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January 22, 2020 Feature

The Next Wave of Practicing Lawyers

By Michael Zhang, Jenny Mittelman, Christina M. Jones, and Dolores Dorsainvil

There was a time when it did not matter which generation you were in, as we all played by the same set of rules. However, with the advent of the internet and technology, not only have the rules changed, but the generational landscape has changed too. To get a sense of what the legal profession will look like in the future, we must first examine the millennial generation as they comprise this next generation of lawyers. Then it will be important to understand the core values of millennials, which not only will assist in debunking several negative stereotypes, but will provide a bird’s eye view into how this group of lawyers will potentially lead our legal organizations. Next, we will discuss how to effectively manage millennials in the workplace. And lastly, we provide advice for those millennials who may be looking to become part of the management landscape of their organization.

Defining the Generation

James Callahan, a 43-year-old high school sociology teacher in Massachusetts, keeps a running list of slangs he hears students use in their everyday vernacular. 1

Callahan does this to become a better communicator with his students, though the endeavor itself has provided him with endless amusement. To Callahan, a Gen X’er (the forgotten generation), a snack is a small portion of food. To his students, a “snack” is someone who looks good. Below are some highlights of Callahan’s exciting discovery of a new dialect:

Extra: too much

Facts: I agree with you just said

Finesse: to steal

Low key: not obvious

High key: very obvious

I’m dead: that was amusing

No cap: I am serious / no lie / for real

Take the L: willing making a sacrifice

Millennials, right?2

The term “millennial” was coined by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe to describe what was then the youngest generation in their thesis: the Strauss-Howe generational theory. While that theory has largely been discredited by academic historians as pseudoscience, the term “millennial” has taken on a life of its own. While the term is meant to describe people born between 1981 and 1997, it is arguably more commonly used as a punch line to describe young people in today’s society. When Joel Stein wrote his May 2013 cover story for Time Magazine, titled “Millennials, The Me Me Me Generation”, he began by boldly (but somewhat accurately) declaring: “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” Stein presented evidence that portrayed millennials as narcissistic, lazy, and entitled. Elspeth Reeve, then writing for The Atlantic, declared that every generation has been the “Me Me Me Generation”.3 Reeve presented data that suggested that the traits associated with millennials are less generation-specific and more age-specific. To quote Abe Simpson: “I used to be with it, but they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what is it seems weird and scary to me. It will happen to you.”

A generation typically refers to groups of people born over a 15-20-year span. Baby boomers, the only generation officially defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, stake their generational claim from 1946 to 1964. Using the boomers as a starting point, Generation X encompasses years 1965 to 1980, millennials from 1981 to 1997, and Generation Z, Callahan’s students, from 1998 to 2012. Each generation is shaped by circumstances that are unique to them. For the purposes of this article, we will, as Joel Stein and so many others have done, focus on these insufferable s millennials,4 the youngest of whom are 22 this year, and the oldest have just turned 38. The reason for the countless articles on the millennial generation is simple: millennials have become the predominant generation in the workforce. In 2015, the number of millennials in the workforce passed boomers for the first time, making up 34% of the global workforce (and nearly a quarter of all lawyers in the U.S.) As with every generation, a multitude of factors have shaped the millennials’ values. For this article, we will address three: the cost of a legal education, the risks of the profession, and the changing legal landscape.

Let’s first examine cost. The average cost of attending a private law school is $43,000 per year. For 2019, the projected full debt-financed cost of attending University of Chicago Law School for three years, using cost of living as reported by the school and factoring interest calculations, is more than $360,000. That figure is even more daunting when taking into consideration that 28% of law students paid the full sticker price for tuition and fees in 2018. The U.S. government lends approximately $100 billion in student loans and, in turn, makes $1.6 billion per year in loan repayments. The ever-rising cost of education is not balanced by increasing salary: the median starting salary for private-sector law firms in 2016 was slightly more than $68,000, while the public sector reported a median salary of $53,500.5 It is no surprise, then, that millennials, saddled with student loan debt, are marrying and starting families at a later age than prior generations. The percentage of married adults over the age of 18 dropped from 72% in 1960 to 50% in 2016, while the median age for first marriage has increased roughly seven years during that time.6 Of those who have never married, about four in ten cite financial stability as a major reason why they are not currently married.

Millennial lawyers, like other generations of lawyer before them, are asked to excel in a high-stress environment. Unlike previous generations, however, Millennials have at their disposal a wealth of information about the inherent risks of a profession that boasts one of the highest rates of mental health issues and substance abuse. In a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2016, using a sample of nearly 13,000 employed attorneys, the authors found that 20.6% screened positive for hazardous and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking, compared to 11.8% of a broader, highly educated workforce.7 Interestingly, it also found that the highest rates of problematic drinking occur in attorneys under the age of 30 at 32.3%. Bar associations, regulators, and law schools across all jurisdictions have taken concrete action in the form of lawyers’ assistance programs and various preventive measures to address the high rate of substance abuse and mental health issues experienced by lawyers. Millennials, cognizant of these risks, are not eager to replicate the same lifestyle but instead strive for that coveted work-life balance.

