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RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: GENERATION Y

They’ve been called high-maintenance and self-centered, lacking in many of the skills older generations take for granted. Yet they’re also noted for being creative, energetic, resourceful and collaborative. They are your new lawyers, and they cannot be ignored. In fact, if you manage things right, they’ll be an impetus for positive change throughout your firm. So how can you tap into their better traits?

Advice on managing Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, has become a full-on cottage industry. The number of books on the topic of working with Gen Y continues to grow, with titles like Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, The Trophy Kids Grow Up and Generation We, Generation Me giving a good clue about the themes. In addition to creating a whole corps of consultants and authors at the ready to help organizations handle this tricky group of young workers, the generation’s checkered reputation has been exacerbated through some significant media attention.

So how bad is their reputation? Let’s take a look at a few sample complaints and, to fairly balance things, the positive side of their reputations, too. Then let’s look at ideas for tapping into some of their traits as you chart your talent management course—because, ready or not, the Millennials are entering the profession in force.

Introducing the Slackoisie

In opening a panel discussion on managing Gen Y in the law firm, held at the 2009 InhouseCounsel SuperConference, the baby boomer moderator included two incidents he had experienced of Gen Y behavior. In the first, members of his firm were working late and hard to get a project done for a client by Saturday morning. At midnight on Friday, a Gen Y associate announced that he had worked long enough and left. In the second, a summer associate called to explain that he wanted to change the agreed-on time when he would arrive at the office because he and his girlfriend hadn’t yet been able to solidify their shower schedules.

In the same critical vein, the next panel member, another boomer, called Gen Y “slackoisie.” As the session continued, the discussion between the panel and audience members became contentious to the point that an ABA Journal post about the event was headed “Panelists Trade Barbs at Debate on Work Ethic of Millennial Generation.” And the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog carried a piece on the debate with the heading “The Millennials: Generation Enlightened or Generation Lazy?”

Lest one think this generational conflict was an aberration created by two rabble-rousing boomers, rest assured the enlightened-or-lazy question is being raised in many law firms, as well as elsewhere across the business spectrum.

Among the complaints about Gen Y behaviors are self-centeredness, an inability to manage time, a need for frequent praise, a lack of respect for elders, a sense of entitlement, little understanding of client service and poor face-to-face communication skills.

Here’s how U.S. District Court Judge John L. Kane weighed in during a speech at the 50th-year reunion of the University of Denver Sturm School of Law:

[T]his newest generation seems to possess an entirely different set of values. They are more concerned with lifestyle than clients or causes. We thought hard work and perseverance would eventually lead to a partnership in a firm and it was an unusual event when a partner left one firm and joined another. That kind of dogged loyalty is a thing of the past. The Millennials are at home with an ersatz, ever-present and inescapable online “community” of Facebook followers and fellow tweeters instead of real, non-technology driven relationships.

And this is more than a matter of perception and anecdote; hard data is emerging on the subject, too. For example, using a large nationally representative sample of young people surveyed since 1976, an article in the Journal of Management (as reported in the May 10, 2010, issue of Science Daily) compared the work values of Gen Y to those of Gen X and the baby boomers at the same age. Here’s the picture that emerged:

Gen Y was much more likely than previous generations to say they wanted a job with an easy pace and lots of vacation time, and less likely to want to work overtime. They also saw work as less central to their lives and were more likely to agree that “work is just making a living.” At the same time, they placed more importance on salary and status. In other words, the younger generation wants to have their cake (big salaries) and eat it too (work-life balance).

Given that litany of challenges, what’s the upside for employers in managing this new kind of talent pool? Gen Y is known to be creative, energetic, resourceful, collaborative and proficient with technology, to name several traits on the plus side of their balance sheet. The fact is, whether you accept the negative rap, they bring much to the table. And since by some estimates there are as many of them as the boomers, they represent a significant portion of the hiring pool whose needs and wants law firms simply cannot ignore.

Adapting to Train and Retain Millennial Talent

So what can firms do to recruit, train and retain this unique new generation that’s entering the workplace in such strong force? Here’s some insight from some who are already addressing the question in their firms.

