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How Baby Boomer and Millennial Lawyers Can Get Along

By Miles S. Winder III and Aastha Madaan

Boomer Perspective

By Miles S. Winder III 

Okay, I will admit it. I am firmly a member of the Baby Boomer generation of attorneys. That in and of itself, however, should not affect the way you or any other person evaluates me or my performance as a lawyer. Does being a Baby Boomer (of the generation born between the early 1940s through the early 1960s) mean that I am out of touch or incapable of using the technology that has developed since I graduated from law school?

By the same token, why is it that almost every issue of every publication relating to law firm management has an article on “Managing Millennials”? Do we have generational gaps so wide that we stereotype an entire generation (those born from the 1980s through the mid-1990s) with a term that lately has a pejorative connotation? If so, we are certainly missing out on some extremely talented and thoughtful people who are about to take our places. Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, in an article dated May 11, 2015, indicates that Millennials will account for nearly 75 percent of workers by 2020. Certainly it is not too much of a stretch to say that in the very near future, they will be the largest population of lawyers as well.

This brief article reflects on some of the substantial similarities and differences between the two generations. We need to look at them and how can we can use our shared values to promote not just ourselves, but the legal profession as a whole and how we will continue to protect the rule of law that is the singular hallmark of the United States.

As a law firm manager I want the best and brightest employees. Partners and associates have to qualify and excel in order to advance their careers. In my opinion, the hallmark of a lawyer who will do well in the practice of law is someone who can think critically, problem solve, collaborate, and lead. It is someone with the mental agility and adaptability to roll with the punches; the ability to take initiative and act as an entrepreneur in business and in law; a deep understanding of how and where to access, prioritize, and analyze information; effective oral and written communication skills; and a healthy curiosity and some imagination.

Most, if not all, of these attributes are present in successful Boomer lawyers. But aren’t they present in successful Millennial lawyers, too?

Communicate effectively. The larger question for Boomers is how should we, as the sage attorneys with experience and time under our belts, effectively communicate with our colleagues who are in their 30s. We must communicate with them using the quickest, most convenient method for both of us. Right now that might be via texting or tweeting, but the technology will surely change. Boomers need to be aware of the changes and, more importantly, keep up with them. E-mail has its charms, and we should not abandon it; videoconferencing (via applications such as Skype or Apple’s FaceTime) will probably be a primary medium before too much longer. One thing to remember is that your younger colleague will likely have the pressure of generating 200 billable hours per month, and they will appreciate succinct ways of communication. (Twitter’s 140-character limit fits the bill here, although it requires some thought to get the right message out.) You may have a deadline and you can require prompt action on an issue, but you should be able to accept the response that your colleague has received your request and is working to give you a thorough and correct result.

Hone your listening skills. We all like sounding boards, and the Millennial generation is no exception. When Millennial lawyers ask why we do something the way we do, be careful in your answer. They may have a faster, more efficient, (sometimes) better way to get to the same result. Answering “because we have always done it this way” will not cut it, and worse, it makes you unresponsive to colleagues.

Be brief and succinct. Give your colleagues the courtesy of making anything you say short and to the point. Anticipate and encourage them to ask questions. Do not repeat what you want them to understand two or three times—they are smarter than that, and you should respect their intelligence.

Be prepared to teach and learn. Communication between the generations should engender learning and understanding in both directions. This is demonstrated most explicitly by leading by example. Do not allow yourself to be paralyzed by self-doubt or unanswerable questions—the practice of law by its very nature is finding the bright line amid the gray area. Likely, you have been practicing longer than the Millennial in the office down the hall from you. You may or may not know the answer, but engaging with your Millennial colleague is another key to ensuring a successful relationship—and to the protection of the practice of law.

Remember that curiosity we talked about earlier? Well, employ it yourself to find out what your colleague thinks about the situation. Yes, you know from long and tested experience what the outcome might be, but is there some newer and perhaps simpler strategy to get to the same end point in the project? Could your Millennial colleague help you to be a better lawyer? My bet is yes. Learn from them as much as you teach them.

