Keeping Associates Positively Challenged & Professional

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Efficiency, Law Firms, Multigeneration, Talent Development


Perceptions of what is professional and appropriate behavior have been changing somewhat in many workplaces; and definitions of what is or is not professional are more determined by organizational culture than by the size of an organization or its region.

Employers, senior professionals and managers need to articulate clearly — from Day One of employment or before — what are the firm’s core values, its expectations and what is negotiable. This should be an important part of orientation, and it should be reiterated frequently during the first six months after a person of any level joins the firm. This will show the firm is serious about its culture and professionalism. In addition, mentoring and employer/employee feedback must support the view of a workplace that’s based on professionalism and might need to be rethought or reformed for accountability purposes.

Firms need to keep their associates (and all personnel) “positively challenged.” Achieving that will make for a great culture and better retention rates since meaningful and challenging work will lead to less turnover of desired professionals. It will also provide some of the top-ranked factors Millennials and all generations say they want in their work situation: growth, learning and a sense they are contributing a high value.

Here are some of the ways firms can keep Millennials and associates positively challenged:

  •        Give them a voice, an opportunity to be heard in matters, policies and practices that affect them;
  •        When they are given necessary mundane work, balance it with an opportunity to work on innovative projects;
  •        Give them opportunities to propose useful projects to solve problems and to initiate;
  •        Give them opportunities to serve in junior management roles or even as co-chair with a partner of a practice group or firm governance committee; (This suggestion is not appropriate for first- or second-year associates); and
  •        Let them serve in some way as ambassadors of change.

Management Mindset & Best Practices

Firms need to reframe how they think about motivating personnel. At this moment in time, the focus is primarily on Millennials. (In my opinion, there might be too much focus on Millennials.) All generations need attention, and an organization cannot function at its best without motivation and buy-in from all. While consensus on core values, goals and expectations is crucial, diversity of ideas and ways of thinking has great advantages, as many studies have revealed.

Older generations have always been skeptical of the young with their new ideas, and most people are not comfortable with change. Given that change seems to be accelerating faster all the time, Millennials are more accustomed to change than other generations as they have never experienced a slower pace and have been deluged with easily accessible (though not always correct) information all their lives, unlike older generations. What they have experienced in their so-far short lives — in addition to the parenting theories they were raised with, the technology tools now available, and the education practices they’ve been taught — have caused gaps in the various generations’ attitudes and behaviors. So, yes, there are differences that everyone has to adjust to, including those who have the power of decision-making and those comfortable with the way things have been. Complacency is not a good thing and is the easiest way to lose ground to competitors who recognize the need for change.

So, in order to thrive in both the competitive legal and business world and to achieve the best relationships and collaboration with Millennials, will require a reframing that adapts and figures out how to integrate the following:

  •        Continually challenging assumptions as individuals and as a firm;
  •        Instituting frequent, timely processes for giving and receiving feedback, both in-the-moment or informally as well as formally;
  •        Taking a “total benefits” approach, which customizes benefits provided for needs at different levels and different stages of one’s lifecycle rather than a “one size fits all” system;
  •        Rewarding attorneys and managers for mentoring, coaching and training, as well as for client and knowledge transfer; and
  •        Requiring accountability from partners and managers, with disincentives for not adequately fulfilling the management aspect of those roles.

The management mindset has to change — and it will as Millennials gain strength in numbers and responsibilities, and Gen X leaders see the value of change to bond clients closer to them.

We are likely to see: a reduction in hierarchy; more collaborative styles of working and managing; more coaching; inviting or at least agreeing to give greater voice in influencing decision-making; and more willingness to listen to “experts,” rather than insisting that lawyers have all the answers to all management and operational problems.

Firms will need to monitor the state of their culture and how it is perceived not only internally, but also externally, especially by clients and recruits. Firms will have to rethink how people are being compensated, track how rewards are working to align with business and people goals, and make the business case to resistant partners by emphasizing what’s in it for them.

A portion of this blog post was excerpted from The Rainmaking Machine (Thomson Reuters, 2017 edition) by Phyllis Weiss Haserot