Lori Berman, director of professional development at Howrey, known for its innovative training programs in several areas, says the firm decided to “do something a little different” by working with a writer and producer to create a video series that she describes as both “entertaining and enjoyable.” An important purpose of these videos was to open discussion between the various levels of the firms—from new associates on up to senior partners—about issues such as generational differences, teamwork, deadlines, leadership and balancing career needs with clients’ needs. Accompanying discussions were held in each of the offices and supplemented with follow-up activities, such as articles, tools and other resources. This type of open engagement and interactive inquiry can be critical to surfacing the issues involved in the generational divide so they can addressed within firms.

Laura Saklad, chief lawyer development officer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, has observed multiple differences in Millennials, particularly their higher need for clarity and greater willingness to say no to additional work. But she has also observed that once a Gen Y lawyer has taken on a project, it does get done and in her estimation, they are responsible associates. So one step her firm has taken, recognizing that this generation has less tolerance for “feeling their way through” learning, has focused on providing more clarity in supervision as well as in helping associates understand client needs by giving the new lawyers more information on the client’s context.

But isn’t providing the big picture, the context, something that associates have been requesting for years? Yes. Many of the needs and wants of Gen Y lawyers are not foreign to associates of the past. Earlier generations have also wanted feedback, encouragement, context, control of their workload, time for non-work activities—but now Gen Y’s requests are louder, and perhaps more demanding. In fact, meeting these needs may be a necessary component of fostering their success, unlike the earlier generations who were quieter and perhaps more self-sufficient.

At the same time, while the needs of associates may be changing, so is the profession, a factor that can’t be overlooked when considering Gen Y talent management. Terri Mottershead, former director of professional development at DLA Piper (U.S.), echoes many pundits when she says, “The legal industry is undergoing a paradigm shift.” She thinks the skills the Millennials bring—including orientation toward and efficiency with technology, a healthier perspective on work-life balance, a stronger focus on collaboration and a readiness to work in teams—may have a positive impact on propelling some shifts and changes in the way law is practiced.

And these skills may improve client service, too. Some examples:

• Technology efficiency can save time and reduce billable hours.

• The ability to work collaboratively inside the firm can expand to the way the lawyer works with clients.

• Knowing when to take a break can improve creativity and quality of thinking.

• Lengthy face-to-face meetings both inside the firm and with clients may be unnecessary in many instances.

Mottershead is also quick to add that firms that want to succeed in the 21 st century should be modifying more than just associate training. The firm that is denying that the profession is in a time of rapid change and evolution, and is waiting for a return to the old days of the past century, is not poised for success. Perhaps the Millennials are exactly the impetus that many firms need to move forward on making the kind of changes needed.

Key Practices for Developing Gen Y Associates

Here are some of the top steps your firm can take to tap into the talents and insights of the new breed of associates now entering firms of every size and type.

Engage. Start with an up-front agreement about the parameters of the employment commitment. Too often unspoken assumptions are made about the new associate’s rights and responsibilities. Talk in detail with the recruit or new hire about firm values, client service, professionalism and firm culture. Be specific. And talk with your young lawyers, not just to them.

Inquire. Discuss immediate career goals. Don’t discuss career goals that will happen years down the line. The members of Gen Y have grown up in a time of massive change. They know that the unexpected is to be expected, and to plan for years out can sometimes be a waste of effort and perhaps even an exercise in fantasy. They tend to be more transactional than longitudinal. What are their goals? Find out.

Clarify. Be very explicit about what is expected, both of an associate at his or her level of practice and of an associate in his or her area of the law. Many firms are using competency models to inform associates about what is expected in their development. Some firms’ models are created using what Dr. Larry Richard, head of Leadership & Organization Development at Hildebrandt, calls the “armchair” method: A group of partners meet and talk about what they think should be included, often overemphasizing technical skills and overlooking behavioral competencies that spring from attitudes, assumptions and philosophies. Richards believes it is the latter that predicts excellence. To foster success, behaviors such as listening and other nontechnical skills should be included in a competency model.

Listen with an open mind. Last, but far from least, don’t assume that the way you learned about your firm and how to practice law is the way the new associate best learns. We tend to gauge how others want to be treated by the behavior we want or have experienced, which is often a mistake whether we are interacting with a different generation or with our spouse.

Remember that different is not necessarily wrong. Decide what is needed and be open to the notion that there may be more than one way to achieve a goal for the firm or for a client. Discuss those goals with your new associates—you may actually hear some excellent ideas.

About the Author

Stephanie West Allen is a writer, speaker and mediator who presents seminars on harnessing brainpower for improved business development and conflict resolution. Formerly a lawyer, she blogs at idealawg.net and brainsonpurpose.com

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