Dianna Booher in a January 14, 2016, article in Forbes Magazine suggests that managing Millennials requires the following steps:

  • Communicate concern for people as individuals—not just as employees (showing interest in their families and activities outside of work).
  • Practice excellent time management in running your department or projects so that weekend work doesn’t become “the norm”; otherwise, Millennials will burn out quickly and leave.
  • Plan frequent team get-togethers so that employees feel a sense of community and “family” and develop close friendships that provide contentment on the job.
  • Develop a personal communication style that demonstrates genuine caring (conversational, approachable, transparent, open, sincere versus aloof, secretive, arrogant, harsh, directive).

If you see repetition here, it is no coincidence; all the experts in the area of communication have similar guidelines. Perhaps as importantly, they are the guidelines that the generation before the Baby Boomers used to communicate with us. Things haven’t really changed, they have only sped up.

Millennial Perspective

By Aastha Madaan

Hello, my name is Aastha, and I am a Millennial. As a member of the youngest generation in society right now, I often find myself engaged in conversations about Millennials in the workforce. The status of Millennials in today’s society can be compared to that of the youngest child or “the baby” in a family. We are in the spotlight, and the world is eagerly awaiting our next moves. Millennials are an enigma; there are research studies done about Millennial psychology, the purchasing power of Millennials, and techniques for communicating with Millennials. The question is, how can everyone else communicate with this exotic, ever-invasive species? I am here to provide you with an inside look.

On a serious note, however, my co-author Miles Winder hit the nail right on its head by posing the question, “Do we have generational gaps so wide that we stereotype an entire generation with a term that lately has a pejorative connotation?” Today’s workforce has three major generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. This articles covers the perspective of a Baby Boomer and a Millennial. As the latter of the two, I am writing from two lenses, one as a Millennial, but the other as a frequent speaker and author on the topic of “cultural competency.”

The concept of cultural competency is a broad one in its scope. In today’s diverse society, it is imperative that we practice cultural competency in every part of our profession, whether it is with colleagues, employees, or clients. Cultural competency is widely taught and practiced in the health care industry and is now finally making its way into the legal industry as well. Cultural competency has been defined as “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations” (Terry L. Cross, et al., “Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care,” CAASP Technical Assistance Center, 1988, 1989.) In the context of inter-generational communications, we may look to the behaviors and attitudes that shape the communications between generations within practice settings, whether it is a small law firm, large law firm, government, or another practice setting.

Given what we know about cultural competency, and my own experiences as a Millennial, I hope to share some ways to reduce the inter-generational gap in the workplace.

Ideas. If you are a Baby Boomer partner or manager at a law firm, keep in mind that Millennials were raised to be creative, free thinkers. This has given us an edge of thinking outside the box and adopting technological tools quickly. Millennials around you might already be using tools in their personal lives that will help you bring in business and become more effective lawyers. They may have ideas to share, so ask them, and listen to them. Personally, I am all about productivity tools that help me streamline processes, create effective and automated systems for my practice, and make my life easier. I know other Millennials who feel the same way as I do, and Millennials around you might share some hidden gems with you that will ultimately make your law firm grow faster.

If you are a Millennial, think of all the tools literally at the tips of your fingers that you take for granted, such as apps, networking tools, and more. Think about what your more experienced colleagues might know and like, and don’t hesitate to share! When I find a cool app or tool, I share it with my parents, who love some of them and don’t love others, but I know I did my job by sharing. I hope that you can do the same in a professional setting as well.

Mentorship. Baby Boomers, remember that Millennials for the most part-grew up with the Internet. Instead of engaging in conversation about whether a fact is right or wrong, a lot of Millennials immediately gravitate to Google or other online resources to learn and to fact check. So if a Millennial approaches you with a question, I hope you take it as a compliment that she is trying to learn from you and connect with you.

