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Mind the Gap! How to attract and retain Millennial legal talent

Flexible working, Lawyer Life, work-life balance, Working environment, Young lawyers

Co-written by Frieda Levycky, Founder of Braving Boundaries, and Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist 

Say what you will about Millennials, they bring a refreshing and much needed change to the legal world. Technologically savvy – they are efficient, innovative and capable of re-shaping the legal sector into a much more flexible and streamlined animal. But they are also emotionally and mentally aware and believe in self-preservation. Their personal needs are considered, if not before, at least alongside those of the business. Something quite foreign for the Baby Boomer and Gen X lawyers whose personal lives have always been secondary to their careers. One could say that Millennial lawyers are a “new breed” altogether.

It is no surprise that the older generation of lawyers are struggling to get to grips with this new breed of lawyer, often finding themselves scratching their heads in both confusion and frustration. A group of young, self-aware, confident, capable and innovative individuals whose values and work ethic are very different to that of their elders. Gone are the days of lawyers entering a law firm “for life” or sacrificing their personal lives. Millennials are a generation who graduated during the Global Financial Crisis and have watched their parents and seniors struggle with stress, workaholism, divorce, drinking and substance abuse. As a result, they are more frugal, less money driven, and more focused on a career that provides for a proper work-life blend (not just a balance).

So how can the legal sector better adapt in order to not only attract but also retain this valuable, young talent pool?

The millennial lawyer psyche

Millennials are one of the largest and most important generations of our time. They account for about a quarter of the world’s population at around 1.8 billion people and, although they are still young, how they conduct business and how they view a company is crucial.

According to the ABA Journal, incorporating this divisive yet influential generation into the business is crucial.  So the Baby Boomer and Gen X colleagues will need to learn how to successfully integrate their Millennial counterparts into the businesses. Quickly. And this will be particularly important for law firms, where the power of Millennial lawyers is huge—by virtue of sheer numbers alone.

I quit!

But Millennials, according to Forbes, are not afraid to job-hop. They are not satisfied with being stuck in a “dead-end job” and as a result will leave a company should it not be the right fit. Whilst this may seem ‘flaky” to the older generations, Millennials are more likely to earn a higher wage, develop their career on a faster track and find a better fit in work culture by changing jobs more frequently.

But in a sector of the economy where annual turnover is already extremely high, legal recruiters are seeing an uptick in young associates changing jobs at a disconcerting pace. Millennial lawyers are leaving a job, not just when they are unhappy, but when they are not happy enough. And that is an important consideration as it requires “more” from the respective employers.

Law firms need to look at what will motivate young Millennial lawyers to stay in their firms (or corporates), long term. Although this may take some effort, NOT trying to retain these young lawyers will result in additional training and additional costs. Neither of which comes cheap.

According to a study by the Association of Corporate Counsel,  law firm turnover costs the legal industry nearly US$1 billion annually as law firms spend time and money on-boarding associates (from recruiting to training) and must thereafter reinvest when another associate needs to be hired to replace one that has left. A continuous and expensive cycle.

And this is where it gets interesting … because for a law firm to remain relevant and in order to solidify their future in an ever-changing and unpredictable world, firm leadership must focus on what motivates and inspires Millennial lawyers in order to not only ensure continuing business but also to save millions and millions of firm capital.

The Millennial lawyer mindset explained

JP Box, a Millennial and writer of “The Millennial Lawyer: How Your Firm Can Motivate and Retain Young Associates,” while aiming to help frame the generational divide that leads to misunderstandings between associates and partners, also illuminates the Millennial mindset in order to help law firms understand how to connect with, motivate and retain the very best young (Millennial) lawyers:

“Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers share many common values, but differ in how they prioritize, express and act upon those values.

Let me provide an example. Millennials overwhelmingly believe in doing well by doing good – that is, working hard to make the world a more beautiful place through their chosen professions. Some Gen Xers and Boomers chose careers to fulfil this value, while many others used their careers as a springboard to engage in social-minded activities outside of work (for example, by serving on non-profit boards and donating to worthy charities). In contrast to those Gen Xers and Boomers who are comfortable finding outlets outside of work to give back to their communities, millennials believe that work should be the vehicle through which they make the world a better place.

Importantly, millennials are not comfortable compartmentalizing their lives between work, family, friends, charity and play. While “work-life balance” became a rallying cry of Gen Xers in the 1990s, millennials opt for “work-life blend,” in which they wish to achieve personal, professional and charitable goals on a continuous spectrum of life experiences. Millennials chafe against the notion of balancing work’s ambitions against life’s desires because, to this generation, they are part of the same continuum.

By recognizing this critical distinction, law firm partners and recruiters can begin to understand how to motivate the youngest generation of lawyers. Hint: it’s not just by the promise of a billable hour bonus at the end of the year. Rather, by focusing on the noble practice of law (that is, doing well by doing good), partners can unlock the talents, passion and work ethic of millennial lawyers”.

Ok, so what will attract young lawyers to a law firm?

Essentially it really boils down to bringing back humanity, collaboration and involvement into the legal working environment. Flexibility is already a given. But bringing “heart” back into the work space seems to be the overarching factor. It amounts to a proper work-life blend (not just a balance) – a little like having your cake and eating it too. And what is really wrong with that?

I like eating my cake!

