Looking at Firm Culture Through a Generational Lens

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Talent Development

client relationships

Culture is a hotter topic than ever, especially for business organizations. It should be an important concern—and what we see is not all good news. According to a Deloitte study across many industries, only 12% of employees think their organization is driving the desired culture. While all generations have influenced their workplaces to some degree, the Millennial (or Gen Y) generation, those born between 1979-1995, is the first in which associates are having a significant impact on culture shift from the time they enter the organization, if not before.

It’s not a secret that many lawyers and other workers are unhappy and are looking to leave current positions. Firms are beginning to pay attention. Different generations at work have different wants and expectations. A 2014-15 study by Aon Hewitt as well as other research shows the gap is widening between what employees actually want and what employers think they want.

Millennials say in the Aon Hewitt Inside the Employee Mindset study the qualities that differentiate employers for them are those who: offer a flexible work environment; provide stimulating work; are a good fit with their values; are a fun place to work; are innovative; and are a market leader or financially successful. They report they would most like to see change in their current workplace (in addition to pay and benefits) in areas of: good career development opportunities (39% or respondents); greater recognition of their performance (38%); open/transparent communication (34%); flexible environment (33%); fun (30%); and a strong leadership team (30%). They want a “human” workplace with enjoyable work as well as recognition and appreciation for the long hours they put in. Yet employers still seem to think it’s mostly about money.

How to Change

The emphasis should be on “human.” I suggest “fun” in a law firm is about lightening up. It isn’t about game rooms.

  • Incorporate more informality in interactions among the levels of attorneys and in the physical environment so people feel less pressured, even when the work is demanding.
  • Respect people’s lives in and out of work and provide more flexibility as long as the work gets done on time, without unnecessary facetime. And to the greatest extent possible, explain the big picture to which their jobs contribute.
  • Provide work that is perceived as meaningful to lawyers, explaining its significance if not obvious. Meaningful work ranks in the top 2 or 3 “wants” of all generations. It ranks higher than money for many people. Convey how mundane assignments are vital to the client’s results, and help the lawyers learn what they need to know to do more interesting and challenging things.
  • Encourage input on work design and process from all participants, generations and levels. Gen Y/Millennials want their ideas heard (as do the older generations) about how to best accomplish what they are asked to do. Collaboration on work design motivates, engages and produces.
  • Explain specifically what they need to learn and do to get ahead at the firm and in a law career.
  • Offer opportunities for all to learn and grow. If Millennials don’t see those opportunities on their path, they’re gone. Frequent new experiences, even if lateral moves, must be on their career map.

The emphasis should be on “human.” I suggest “fun” in a law firm is about lightening up. It isn’t about game rooms.

Culture of Engagement

While the surveys referred to in this article are not studies of the legal profession only and in particular, the findings apply. The degree and quality of employee engagement directly influences firm culture. Across all industries, engagement is currently the top concern of human resources executives and senior management. Lack of engagement should be addressed as a cultural issue. In order to achieve more engaged working relationships, higher productivity and tenure across the firm, here are some actions to consider and implement, particularly with the younger generations in mind. Several have been implemented recently in a small number of law firms.

  • Don’t assume all generations have the same expectations, wants and definition of success as you do. Ask, listen and observe.
  • Develop an employer/employee relationship model based on mutual expectations. Keep people engaged and talking openly about their career path at the firm or subsequently elsewhere.
  • Establish “Councils” of Gen Y employees to provide input on everything from workplace policies to hiring strategy to marketing campaigns.
  • Understand that “mobile” is more than technology; it’s a way of life. Make a cultural mind shift to accommodate and capitalize on mobile life.
  • Provide junior and senior colleagues networking opportunities to meet possible mentors and allow relationships to develop.
  • Encourage Gen Y/Millennials to use their networks, and don’t discourage them because sizable business from them isn’t there yet. Let them see a future for themselves as connectors and rainmakers.
  • Train people to dialogue effectively, as that is becoming more important again to coordinate, collaborate and build trusting relationships.
  • Support all the generations in impactful participation in the community and causes that align with their values as well as promote goodwill for the firm.
  • Measure and reward impact. Gen Y wants to be recognized as the Baby Boomers (born 1943-1962) always have, though possibly in different ways.

Encourage and Support Initiative and Ownership

The strategies and tactics above can help to spark some ideas for you. Here are a few more I have advocated and used in my consulting work.

Give young lawyers opportunities to co-chair committees with seasoned lawyers and listen to the younger ones’ ideas about new markets, recruiting and reciprocal mentoring. Encourage initiative. For example, as a consultant who started “next generation” programs in my client firms, I had junior partners, counsel and senior associates suggest new practice niches they wanted to pursue for their career. Then (mostly behind the scenes) I helped them develop business plans, present them to the firm’s executive committee, get budgets and execute marketing. Senior management was very impressed with what they produced and gave approval. Also I persuaded senior management to meet periodically with the “next generation” group for discussions that helped to convey thought processes, expectations and personal recognition.

Recognize that there is little choice for long-term success but to adopt a flexible, multi-generational mindset. The rewards of doing so will enrich the firm and the individuals who comprise it with more at-work satisfaction, better decision-making, essential mentoring and sponsoring and critical understanding of client, employee and other stakeholder perspectives and needs.