7 Multi-Generational Trends to Watch in the Legal Profession

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development

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Multi-generational issues are receiving more chatter in the legal profession today, but are we seeing breakthroughs in most law firms in professional development, talent management, productivity, improving relationships, collaboration and engagement?

Every year I update trends in various aspects of organizational effectiveness and business development in law firms and the legal profession from observations in my work and a wide range of sources I follow. Here are seven trends that deserve closer attention and action now:

  1. Generation X partners (those born approximately between 1963 and 1978) are concerned about succession planning and what their firms will be like in the next five years. Women partners, steady business generators and team leaders are beginning to be more vocal about this as they feel more urgency to fill looming leadership gaps with new blood and vision.
  2. Tensions between the generations persist in many firms, whether out in the open or under the surface. Some tensions are caused by perceived attitude and behavioral differences, and others are related to expectations, roles, power and leadership. Given the fairly flat but still traditionally hierarchical structure within most law firms, the younger generations are often eager to gain leadership of major client teams while the Baby Boomers (born approximately between 1943 and 1962) want to stay on in leadership roles or key client relationship positions. Firms need to plan for these role shifts while keeping desired talent.
  3. Soft skills training for associates to help their business development and client service success is being introduced more widely in firms. The hope is that they will be more engaged and have better rapport with partners and other colleagues as well and lead to culture change. (Author’s editorial comment: Language is important to generate influence. Calling these essential skills “soft” probably brings them less respect and attention I prefer to call them “human performance skills.”)justice
  4. Most firms are not evaluating people of various generations when it comes to leadership and compensation forthe potentially very valuable non-legal skills and talents they bring. These are the factors that are important to long-term client relationships — the competitive edge beyond the expectation of being served by smart, technically educated lawyers. Devaluing these attributes and skills has two potential downsides for law firms: The firms are not taking advantage of their differentiating assets; and many of the people who possess those qualities may choose to leave and go where their “full-package” is appreciated and utilized.
  5. There is still disagreement among the generations as to how to define good work ethic, the importance of facetime, work/life balance and other aspects of flexibility. Is facetime necessary for solo work since everyone is accessible through mobile devices? Can firms be more flexible with people’s schedules as long as the work is done well and on time? There is a need for co-creating expectations and rules that are viable for the workforce of 2016 and beyond.
  6. Improving collaboration and productivity of multi-generational teams is still mostly being neglected. Many firms are not making sufficient use of new approaches that younger lawyers tend to favor, or seeking out new approaches that young professionals bring. As long as clients don’t complain, firms often stick to the old ways that senior partners are comfortable with rather than learning new approaches and skills that can improve collaboration, productivity and client service.
  7. Community outreach has become more important as both a marketing and recruiting tool, especially when it’s tied to organizational culture and values. All — but especially younger employees — want their employer to demonstrate contributions toward helping their community and causes as well as the opportunity to participate in a hands-on manner. This also promotes visibility and goodwill. More client companies are mission-driven, advocating for social good and being exemplary community citizens; and, not surprisingly, they like to see that in their outside law firms. It also may present the opportunity to collaborate with client personnel and nurture relationships.

It’s a fact of life that there always may be some degree of inter-generational tension in a multi-generational workplace. However, those obstacles that are based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations can largely be eliminated by open conversation and empathetic listening and a desire to keep focused on common goals. Firms need a continual revisiting of what makes the best sense for them to engage and achieve the best work from and for all generations.

This article contains an excerpt from the 2016 edition of The Rainmaking Machine: Marketing Planning, Strategy and Management for Law Firms by Phyllis Weiss Haserot (Thomson Reuters, 2016).