Finally, the legal market has experienced irreversible change in the past decade. Georgetown Law’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession’s 2017 report on the state of the legal market concluded that the financial crisis of 2018 brought an end to almost a decade of uninterrupted growth for law firms. As growth stagnated, clients have begun to demand more value for their “legal spend”, effectively changing the legal market from a “seller’s market” to a “buyer’s market”.8 As a result, firms have shifted away from the traditional billable hour pricing. Many firms’ standard rates are merely nominal and are never paid by any significant client. Instead, the 2017 report found that the combination of alternative fee arrangements (“AFAs”) and budget-based pricing account for 80-90% of all revenues amongst some firms. The same client emphasis on reducing legal costs has led to the erosion of the traditional law firm franchise. Georgetown’s 2018 report concluded that the same trends have continued: of sluggish growth, decreasing realization, and shrinking market for law firm services.9

Against that backdrop, firms have struggled with retention. In 2018, the starting salary for several national law firms jumped to $190,000. Despite the eyebrow-raising number, however, the retention rate for these firms has more or less stayed consistent: at large firm, almost 80% of associates leave within five years. Firms lose an estimated $200,000 to $500,000 per departing attorney when factoring in recruiting and training costs, while the turnover rate costs the U.S. economy about $30 billion annually.10 The traditional motivational devices (the six-figure salary, the year-end bonus, and the promise of partnership) are clearly not enough to buck the trend of this increasingly itinerant generation.

In a 2010 Pew Research Center analysis, the top three priorities amongst Millennials were: being a good parent, having a successful marriage, and helping others in need.11 Having a high paying career came in at number six with 15% of Millennials who were polled listing it as an important priority.

Managing and Retaining Millennial Lawyers

Managing millennial lawyers has some baby boomers scratching their heads. Though boomers managed a generation of lawyers before the millennials entered our profession (back to the forgotten Generation X’ers), there is something about the millennial generation personality that engenders articles and panel discussions and conversations about how to manage and mentor them. It is undeniably time to consider what is important to this new generation of lawyers, and to embrace their strengths, as older lawyers retire and get out of their way.

Baby boomers grew up with post-WWII opportunity and in the wake of significant societal change. When we paint baby boomers with a broad brush, we think of individuals whose identities are tied to what they achieve professionally. They are loyal to their careers and their employers, value in-person communication, and have no concept of themselves as “old.”

Millennials have come to the workplace with record levels of education, but at the price of crippling student loan debt. They came into the workforce during the Great Recession, entering the profession during a saturated market. Despite a decade of economic growth, they will likely have lower earnings for the rest of their lives. Economists think this is simply bad luck, but as a result, Millennials have less wealth, less property, lower marriage rates and fewer children than each generation born since the Great Depression. Dissatisfaction with pay and absence of opportunities for advancement are the top reasons for Millennials’ seeming lack of loyalty to employers. Forty-nine percent say they would quit their current job in the next two years if they had a choice. 12 Put this all together and you have a generation of lawyers who look closely at: (1) commitment to work/life balance, (2) compensation and (3) training and professional development, when evaluating potential employers.13 Millennial lawyers prioritize collaboration and embrace non-hierarchical management in a way that their predecessors have not. The industry, in turn, must adjust.

JP Box, millennial lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, believes that status and pecuniary gain are not the primary motivating factors for the millennial generation.14 In his book, The Millennial Lawyer, Box’s proposed solution to achieving the elusive work-life balance was to stop viewing “work” and “life” as two competing concepts that need to be balanced at the cost of one another. Instead, Box suggested that because millennial lawyers view work and life and intertwined, firms should focus on ways for their lawyers to achieve a “work-life blend”. To do so, they should empower their lawyers, particularly their younger lawyers, with five freedoms: 1) the freedom to rethink when and where work happens; 2) the freedom to bring life into work; 3) the freedom to think of work space as living space; 4) the freedom to work, think, and connect digitally; and 5) the freedom to unplug. If the goal is for firms and organizations to attract and retain talent in a legal landscape that is experiencing irreversible changes, Box suggested that they focus on the core values of the largest global workforce, and take the following steps:

  1. Embrace the work-life blend;
  2. Let go of vertical hierarchies;
  3. Allow associates to make immediate contributions;
  4. Embrace your role as mentor;
  5. Promote teamwork and collaboration;
  6. Inspire young attorneys with great experience, not the promise of high pay; and
  7. Embrace the notion of doing well by doing good.

One day, in the very near future, our focus will shift to Generation Z, then the generation after that, which has apparently been named Generation Alpha.15 But for now, the topic of conversation, out of both curiosity and necessity, will be on the generation that will dominate the workforce for the next few decades.

