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Vol. 33, No. 4

Generation Communication: How to attract new leaders, keep everyone connected, and NOT fall into the gap

When noted trial lawyer, motivational author, and baby boomer J. Michael Papantonio first wrote about Atticus Finch, attorneys took note. The To Kill a Mockingbird character is often cited as an example of an admirably diligent lawyer, but Papantonio saw something else, too—a lawyer who is almost too passionate about the profession, too hardworking, and who doesn’t reserve enough energy for himself and his family. The issue of burnout and the art of balancing law and life took the stage at CLE programs and association meetings as hard-driving traditionalists and baby boomers sought the ability to enjoy a personally rewarding life and a lucrative, meaningful career.

Having watched their parents sacrifice their families for their firms, balance also became the mantra of rising Generation X. Though moving into position to take over for the rapidly retiring baby boomers, Gen Xers developed a reputation as slackers and whiners for resisting some of the professional demands older generations took for granted.

For nearly a decade, the entire profession’s struggle to find a balance between the almighty billable hour and lawyers’ desire to be active participants in their families and in their communities has had an impact on bar associations trying to recruit active new members to carry out their mission. Then, into the boardroom walks Gen Y, reportedly the polar opposite of the overstressed, overworked attorney.

Also dubbed the Millennials, this generation is generally portrayed as having found the balance before ever finding the career. They seek out law firms that offer the option to work remotely, alternative work schedules, and guaranteed quality of life. They believe that work is something you do between weekends. They aren’t into working up the career ladder, and see it as an impediment to actuating change. So goes the stereotype, anyway.

Together with Gen X, they are the future. Left in their hands, what does the future hold for the association? And will association leadership be on their radar? The answer is maybe, but as every institution is scrutinized for its merit, in order for the association to survive, change is imminent.

Where’d everybody go?

A decade ago, Brian Melendez, a past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, saw the trend beginning. About as close to Gen X as a baby boomer can get, he, after surveying his firm, noted that fewer and fewer new lawyers, the Gen Xers, were joining the bar association, even fewer were participating to the extent of their senior colleagues, and even fewer than that were interacting outside of their own sections and committees.

A situation not unique to Hennepin County, this trend creates a problem for associations. In 20 more years, nearly all of the 80 million baby boomers will have exited the workforce, leaving the 46 million Gen Xers to fill the void. Associations will rely heavily on this “doom generation,” so-called because they fear facing the problems the preceding generation will have left them.

One rung down is a much larger generation: Will the 76 million Millennials step up to the plate? Many believe it may prove difficult to bring them into the fold.

“We are too late,” believes Stephen Carey, president of Association Marketing & Management Resources, based in Bethesda, Md. “Association management has, over the past 20 years, heard the cry to develop good succession planning, to take care of your young, to have the responsibility to train your replacement and have a plan to ensure that happens.

“They kept putting it off, and putting it off. ‘We will get to it when the time comes,’ they said. And now it’s time, and the average association has not prepped for a change in generational leadership.”

Carey believes that procrastination will cost the association dearly. “Current and incoming association leaders will have to work a little longer and harder to make up for the shortage in volunteers,” he says, “which also trickles down to their own staff, who helps carry the workload.”

One big problem, Carey said, is that as previous generations reached leadership positions, many of those leaders forgot to reach a hand down to those just getting started—or chose not to do so. “They didn’t want to share the power and glory. They wanted to be a club and manage their own little world,” Carey says. “There is now an executive director with a huge burden, and such a leadership void and gap it will be insurmountable.

“Staff cannot do everything. It took the baby boomers 20 years to learn the ins and outs of running [an] association. It will take new ones that long, too.”

Time and change: the new currencies

Today, the “new ones” generally don’t have such long-term commitment to their employers, much less an association. While baby boomers as a whole embraced sharing experiences with like-minded people and were quick to join voluntary organizations and eager for authority, many say the new generations question the value of joining and leading associations.

To these generations, time is currency. And having witnessed their fathers’ (and some mothers’) participation before them, many may view the association as a time-expensive black hole. For baby boomers, association leadership has been practically a second job, with many, says Carey, “spending 25 percent of their time running a club. New guys are not going to do that.”

