GPSolo Magazine - March 2005

Practice Management

The Young And The Restless

Today’s law firms must ask: How do you bridge the generational divide between associates and partners when their values and expectations are poles apart?

The first critical step is to recognize the differences that exist between 21st-century associates and earlier generations of lawyers. You can then take that understanding, apply it to your firm, and rethink your strategies for recruiting, retaining, and rewarding associates, today and tomorrow.

For the first time, law firms will soon be faced with having as many as four different generations of lawyers under one roof at the same time. Along with the diversity of these generations comes diversity in values, career expectations, motivators, and reward mechanisms. Among the special challenges this presents to law firms is understanding the potential problems that can arise as older lawyers strive to teach, mentor, and supervise the next generations.

Introducing the cast of characters. Law firms today are made up of lawyers who were admitted to the bar mostly between 1960 and 2004. To at least some extent, the characteristics of these lawyers are a reflection of the times in which they were born. The following descriptions are meant to provide insight into the values and motivators of the different generations and are not meant to be stereotypes.

Traditionalist lawyers, born before 1946, are near or over the age of 60. When they were young associates, law firms were run by a clear chain of command. Dedication and loyalty to the firm were words to live by. Secretaries took dictation, and a PC on every desktop had the sound of science fiction. These lawyers are most comfortable with a seniority-based management system and a command-and-control management style.

Baby boomer lawyers, born between 1946 and 1964, are roughly between the ages of 40 and 58. When they entered law firms, they were driven by the desire to do well and become successful. As their careers progressed, technology became a routine part of the practice of law, although it was still used more by paraprofessionals and support staff than by lawyers. Their generation saw advances by women and minorities in the profession, as well as challenges to command as a result of increased opportunities.

Generation X lawyers, born between 1965 and 1980, are roughly between the ages of 24 and 39. They are comfortable incorporating technology into their practices. As associates, they’ve entered firms looking for ways to self-command. These lawyers value freedom and versatility in their careers. Balance between career and family life is often included in their definition of success.

Generation Y (Millennial), born after 1980, are future lawyers, about 24 years old or younger. The first of their numbers are now serving as summer associates. Raised with a cell phone in one hand and a Palm Pilot in the other, they are techno-savvy. Generation Y lawyers are only two years away from full-scale entry into firms’ ranks. Women constitute a majority of their law school class. They will expect nothing less than a high level of diversity within the firm’s workforce—as measured by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and religious beliefs.

Taking updated approaches. Firms that fail to recognize these generational differences will stay stuck in old-school, passe management modes and face problems with recruitment, retention, and other issues. Firms that properly understand how the values, motivations, and expectations of the new generations differ from the old will have an opposite experience: They will realize they must take new, innovative approaches to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding associates. Here are a few pointers and recommendations pertaining to recruiting, retention, and rewards.


• ‑Be sure that your firm’s recruiting committee includes lawyers from different generations.

• For a generation raised on sound bites and instant access to information, your firm’s website can be your most important recruiting tool. Offer as much information as possible on the site. Include less about history and tradition, and focus more on firm innovations and what it is like to work there. Include specifics on associate programs, career paths, training, mentoring, rewards, work-life balance, and diversity within the firm.

• One-size recruiting messages rarely fit all and may prevent you from attracting the best and brightest. Be sure that your recruiting materials, electronic and written, include information that is relevant to a diverse candidate base.

• Candidates need to understand that the legal profession is not easy. Be up-front and honest about the lifestyle and work-life balance issues involved in practicing at your firm.


• Associates want timely perform-ance feedback. Provide project-specific feedback throughout the year, in addition to at least one formal performance evaluation per year. The better the evaluation and feedback process, the greater the likelihood of associate satisfaction and retention.

• New lawyers require training in a variety of areas, such as client relationship skills. They also need to learn some management techniques, such as how to give and receive feedback. Make these topics part of your professional development program.

• Professional development and advancement opportunities are critical issues for associates. Show that you are serious about helping associates design career paths that provide challenging work and increased visibility. Hire a professional development administrator to work with associates to develop their careers. Or, if your firm is not large enough to justify a full-time professional, appoint a partner to be in charge of professional development.

• Most associates say they would benefit from a more formal mentoring program, with an abundance of communication and clearly articulated expectations for the mentor-mentee relationship. If you do not already have one, establish a formal mentoring program.

• Regularly being passed over for significant assignments may be interpreted by associates as a sign that they are not on the right track for advancement. That, in turn, may lead them to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Expose all associates to meaningful and challenging assignments early on.

• At the same time, you should provide career opportunities that move in a number of directions, not just upward to partnership. Offer and support the option of moving laterally within the firm or even moving downward. Be willing to support the decisions of lawyers who choose to be more flexible in their careers.


• Associates are looking for flexible schedules and telecommuting options. Be aware, however, that firms have been criticized for advertising these options in recruiting materials, then failing to make them realistic choices for firm lawyers. If you plan to offer flexible, reduced-hour, or part-time schedules, be sure your firm understands the financial implications and whether such schedules are, in fact, viable. Develop a formal, written policy on all schedule options and communicate the policy throughout the firm.

• Mobile technologies increase telecommuting opportunities, allow lawyers to remain connected to the office and clients, and help lawyers better address work-life balance issues.

• Offering time-saving perks like laundry service, car maintenance service, and home meal replacements can prove valuable to busy lawyers.

• Many Generation X and Generation Y lawyers are looking to buy their first home or pay off law school debt. Firms that offer assistance with mortgage financing or setting up bank relationships are one step ahead in gaining lawyer loyalty.

Virginia Grant and Marci M. Krufka are consultants with Altman Weil, Inc. They can be reached at and

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- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 48 of Law Practice, July/August 2004 (30:5).

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