The best advice for boomer managers is to play to younger lawyers’ strengths, and to recognize that there is plenty of common ground. Do you consider millennials impatient? They are “go getters” and yearn for responsibility, so give them some. Do you worry millennials require constant praise? Let them work collaboratively – a forum that ensures frequent feedback from coworkers and encourages coaching in place of traditional supervision. Do you have decades of experience? Millennials crave mentoring. So be a mentor and involve them in what you do as often as you can. Give them the training and technology they need to succeed. Is your management structure hierarchical? You may not be ready to level that hierarchy to please your younger colleagues but consider more transparent leadership as the first step. Talk to millennial lawyers and learn why certain issues matter to them, then incorporate their priorities when you can.

Overall, generational differences are just a matter of perspective. Millennial lawyers may ultimately manage very differently than the generation preceding them, but there is no question that they will eventually be in charge. For baby boomers that means it is important to share what you know, develop a succession plan, and embrace the idea of retirement. It is something we all deserve!

Millennials in Management

If you think today’s young adults are more ambitious, outspoken and looking for the next step in their career, you are correct. Not only are millennials changing the workplace culture, but they are also a force to be reckoned with as they enter management.

Millennials expect a clear trajectory within their organization. If they are unclear about their path, millennials will leave the organization. Millennials want to gain skills that will make them more marketable which is why they request greater responsibility in their organization.

One option to retain millennials is to promote them into leadership. Promoting millennials allows an organization to leverage the talent it already has cultivated and grow its leadership from within. A recent piece in Forbes estimates the cost of turnover for an “entry-level position turning over at 50 percent of salary; mid-level at 125 percent of salary; and senior executive over 200 percent of salary.”16

However, no one, including millennials, should not be promoted and left to their own devices. The same drive that made millennials great employees may not translate to becoming a great manager. The 140 characters that they use to describe their own thoughts in a Tweet often do not translate when managing people. Everyone, including millennials, needs mentorship.

Mentorship for millennials should include constant feedback. They are used to people – parents, teachers, friends – responding to and commenting on their every thought. Millennials are often unafraid of areas of growth, if they know it is coming from a supportive place. Directly communicate with millennials after they do something well or poorly. The sooner you can correct a millennial, the more likely the millennial will trust your feedback because they will believe you are invested in their growth.

Leaders should also give millennials a seat at the table when making changes within the organization. They will feel more invested in the change because they were able to give input. Allowing millennials a seat at the table will also provide the firm with a different and important perspective for shaping the future of the organization.

Making the decision to invest in your current millennial workforce allows the firm to cultivate young leaders for the future growth of the organization.


1. More on Mr. Callahan’s list of Gen Z slangs can be found here:

2. Though his students are technically Generation Z, then sentiment is the same.

3. See Elspeth Reed, Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation,

4. Full disclosure: two of our authors are millennials.

5. Jim Woodruff, The Average Starting Salary of Law School Students (Sept. 24, 2018),

6. Kim Parker & Renee Stepler, As U.S. Marriage Rate Hovers at 50%, Education Gap in Marital Status Widens (Sept. 14, 2017),

7. Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, J. Addiction Medicine, vol. 10, 46-52 (2016).

8. See 2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market,

9. Georgetown Law 2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market,

10. Amy Adkins, Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation (May 12, 2016),

11. Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Center (2010),

12. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019,

13. JP Box, Unlocking the Talents of the Millennial Lawyer, ABA Law Practice Today (Apr. 13, 2018),

14. Box, a Georgetown Law graduate, worked for six years as a practicing attorney, first at a large international firm, then a large regional firm, finally a small regional firm, before hanging up his legal briefcase and co-founding a merino wool children’s wear company.

15. Christina Sterbenz, Here’s Who Comes After Generation Z- and They’ll Be The Most Transformative Age Group Ever, Business Insider (Dec. 5, 2019, 4:26 PM).

16. Bill Conerly, Companies Need To Know The Dollar Cost Of Employee Turnover, Forbes (Aug. 12, 2018), available at

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Michael Zhang, Jenny Mittelman, Christina M. Jones, and Dolores Dorsainvil

Michael Zhang is a Litigation Counsel at the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, where he is responsible for investigating and prosecuting charges of attorney misconduct. Jenny K. Mittelman is Deputy General Counsel for the State Bar of Georgia. As Deputy General Counsel she prosecutes and supervises the prosecution of disciplinary cases. Christina M. Jones is Special Counsel for Strategic Youth Initiatives. In this role, she advises the Attorney General of the District of Columbia on policy and programming for youth ranging from 0 to 24 years old. Dolores Dorsainvil is an Assistant Disciplinary Counsel with the D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel where she investigates and prosecutes District of Columbia lawyers for ethical misconduct. Dolores is also an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University Law Center and American University’s Washington College of Law where she teaches professional responsibility/legal ethics to second and third year law students.