Patrick Boice, a third-year law student active in the ABA’s Law Student Division, says that many his age bridle at the circuitous decision-making path typical at many bars. “I think the main complaint is that it is so hard to change anything. There is a great deal of frustration at the amount of bureaucracy that is in place,” he says. “A proposal takes so long to go up the ladder and then back down that any chance of a timely action is lost.”

Those working with the current crop of law students notice this impatience, too. “This generation of law students will not wait to make change; they see something amiss, and they take action,” says Rebecca Flanagan, assistant professor and director of the Academic Success Program at Vermont Law School. They see the association pipeline to the top as being clogged, she believes, and don’t like the idea of waiting all those years to be in charge. When they want change, they want it now.

“The younger generation seems to not seek leadership positions just to have them,” Boice adds. “They get involved because they want to make a difference, they want to make a change, or they want to see things done.”

Flanagan confirms that any reluctance to take leadership positions isn’t because members of the younger generations don’t care or don’t want the responsibility. “Gen X and Y definitely want to be in charge,” she says. “That is why many of them pursued law school. The methods they choose to create change may be different.”

As for the widely held belief that younger generations are “just in it for themselves,” Boice says that’s painting too broadly—members of Gen X and Y want to serve others and themselves. “My generation certainly is as interested in public service as any other,” he notes, “but we are probably more focused than ever before on looking to see what the bar can do for us. How can the bar help us build a practice, balance our work and home lives, and give back to others?”

The role of technology

You can’t talk about new methods for creating change without talking about technology. This is where the “self-serving, instant gratification-seeking” Generations X and Y—to put the stereotypes in the harshest terms—may teach the senior brass a thing or two.

Associations primarily concerned with the dissemination and sharing of information can expect that as soon as these technologically savvy groups achieve leadership positions, they will start looking for ways to deliver that information more efficiently. While portable communications technologies such as laptops and BlackBerries have been instrumental in allowing lawyers to attend daytime association functions yet still be available to the office, even newer technologies are allowing them more opportunities to participate than ever before.

The information technology staff at the State Bar of Wisconsin is exploring a number of teleconference options, including a “remote” meeting of their Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section, where members simultaneously gather at facilities in Madison and Milwaukee. This “rich” meeting environment includes high-definition video, interactive collaborative tools, and other features designed to simulate a face-to-face meeting.

Another fan of such solutions—within reason—is Daniel Van Horn, a Gen Xer who will, if elected, be the youngest president the Tennessee Bar Association has ever had. “Webinars, phone conferences, and e-mail can accomplish many—but not all—of the same things an in-person meeting can,” he says. This type of technology can create flexibility in meeting times and modes, and may make it easier for attorneys to participate at the statewide level, where long meetings and days out of the office are a hindrance to active membership, Van Horn adds.

While the younger generations value socializing and have developed large networking circles—especially if you factor in online networking—meetings for meetings’ sake are broadly viewed as a waste of time and are vehemently frowned upon. “We are super busy people. We don’t need face time,” Van Horn says. “We’re very comfortable networking and meeting through e-mail and social networking sites.”

Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center and a former librarian, believes in the undying longevity of print media and finds there are still many members who rely on it for much of their information. Right now, she says, we’re at a transition point where pretty much every medium is in the mix of options. “We have members who know nothing more than the physical print world,” she says, “and then there are those who get their information from the net and other means of communications.”

These “other means” include RSS feeds, BlackBerry, texting, “Twittering,” blogging, e-mail, following links to e-zines, and on and on. To save money and simplify, Reach says, “we need to pick one.” But it will take another couple of years to figure out which one or few delivery options are most viable, she believes, “and by that time, technology will likely have changed.”

Gen Xer Jeffrey Neu, a leader in the young lawyers divisions of the Monmouth County Bar Association, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the ABA, typifies his generation’s distaste for paper shuffling. “The actual mailed letter for me is a bit of an annoyance,” he says. “I would rather [receive] a pdf in an e-mail. Things like Twitter, text messages, and social networking are more of a standard than the exception in younger generations, [so] the use of these tools for communications are generally preferred.”

Beware the stereotypes

So, the younger generations are technologically adept, and the older ones are befuddled and out of date. Right? Well, no.

During her term as president of the New York State Bar Association, Katherine Grant Madigan—a baby boomer—regularly made postings in a blog on the bar’s Web site for feedback and to supplement her printed president’s page. “It enabled us to reach members quickly on complex topics,” she explains. The blog received about 350 monthly hits and a handful of responses to her postings—the majority by other baby boomers.

