The Millennial Shift: A Change in Today’s Law Firm Paradigm

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Education, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Millennials, Practice Innovations, Talent Development

millennial shift

Practice Innovations” is a quarterly, online newsletter that examines best practices and innovations in law firm information and knowledge management. In this article, the author examines the Millennial Shift and how Millennial attorneys will impact your law firm.

The Millennial Shift presents a great competitive opportunity for today’s law firm. In the past, firms competed for talent primarily through dollars. With the Millennial Attorney’s emphasis on different values, law firms can compete for talent in many different ways. Not coincidentally, much of what attracts the Millennial Attorney to your law firm will also benefit your current clients and attract new ones.

The Millennial Shift — that’s what Prof. William Henderson at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law called it in the November 4, 2015 article in The New York Times, “Graying Firms Wrestle with Making Room for Young Lawyers.”[1] But what exactly was he talking about? The Times thought he was referring to just handing off organizational control. But in reality, what he called the Millennial Shift was much, much more: it was a paradigm shift about how law firms must compete for talent today and what it means for your firm and its clients in the future as Millennials move into leadership roles.

In Life, the Only Constant is Change[2]

The next generation of law firm leadership will be Millennials.[3] The Millennial Shift is inevitable, and it’s already happening. The Millennial Shift might worry some of you who are currently in leadership roles or are shareholders. You might believe Millennial Attorneys are lazy and have little to no work ethic. You might believe Millennial Attorneys are too impatient and unwilling to pay their dues. You might believe Millennial Attorneys need to be coddled and receive constant positive reinforcement. You might believe Millennial Attorneys are arrogant and too willing to leave one firm for another. Let me tell you now: you’re right, but you need a few little tweaks.

“We are Not so Different, You and I…”

The Millennial Attorney shares the same values as their more experienced counterparts, but with slight modifications. They, too, value hard work, but not when the work is needlessly hard. They, too, value “paying their dues” and understand its importance, but not at the expense of rewarding talent and innovation. They, too, value self-sufficiency and independence, but not when they know they can improve if they had your feedback. They, too, value their careers and their current firms, but not if their firms fail to show the same commitment to them and their careers.

These slight modifications are what really constitute the Millennial Shift. But these little changes impact several aspects of today’s law firm and will shape the law firm of the future. If your law firm cannot adapt to these changes, the Millennial Shift will be its extinction. It’s as simple as that.

Working Hard without Working Hard

The Millennial Attorney works hard and enjoys working hard when the work should be hard. They despise working hard when the work shouldn’t be hard. Working hard doesn’t bother the Millennial attorney; inefficient or less-than-optimal work processes do.

The Millennial Attorney started life in an era with one clunky, family desktop computer and 16-bit “Oregon Trail” on 5¼-inch floppy disks. Time and time again, dysentery wiped out their wagon train, or the Snake River flipped their wagon when they attempted to ford that river. So, the Millennial Attorney learned to try something new to accomplish their trail-riding goals. In other words, Millennial Attorneys became process-oriented and iterative. As they grew up, their 16-bit Oregon Trail turned into complex, global, multiplayer, team-based competitive gaming with fully interactive environments and endless opportunities for exploration. Then they went to law school. Now this same person brought their technology-friendly, process-oriented, iterative approach to achieving identified goals to your law firm.

Millennial Attorneys will work hard to accomplish their and your firm’s goals — but if they believe there’s a better, less strenuous method of achieving the same result, they’ll want to explore that method. They may want to tweak a process that has been in place for years, so they don’t have to work as hard — whether it be with better use of technology or better coordination among team members. But what might be seen as “lazy” is better referred to as a desire for increased efficiency. They’ll know when a process can be improved when you tip them off with the phrase, “we’ve always done it this way, it’s just the way we do it.”

Millennial Attorneys is wired for efficiency because they don’t want to put in long hours just for the sake of putting in long hours. If a 220-hour month could have been just as productive in 195 hours with better use of technology, the Millennial Attorney will feel cheated of 25 hours of time. If law firms allow this feeling to continue, Millennial Attorneys will move on to a law firm that values their time — and demonstrates that by committing to process improvement and efficiency. As the Millennial Attorney moves into leadership positions, you can expect him or her to emphasize process improvement and technology to drive efficiency. You can expect the Millennial Attorney to market this emphasis, and clients to be attracted to these features (as the Millennial Attorney will also be moving into in-house counsel leadership positions).

