Are Millennials Really Different?

The eyes roll. That happens often when I speak to law firm partners or general counsel and the topic of “Millennials” comes up in the conversation.

Much has been written (and spoken) about the generalised, and unique characteristics, attributes or character of millennials—often incorporating the suspicion that millennials are somehow genetically different from other generational categories. Millennials often are described, only in slight exaggeration, as either optimistic, socially conscious digital natives or self-entitled, fragile, indulgent layabouts, who are prone to switching jobs. These stereotypes in turn have prompted many studies focusing on millennials—their views, aspirations, inclinations, proclivities, etc.

A recent study by MLA and Above the Law—2019 Millennial Attorney Survey, New Expectations, Evolving Beliefs and Shifting Career Goals (Millennial Attorney Survey)—examines the perspectives of what currently is the largest cohort of the legal profession, and how their “unique” working style has shifted workplace dynamics. Some key findings include:

  • Work-life balance remains the top priority for millennial lawyers. Nearly seventy five per cent would trade a portion of their compensation for either more time off, a flexible work schedule, or a cut in billable hours;
  • Commitment to work-life balance, compensation and commitment to training and professional development in evaluating an employer;
  • While seventy per cent of millennials self-described as loyal, over seventy five per cent were either open to new job opportunities or actively seeking them;
  • Dissatisfaction with compensation (twenty nine per cent) and management/firm culture (twenty two per cent) were the top two reasons cited by those seeking new opportunities;
  • Fifty one per cent agree that the law firm business model is fundamentally broken;
  • Sixty six per cent agree that law firm partnership is less desirable than it was a generation ago, while forty per cent of millennial lawyers view partnership as their long-term career goal
  • Sixty two per cent agree that millennials are transforming law firm policies and culture for the better
  • Forty five per cent of women strongly agree that law firm culture is sexist, compared to fourteen per cent of men.
  • Fifty six per cent of women strongly agree that there is a gender pay gap, compared to eighteen per cent of men.

At first blush, one may interpret these results to confirm the thesis that millennials are somehow different from the older generations in the legal profession – Generation X and the baby boomer generation. However, as we don’t have information on how different generational groupings would have answered the same questions at the same corresponding age, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly.

Let me offer another perspective. Even if millennials are somehow “different”, does it really matter? From the perspectives of talent acquisition and talent development, are we even asking the right question?

What is important to organisations is the challenge of fostering “employee engagement”. Employee engagement can be described as the emotional commitment an employee has to the organisation and its goals, resulting in focused deployment of discretionary effort. An employee’s discretionary effort triggers a chain of consequences that create positive economic results.

Kruse has catalogued multiple research and studies confirming that a high level of employee engagement correlates directly with metrics of success. When employees care more, they are more productive, provide better service, and stay longer in their jobs (ie., more loyal). Engaged employees lead to happier customers, who buy more and become advocates of the organisation, which drive sales, profits and ultimately shareholder returns.

What does employee engagement have to do with millennials?

The problems underlying employee engagement pre-date the emergence of millennials as the dominant workplace cohort. The characteristics for which millennials are often criticised correspond with the consequences of a disengaged workforce: disloyalty, lack of resilience, switching jobs, hard to please, slackers, etc. These attributes reflect long-standing problems present in many companies and professions that have low employee engagement, across generational classifications. Perhaps millennials are “different” in that they are less willing to remain with one employer and accept what they view as shortcomings in the law firm or legal professional environment, as described in the Millennial Lawyers Survey. Or, perhaps Gen X-ers and baby boomers have a higher tolerance level or willingness to put up with non-ideal work environments. Although how millennials respond to those problems may differ from other generational groupings, identifying those generational differences – real or perceived – does little to address underlying employee (dis)engagement found in many industries, including the legal profession.

Let’s return to the Millennial Attorney Survey. Many of the findings in the survey reflect observations that are familiar when discussing the challenge most companies have in sustaining an “engaged” workforce. For example, the desire for work-life balance (e.g., reflecting the law firm’s focus on maximising billable hours); belief in the organisation’s purpose (e.g., viability of law firm business model and purpose); the fit of the individual in the organisation’s future (e.g., commitment to training and professional development and desirability of law firm partnership); and dissatisfaction with an organisation’s management and culture (e.g., viability of law firm business model and sexism/pay gap, respective).

In the law firm context, all of these challenges concern not only millennials, but Generation X and baby boomer lawyers. Further, these concerns have been identified long before the emergence of millennials as a sizeable work force.

Instead of focusing on millennials, law firms and organisations would do well to focus attention and investments on what they can do to increase the engagement of its entire workforce, irrespective of where they fall in generational groupings.

What can law firms do?

Law firms should consider investments in two key areas: Organisational Purpose and Individual Growth.

Loyalty and engagement come directly from (1) working for an organisation that has a meaningful purpose, and (2) when the employee has both the skills and opportunity to engage in work that is engaging and purposeful. In attempting to define these concepts, it is useful to consider this—multiple recent studies (i.e., Lexis-Nexis/Judge School, ALM Intelligence, AdvanceLaw) confirm that clients perceive real value when lawyers (and law firms) deliver not only legal expertise, but help clients solve the underlying business problem, only one component of which may be legal. This notion of client-centricity and lawyers playing the role of a “trusted advisor” (beyond technical, legal expertise) have long been identified, but many firms continue to fare poorly in developing in their lawyers.

  • Culture, Purpose & Trust: Employees are more engaged when they believe that their organisation exists for a meaningful, positive purpose, and that management is committed to such purpose. Law firm management will need to craft and deploy an organisational purpose and culture that go beyond the firm’s and the partners’ monetary success, and one that is intimately tied to the success of their clients. Beyond the communication of such messages, developing a law firm purpose capable of inspiring and cultivating employee engagement will need to be reinforced by actual practice. For example, a firm’s purpose of achieving success for clients will often come into conflict with the primary success metric measured by the partner’s profitability, or where lawyers are rewarded for billing more hours. That tension will need to be resolved.
  • Individual Growth: Law firms, consistent with the findings of the Millennial Lawyers Survey, will need to rethink learning and development. Most firms historically have focused the early years of a lawyer’s training on technical legal expertise. The commercial intelligence and judgment that clients demand is often left to experiential training, which learning theory suggests is highly inefficient and leaves significant gaps. As a result, many smart young lawyers are saddled with non-complex, menial work. Is it a surprise then that many are disenchanted, bored, etc.? Law firm training will need to be re-imagined and designed so that younger lawyers can learn quickly the commercial and real life-context of their clients’ problems. This will allow them to accelerate the ability to exercise judgment on when to apply certain legal skills to help solve their clients’ problems. Those skills will enable younger lawyers to work directly with clients earlier in their careers—much more meaningful (and, more profitable for firms) than simply working on documentation.

Both of these changes are hard. And not because of the trope that lawyers are pre-disposed to resist change. It takes real leadership and commitment from law firm management, which is often missing. On the other side of the coin, lawyers are smart—they don’t resist change; they resist “bull--it”. The changes the legal profession is undergoing have multiple causes, one of which has been (mis)identified as the role of millennials. Instead of focusing on generational stereotypes, law firms will generate greater returns on investments by focusing on the very real and difficult task of cultivating and nurturing employee engagement.

More Articles by  Duc V. Trang

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