Many boomers—and up—are staying afloat in an increasingly complex technological workplace. Says Barbara Straczynski, director of new media and promotion for the New Jersey state bar, members of older generations are becoming ever more competent multitaskers, even during board meetings. “We have a few attorneys in their 40s who have their laptops out, and they are reading e-mail, looking at Web sites, reading and writing,” she observes. “I even noticed an attorney who might be in his 50s doing the same.”

Indeed, one bar executive reports that one of her bar’s biggest technophiles is a lawyer well into his 80s.

And what about some of the unflattering stereotypes often applied to the younger generations? If anything, many members of Generations X and Y feel they have more responsibility than previous generations and take offense at being dubbed “slouchers” and “lazy.” Van Horn believes that if younger lawyers are less inclined to step up, it’s largely due to the changing family dynamic. “By and large, parenting responsibilities are more evenly divided now,” he says. “You add all the soccer games, piano practices, etc., to the increased pressure to bill in order to justify higher salaries, and there just is less time left over.”

And guess what often ends up being sacrificed because of those time pressures? Boice, married with three children, foresees putting a commitment to his bar association on hold unless he works for a firm that allows for participation. “I envision my commitment to my family taking up most, if not all of, any free time I have away from work,” he says. “I don’t see work or family time bending much for a few years, so I suppose I’m planning on putting my involvement in an association off until I have my career well established and my family is a bit older.”

What’s next?

What can bars do, other than waiting for Boice and his peers to feel less preoccupied with work and family—or despairing about the graying of the membership and leadership?

Bars that have programs in which current bar leaders reach out to younger, potential leaders are on the right track, Carey says. The vast majority of Millennials are said to be more loyal to their mentors than they are to their employers, he notes.

“We see coming down the pike leaner organizations, hindered by fewer impediments,” he adds. “They will be more nimble and can make faster decisions without having to take it to this board and then this committee and back to the board.

“Their terms of office will stabilize to require less time for service so they can come in, provide their services, and get back to their job and families. Anything that has to do with the time the volunteer has to spend with the committee will become more efficient.

“The three-year committees and frequent conference calls will be a thing of the past as the element of time becomes critical.”

Those who accept that changes must be made will be rewarded not with an army of slackers, Carey says, but “with articulate, astute, well-trained leaders who understand what association management is about” and will get the job done, and do it faster and smarter.

Adds Carey, “They have a bag of tricks that we never even thought of.”

Generations: A who’s who

Spend any time researching when different generations are said to begin and end—as Bar Leader did, for this article—and you’ll soon realize the definitions are more fluid than you might expect. Squabbles over who fits where are surprisingly frequent, as when some media outlets heralded Barack Obama as the first “post-boomer” president and others said that since he was born in 1961, he is squarely within the baby boom generation. For the purposes of this article, here’s how we defined the generations:

Baby boom—born between 1946 and 1964

Generation X—born between 1965 and 1975

Generation Y/Millennials—born between 1976 and the present

And if you were born before 1946 and feel left out, don’t worry—your age group has a name, too. Those born between 1925 and 1945 are often called “the silent generation” or “traditionals.”

What about those flip-flops?

Remember when members of the women’s lacrosse team from Northwestern University were photographed wearing flip-flops to a meeting with President Bush? Were you shocked, back in 2005, or did you say, “Looks like a typical board meeting at our bar”?

Is there truth to the caricature of the Gen Xer or Millennial who is always in jeans, hooded sweatshirt, flip-flops, or other attire that would have raised an (unpierced) eyebrow just a few years ago? This is another case where a stereotype is too broad but may be based on just a bit of truth.

Many members of Generations X and Y take issue with the notion that they have no concept of appropriate dress, but they do think that the older generations could stand to relax a bit. It’s all about adapting to the situation, says Daniel Van Horn, a Gen Xer who may become the youngest-ever president of the Tennessee Bar Association.

“If we need to meet and more formal dress is appropriate, then that’s fine,” he says. “But if casual dress will work, then that should be the default.”

It should be stressed that Van Horn is not suggesting wearing flip-flops to bar meetings. Still, bars may expect a further loosening of the dress code—a trend that perhaps began when the baby boomers climbed the ranks.