Tl;dr:[4] The Millennial Attorney is attracted to law firms that respect their time and emphasize efficiency, particularly with the firm’s use of technology and process improvement. At a minimum, a law firm should be deliberate in how it approaches its process design and develop a method of seeking feedback from attorneys and employees on these issues.

“Paying Your Dues” without Going into Debt

Law firms are stodgy, old school, hierarchical places. Every now and then, an oddball, hipster firm bucks this definition, but for the most part this description holds true. These qualities create problems with the Millennial Attorney raised in the age of Napster, Wikipedia, and Julian Assange. For the Millennial Attorney, information has been democratized and “open source” is the status quo. (I’m typing this article using Google Docs, because it’s free, cloud-based, and integrates with most any other word processor. I’m even using Wikipedia as a quick reference tool.)[5] In other words, the Millennial Attorney puts a high value on openness and views “smoke-filled backroom” practices as shady at best and nefarious at worst — and usually it’s the latter view.

But still, most of today’s law firms jealously hoard information about organizational decision-making, internal policies, and the details of the partnership structure. Some firms operate with little to no communication down the chain from the management/executive committee to senior partners to partners to junior partners to senior associates to junior associates. Many times, it’s these law firms that also fail to reduce their policies to writing and maintain them in an easy-to-access archive. Failing to do so prevents the Millennial Attorney from gaining a complete understanding of how the law firm works and how they can be successful there. Rarely does today’s law firm leadership solicit and value input from attorneys outside the internal (read: “smoke-filled backroom”) power structure.

Today’s law firms that fail to communicate openly and completely with their attorneys at all levels risk being viewed as making decisions arbitrarily and likely for selfish or “us-before-any-of-you” purposes. Firms with these communication practices foster an environment of distrust and resentment. Keeping these processes shrouded from view of Millennial Attorneys will inevitably frustrate and discourage them. They won’t know what success looks like at such a firm, and the potential rewards of partnership will be too ill-defined for them to justify investing the early part of their careers with such a firm.

Millennial Attorneys operate in a world where information flows freely, and the hallmark of ideal organizational leadership includes openness and a proactive approach to communication. Their definition of communication includes listening: they’re a stakeholder in your firm’s future and as such they have a right to participate in long-term strategy and expect their concerns to be addressed. If the Millennial Attorney knows he or she will be asked to pony up cash to buy equity shares in a practice, they want the chance to shape that law firm before doing so. When the entry fees can be six-figures, that is not an unreasonable ask. As Millennial Attorneys moves into leadership roles, you can expect they’ll implement more collaborative and data-driven decision-making processes. This openness might be frightening at first, but it is intended to lead to better decisions with more buy-in and commitment from all parties. And it will.

Tl;dr: Millennial Attorneys know they’re stakeholders in today’s law firm and in the firm’s future; they expect to be treated as such. A firm that fails to treat them as stakeholders, risks losing their Millennial Attorneys to firms that do. A firm that loses its Millennial Attorneys to its competitors creates future financial challenges for itself: when it comes time to buy out the equity shares from older partners, the law firm will not have a broad enough base of younger attorneys to provide the capital.

Commitment is Mutual, Just Like a Contract — If One Party Breaches, the Other is Excused

The most common — and most misplaced — complaint about Millennial Attorneys is that they “job-hop.” But in reality, this isn’t unique to one generation, and, in context, isn’t unjustified. For the smart law firm, it’s an opportunity to gain an edge on your competitors. Because if the Millennial Attorney is hopping away from one job, he or she could be landing one with you.

The Millennial Attorney leaves a job for the same reason anyone else leaves a job. Poor management. Poor relationships. Poor growth opportunities. Poor financial outlook. So, what do they stick around for? Well, just like anyone else, they stay for good management, good relationships, good growth opportunities, and good financial outlook. In short, they stick around for law firms that commit to helping the Millennial Attorney create a fulfilling career. I’ll tell you right now, the Millennial Attorney doesn’t care one bit about ping pong, bean bag chairs, or an infinite choice of K-cup flavors. If you cared enough to ask the Millennial Attorney what they wanted from your firm, they’d tell you that.