So, here are some key strategies we believe will help attract (and retain) young lawyers:

Collaboration & involvement – Make an effort to ensure that Millennials feel like they are an integral part of the team from the get-go. That they have a voice, that they are making a difference. It’s about giving them visibility of the bigger picture so that they can see why the hard work is benefiting their client and the world at large.

A fun idea is to perhaps create a physical space that will enhance a collaborative and engaging work environment, for example some firms, like Morrison & Foerster, are offering “lounge-braries” — a hybrid lounge and library where lawyers and staff can work and socialize together. 

Bring them into the business side of things early on – Millennials are a generation of influencers – you’ve seen them on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Tik-Tok – they have followings into the thousands! The thing is, the clients of today (and of the future) are also influencers and therefore use the same communication platforms. They talk a different language to the old guard, so law firms and corporates need to start talking the same language by utilising the valuable tools at hand – the Millennial lawyer. This links to the collaboration and involvement point that we spoke about above. But this benefits the firm as well as the Millennial lawyer.

Provide mentoring and support – This is absolutely key.

We can all learn from each other, and the millennial generation knows that. They may be “technoids” and able to operate every communication channel under the sun, but they lack the legal experience that is only gained by working in the legal industry for a number of years. They still need to learn the ropes. The Baby Boomers and Gen Xers still have a lot of valuable lessons to be conveyed to the younger generations about law but also about office politics (which, as we know, can be a jungle).

Remember it was the Gen Xers who started the move towards a work-life balance. So the Millennials should take a page from the Gen Xer’s “hard learnt lessons” book. Where at all possible, there should be access to a mentor and/or coach which supports the young lawyers in being made to feel like an integral part of the team, early in their careers and from Day 1. Group coaching and access to work shops is also a valuable resource as it promotes a meaningful career success path that is aligned with the Millennial lawyers’ values and strengths.

Training – Law is a business and not a purely advisory role anymore. In order to achieve this ‘all in one’ package there needs to be skills training on negotiation, management and business development and this needs to begin at the junior level, not left to when the lawyer reaches seniority (#toolittletoolate). Never mind something to be “expected” anymore, juniors and mid-level associates are going to need to/have to learn how to take on business development earlier – it’s where the new pool of clients are – and they are the ones who speak the same language. It may be a pertinent (scratch that, “good”) idea to give these young lawyers the tools they require early on and support them as they grow.

Regular and practical feedback so that they can grow and “bounce back” if they are struggling – Described by Time as narcissistic, lazy, “coddled” and even a bit delusional, Millennials are constantly seen as hard-work and demanding of attention. But regular (not just annual) feedback helps. And Millennials (and other future generations) will want this regular and practical feedback in order to grow and improve. And this is the best way to help them to do so. Providing clear guidance on how to improve is key. Just because regular feedback was not provided to older generations to enable improvement, does not mean it is the correct course of action to take. After all, how else do you (really) learn?

Checking-in – Whilst linked to mentoring, Millennials need to know that their difficulties and struggles in the workplace are being taken seriously and that their overall well-being is a priority.  People are more likely to stay (and be loyal to) and want to work in an environment which cares about them. And shows it.

Flexible and agile working arrangements – Tech works. It is that simple. And 2020 has proven it. Tech provides for more work-life blend. Not being in the office doesn’t mean that you are not working – it doesn’t mean you are lazy. With regular communication and check-ins, this model can keep the team feeling like a unit without the need to be physically present all the time. It is also more efficient. As simple as that. Remember, the aim is not to erase the physical model, after all we recognise that there is benefit that comes from social interaction in order to avoid professional stagnation. But it is undeniable that tech and flexibility in the workplace creates a much better work-life blend.

Educate around career options – We know Millennials (and generations to come) will job hop. But this means that they may become clients in the future or that they may operate in roles that can support law firms in other ways. And this can only be beneficial, if advantage is taken of it. What do we mean? Well, Millennials are (generally) loyal to the people that they like and have treated them well. It may not be a case of staying in the same firm long term, but they will stay in touch with a firm that they had a positive experience at. Even Gen Xers know that people can come back and our paths cross later down the line – so being supportive and understanding that variety in a career is a necessity (and a long-term game), will be beneficial. Especially in the long run. And especially when paths cross again. You know the old adage – “Don’t burn your bridges”.

Address mental health issues head on – We have covered issues around mental health for a number of weeks now. And by now, we are all familiar with the alarmingly high incidence of depression, substance abuse and suicide amongst lawyers. Millennial lawyers want to know that their firms/companies are not sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to mental health problems and that they have practices and programmes in place to support and address these issues openly and supportively. And not just in 2020. But for years to come.

Whilst this quote made Marie Antoinette very unpopular amongst her French citizens, having your cake and eating is what has made Millennials a generation to be reckoned with. 

And if one were to ask this Gen Xer what would have kept her in a law firm, I would have been very happy with the simple but over-used – I want a good “work-life balance”…. Kind of like asking for a slice of bread when cake is being offered on a golden platter. But with Millennials driving the way that firms operate and how they treat their staff in the workplace, it very much sounds like cake will be on the menu for a long time to come.

And one might say –”Please, Sir I want some more”!

#worklifeblend

#thanksmillennials

#haveyourcakeandeatittoo

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Well-being Workshops

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About the Co-author, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism. 

Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.

Email: legalwhizz@gmail.com 

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