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Practice Management Advice: Intergenerational Distractions—Previously Unpublished?

John D Bowers


  • Young and freshly polished associates and legal professionals have set up office right ... next ... door.
Practice Management Advice: Intergenerational Distractions—Previously Unpublished?

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Watch Out, Boomers and Generation Xers: Young and freshly polished associates and legal professionals have set up office right ... next ... door. While the Silent Generation couldn’t care less, those “more senior” lawyers who have yet to hang up their worn timesheets may be shocked to discover that their newest colleague was born in 1997—and those are the oldest in Generation Z. Yes, the most recent college grads were born after the turn of the century—no, not the 20th. (Hat tip to my sweet daughter who sincerely refers to most of my life as “before the turn of the century.”)

As Generation Z saturates a record low unemployment-rated workforce, law firms of all stripes still haven’t quite made peace with many Millennials. How could we? “They” were fairly ballyhooed as being remarkably different than “us.” Rather than a diatribe on generational differences, which would merely populate another slab of played publishable puffery, we must genuinely welcome Generation Z to our ranks: There will be worse colleagues and better ones, too. More to the point, they are our future.

And because our paths are inextricably entwined, we must not only accept Generation Z as well as the Millennials but acknowledge that much of our whining about differences was ably performed by generations we succeeded. Since everything old does not necessarily need to be borne as new, we must confess a couple of truths rather than adopt all “new” cultural complaints unfiltered.

Cursed Be the Serial Underperformers

Much has been made about a purportedly novel phenomenon labeled “quiet quitting.” Though it would be tempting to turn off our brains and swallow such daily concepts lobbed our way, the only newness of this observation is a catchy name that has been attached to younger employees, in this case predominantly Millennials. Give it a little time and the plague of Generation Z quiet quitters will emerge: It’s just easier than publishing original copy.

We love to borrow preexisting ideas, slap on a new label and call it fancy, but quiet quitting is merely employee disengagement, which is a notable lack of some or all of the following:

  • Taking initiative in workplace performance;
  • Celebration of client successes;
  • Healthy time-passing behaviors;
  • Continuous learning;
  • Motivated workweeks; and
  • Inspired weekends when team members do that about which they are passionate.

It is ridiculous to pretend that the idea of team members who decide to do the bare minimum of work to remain on the payroll is unprecedented. We have all worked with them—and long before Millennials were a generation. These are mere employees who wake up after decades of so-called quiet quitting to gape in terror over how unfairly they have been treated.

Rather than righteously name them victims, however, leaders must routinely engage these team members along their path to oblivion, which often means termination before the years fly by. Failing to do so merely enables the behavior, which usually manifests across the team.

Once successfully engaged, continuous and frequent communication to gain strategic feedback and then acting upon that feedback transforms a marginal contributor into an active team player, perhaps even a leader.

Not Just My Mind on My Money

Once upon a time, there was a reserved dignity, if not jealous guardianship, about how much money we earned. It was a time when law firm leaders imagined out loud how surely their subordinates had never compared pay stubs, while we all know the truth. Though it wasn’t everyday watercooler conversation, we maintained more than a passing sense of how much peers and others took home.

Could it be that we only lacked the technology to shout it from the mountaintops? Currently, @salarytransparentstreet employs TikTok to shower us with interviews of almost every occupation, announce annual salaries and catalogue it neatly. Instead of raising reasonable economic queries to understand the most popular flavor of the month, we rage that Generation Z shares everything about their lives. Have we forgotten that too many of their forebears posted pictures of that morning’s breakfast long before Mark Zuckerberg’s first congressional hearing in 2018, which itself preceded the first Generation Z college grads entering the professional workforce?

Setting aside who or what is bombarding us with data, at least part of what makes social media salary revelations distasteful is the implication that employers should match, or at least consider, reported earnings when our similarly situated team members request the same. Law firm leaders ought to anticipate that top and lagging team members alike will demand a pay bump, even if such requests happen more frequently than they did. Yet lawyers, who annually set their hourly value at 5% above the previous year’s, routinely cry foul in flabbergasted horror.

No, revisiting your firm’s social media policy is not the solution. As with many challenges in running a law practice, legal Band-Aids will never resolve cultural scrapes. Instead, leaders must get smart about what their timekeepers and nontime-keepers may command in their local market. Though it smells too much like nonbillable work, acquiring salary and benefits surveys and maintaining relationships with trusted staffing professionals in the industry should become a standard operating procedure.

Armed with current metrics and a specific number that they will not exceed, leaders can call an in-person meeting and give the team member the floor. They will often air grievances, which may or may not apply, but prudent leaders listen intently while disinterested managers excuse all complaints. Refusing an increase is a valid option, so long as the team member is fully heard and management can demonstrate market facts for their position.

Culture Wars

Instigating or continuing generational battles, no matter how insignificant, may invite unnecessary trouble. While a lot of new catchphrases are simply rebranded behaviors that could describe every generation, our law practices are better served by searching for the strengths in each team member. When a team member establishes a pattern of misadventure, leaders must act timely and decisively for the health of the team itself. After all, the practice’s culture is defined by what leaders are willing to tolerate.