Millennials, although we are not used to asking for help, remember that we are following in the footsteps of our more seasoned counterparts and they have a world of wisdom to share. Especially if you are a Millennial solo attorney, recognize that Baby Boomer attorneys have likely already made the mistakes you will make in growing your practice, and those mistakes will be a lot more expensive now—in time expenditure, reputation damage, and financial cost. Ask a Baby Boomer attorney if he or she will mentor you. Google has nothing on real-life support and encouragement of someone who has been where you are about to go.

Implicit bias. This section applies equally to all generations. Before I delve more deeply into the topic, it is important to establish the definition and scope of implicit bias.

We naturally assign people into various social categories divided by salient and chronically accessible traits, such as age, gender, race, and role. Just as we might have implicit cognitions that help us walk and drive, we have implicit social cognitions that guide our thinking about social categories. Where do these schemas come from? According to Jerry Kang in Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts (National Center for State Courts, August 2009), these schemas come from our experiences with other people, some of them direct (i.e., real-world encounters) but many of them vicarious (i.e., relayed to us through stories, books, movies, media, and culture).

Although our shorthand schemas of people may be helpful in some situations, they also can lead to discriminatory behaviors if we are not careful. This applies equally to Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers. Each of these generations has connotations and characteristics that are attributed to it, often unfairly. And whether we do it on purpose or not, our behavior might change when we communicate with someone from a generation, background, etc., with these characteristics in mind regardless of whether or not they are applicable. For example, Millennials are often thought of as lazy. So when speaking with Millennials, Baby Boomers might be tempted to phrase questions or requests in a way that highlights this implicit bias, whether or not it applies to them. There is a big difference in asking someone “please complete X assignment by Y date,” versus, “There will be no extensions, so please make sure you get X done by Y date.”

Implicit bias has the power either to strengthen relationships or to create a divide that grows larger over time, so whether you are a Baby Boomer, Gen Xer, or a Millennial, check your implicit bias and make sure you are starting each interaction with a clean slate and giving each colleague a fair chance to make an impression not informed by stereotypes.

Valuing diversity. Diversity is a catchall word for the notable characteristics in a person, so diversity has many avatars. “Diversity and inclusion” have become popular buzzwords in the legal field, but when it comes to generational differences, diversity means diversity of age, experiences, sociopolitical views, and more. Millennials self-identify in various ways that other generations prior did not for many reasons, one of which is the world is a smaller place now with the advent of social media and accessible modes of travel.

Valuing diversity means simply that you should engage the natural curiosity you have from your legal training instead of highlighting the differences between the group(s) you identify with versus those your colleagues identify with.

A brief anecdote about diversity from my personal experiences serves as an example of many types of diverse values people bring and how others may react to these values. I frequently travel to conferences in different parts of the country. As a vegetarian, I often get the “I could never do that” reaction when people notice that my meal is different. Immediately, the difference between the person making the statement and the person receiving the statement becomes the highlight of the relationship, instead of focusing on a more productive way to connect over a meal. A better way to connect with someone who is different from you—as my co-author Miles suggests—would be to ask questions and tap into your natural curiosity as a lawyer.

As you may have realized while reading this article, intergenerational communication seems more daunting than it really is, and Millennials are not an exotic species but simply a generation finding its way through a world that is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before. Simply engaging a few different mental gears for each generation currently in the workforce can lead to more productive, collaborative, and successful experiences with one another.

Miles S. Winder III has been in solo practice for more than 20 years. Prior to that he was devoted to firm practice, first as an associate attorney and later a partner and finally a managing partner. He is the immediate past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and has participated in the founding of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Leadership Academy. He wishes to thank two lawyers practicing in distant states who happen to be his children for their comments and criticism. Both are Millennials with whom he communicates and learns something new every day.

Aastha Madaan is a sole practitioner in Long Beach, California, where she practices business law and estate planning. She is a young lawyer leader and social media disciple. Aastha speaks and writes frequently on the topic of cultural competency in the practice of law. She is passionate about advancing diversity in the profession, in legal technology, and coffee. She is a member of the Editorial Board of GPSolo magazine and writes the “Solo Pilot” column for the GPSolo eReport.