At the core, the Millennial Attorney expects one thing: career fulfillment. Your law firm can contribute to career fulfillment in four primary ways:

  •       Management — Show Millennial Attorneys how to commit to long-term practice improvement. Help them develop legal project management skills. They know how to draft discovery on time — what they don’t know is how all the pieces of a case or a deal fit together. If they understand the broader context and strategy, they’ll be better equipped to contribute to your success.
  •       Relationships — Encourage Millennial Attorneys to build relationships with colleagues, both in the firm and outside the firm. Every day is an opportunity to show them that the law firm is a wonderful place to work, and they’re lucky to be a part of the team; don’t squander it. Use the law firm to foster friendships and a sense of community.
  •       Growth opportunities — Teach Millennial Attorneys how to start, build, and manage client relationships. Let them explore new substantive areas of law to expand your practice and develop a complementary niche.[6] Law firms tend to have a single vertical path for career progress, so it’s important to them that they have opportunities to explore their development horizontally. They can contribute in more ways than just the billable hour or in completing assignments.
  •       Financial outlook — Millennial Attorneys are ambitious and appreciate ambition in their law firm. Seek out and take advantage of new opportunities for firm growth but do so deliberately, not reactively. Have a growth plan in place and be opportunistic. Millennial Attorneys want to be impactful and contribute to change. They want to know where the firm is going and how they can contribute. If you want Millennial Attorneys to stick around, give them something to stick around for.

These four areas focus almost entirely on the Millennial Attorney’s professional development. The more comprehensive and deliberate your law firm’s professional development activities are, the more committed the Millennial Attorney will be to your firm.

You’ll note that salary is not one of the four areas. The reason is simple: compensation just isn’t hard to figure out. Pay people what they’re worth, and don’t be disrespectful. Compensation is, fundamentally, an expression — a type of communication from your law firm to a potential employee. If you wouldn’t say it with words, then don’t say it with your pocketbook. The Millennial Attorney will happily reject an offer from your law firm if the offer is a clear low-ball tactic; they won’t re-engage. And they will gladly leave a law firm that violates their value system to join a firm that embraces it — and they’ll do it for less money. Insofar as compensation is a type of communication after an offer is accepted, law firms should communicate clearly. Be transparent in how salary and bonus decisions are made. Transparency will build trust and encourage better performance from the Millennial Attorney.

You can expect a law firm led by the Millennial Attorney to reflect these four qualities and emphasize true partnerships in growth. Their leadership will focus on gaining a competitive edge by supporting the firm’s attorneys’ and employees’ drive for career fulfillment.

Tl;dr: Millennial Attorneys expect a growth-oriented partnership between themselves and their law firm. They want to know their law firm has their best interests in mind and is willing to invest in them and their goals just as much as they want to invest in their law firm and the firm’s goals.

The Millennial Shift will be the Catalyst for Change

The Millennial Shift presents a great competitive opportunity for today’s law firm. In the past, firms competed for talent primarily through dollars. With the Millennial Attorney’s emphasis on different values, law firms can compete for talent in many different ways. Not coincidentally, much of what attracts the Millennial Attorney to your law firm will also benefit your current clients and attract new ones. Not only does the Millennial Attorney value technology and process improvement to increase efficiency, clients do. Not only does the Millennial Attorney value proactive communication and collaborative strategic decision-making, clients do. Not only does the Millennial Attorney value better project management, a welcoming work environment, intellectual curiosity, and ambition, clients do too.

Today’s law firm that recognizes the Millennial Attorney’s values and works to incorporate them into their organization will be well positioned to compete for talent and clients. Maybe a few of those talented Millennial Attorneys will hop on over and bring some like-minded clients with them. But the law firm that doesn’t… well… .


[1] “Graying Firms Wrestle with Making Room for Young Lawyers”; The New York Times, Nov. 4, 2015; available at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/business/dealbook/graying-firms-wrestle-with-making-room-for-younger-lawyers.html.
[2] And probate lawyers. And tax lawyers.
[3] GenXers will also move into leadership, but the organizations they control will be dominated and influenced by Millennial Attorneys.
[4] “Tl;dr” is an acronym that means, “Too long, didn’t read” and is used to provide a reader with a succinct summary of the main points of an article or blog. I do not recommend using it in any court filings or trust documents.
[5] Of course, I’d never cite to Wikipedia in a court filing, except to demonstrate that opposing counsel is so mistaken on a point that even Wikipedia can get it right. As Michael Scott would say: “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So, you know you are getting the best possible information.”
[6] Millennial Attorneys are, generally, more willing to take risks and experiment. This feature is in large part driven by curiosity. The more “niche” and routine a Millennial Attorney’s practice becomes, the higher the risk of dissatisfaction. Millennial Attorneys are intellectually curious creatures; if you want to keep them, let them roam.