in the early 1990s. When it came to millennials, employers rushed to improve company culture and integrate technology to meet the preferences of their new employees.
Due to the delay caused by law school, the legal industry has enjoyed the benefit of observing the impact of Generation Z — which roughly includes those born in 1995 or after — on other industries before they enter the legal field. Although most aren’t even in law school yet or are just beginning, law firm management should begin strategizing on how to adapt to meet the needs of this next generation. Many of the changes that employers made in order to embrace millennials still apply to Gen Z, but employers should be careful when assuming that the two generations operate in entirely the same way.
When millennials first joined the legal profession, even first-year associates were expected to be available 24/7. Knowing that round-the-clock availability was taking a toll on millennials, law firms began to improve workplace flexibility by exploring work-from-home options. Like millennials, Gen Z will expect a workplace that is flexible to their schedule and utilizes technology to allow them to work outside the office.
Gen Zers will also be the first generation of associates to enter the profession as artificial intellectual and other technological improvements are changing the way lawyers work. These associates can expect law firm management to take advantage of AI to increase efficiency and automate certain legal functions that free up their time to handle legal analysis more efficiently and tackle more in-depth, complex matters. While ominous predictions hint at these technological advancements ultimately replacing lawyers, this is far from reality. Instead, AI and other technological improvements will help Gen Z associates carve a new path that will change the industry in profound ways.
Millennials and Gen Z alike have an increased awareness of global social issues. In order to meet millennials’ appetite for philanthropic causes, many firms have funded days of service tailored to associates’ preferred causes. While a day or two of service was a successful way to communicate an organization’s values to millennial employees, Gen Z want their companies to go a step further.
As the most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, Gen Z will expect more from law firms than just lip service. In a profession where progress has been generally slow, Gen Z associates can be the guideposts for more inclusive and diverse law firms of the future. Law firm management should recognize that they would be served well by listening to, and learning from, this new generation of lawyers.
Compensation and Benefits
While millennials valued so-called “soft benefits,” like office happy hours, casual dress codes, or catered lunches, research has shown that Gen Z actually has a stronger preference toward traditional workplace benefits. Having grown up in the midst of the Great Recession, many in Gen Z saw parents lose jobs or struggle financially with under-employment. In fact, Gen Z’s professional priorities more closely match those of baby boomers than millennials; their top “must haves” in their first jobs are health insurance and a competitive salary.
While certain soft benefits have become industry standards, these perks alone are unlikely to impress Gen Z. Law firms should invest in benefits that promote the long-term financial stability Gen Z desires. Law firm management should plan for Gen Z to enter the workforce by investing in and maximizing traditional workplace benefits in order to signal long-term security.
Millennials, more so than previous generations, desired frequent feedback on their professional development. Gen Z take this even further. Having grown up with technology that provided information instantly, they value feedback on the spot and at frequent intervals. Partners should see this as an opportunity. Improving communication around performance is mutually beneficial for them and associates, and taking this time to focus on an individual’s performance can generate incredible motivational power. Law firm management should work to further integrate frequent and continuous feedback throughout the associate experience, while also developing a culture of feedback.
Recruiting and Summer Associate Programs
Since the oldest members of Generation Z aren’t even finished with law school yet, law firm management is in a unique position to prepare for their inevitable entrance into the legal workforce. This begins by setting the right tone early during recruiting efforts and summer associate programs. For example, interviewers should be prepared to discuss technological advancements within the firm, ongoing performance review initiatives, and institutional flexibility. Summer program organizers should also consider incorporating more activities related to social causes, as well as diversity promotion. Setting the tone early will help build a lasting relationship between law firms and Gen Z lawyers that builds the groundwork for professional success.
Any organization’s most important asset is always its people, and managing those people well requires getting to know the basics: what inspires them, what motivates them, and what might have the opposite effect. While millennials and Gen Z have many professional preferences in common, law firm management must expect that the changes made to accommodate millennials will need to be altered or enhanced to attract and retain Gen Z talent. As Gen Z enters the legal industry in full force, firms that embrace these changes will give themselves a leg up over the competition.