June 2018

A Millennial explains how law firms can attract and keep his generation of lawyers

After graduating from Georgetown Law School in 2007, JP Box practiced law at large, medium and small firms in Washington, D.C., and Denver looking for the right fit. None of the jobs provided the right culture, but the journey led Box to start a consulting practice focused on “helping law firms understand the Millennial mindset to unlock the talents and passions of a new generation of attorneys.”

He’s distilled his advice into a new book, The Millennial Lawyer: How Your Firm Can Motivate and Retain Young Associates,” in which he uses his experiences “to help frame the generational divides that lead to misunderstandings between associates and partners, to illuminate the Millennial mindset and to help law firms understand how to connect with, motivate and retain the very best Millennial attorneys.”

YourABA connected with him to find out more:

How are Millennials different from Gen Xers and Baby Boomers?

Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers share many common values, but differ in how they prioritize, express and act upon those values.

Let me provide an example. Millennials overwhelmingly believe in doing well by doing good – that is, working hard to make the world a more beautiful place through their chosen professions. Some Gen Xers and Boomers chose careers to fulfill this value, while many others used their careers as a springboard to engage in social-minded activities outside of work (for example, by serving on nonprofit boards and donating to worthy charities). In contrast to those Gen Xers and Boomers who are comfortable finding outlets outside of work to give back to their communities, Millennials believe that work should be the vehicle through which they make the world a better place.

Importantly, Millennials are not comfortable compartmentalizing their lives between work, family, friends, charity and play. While “work-life balance” became a rallying cry of Gen Xers in the 1990s, Millennials opt for “work-life blend,” in which they wish to achieve personal, professional and charitable goals on a continuous spectrum of life experiences. Millennials chafe against the notion of balancing work’s ambitions against life’s desires because, to this generation, they are part of the same continuum.

By recognizing this critical distinction, law firm partners and recruiters can begin to understand how to motivate the youngest generation of lawyers. Hint: it’s not just by the promise of a billable hour bonus at the end of the year. Rather, by focusing on the noble practice of law (that is, doing well by doing good), partners can unlock the talents, passion and work ethic of Millennial attorneys.

Is there statistical evidence of a decline in Millennials working at law firms compared to other generations at the same point in their careers?

I am not aware of any such decline. In fact, in the United States , Millennials  are now the largest working group and, across all industries, their numbers continue to rise.

We are seeing, however, a big difference in the average tenure of Millennials in a new job, and the legal industry is no different. Legal recruiters are seeing an uptick in young associates changing jobs at a disconcerting pace. While Boomer and Gen X lawyers patiently “paid their dues,” Millennial lawyers are not hesitant to vote with their feet and try a new firm or even career. This turnover costs law firms an estimated $1 billion annually according to Thomson West. Notably, a Millennial lawyer will leave a job, not just when he or she is unhappy, but when he or she is not happy enough.

The good news, however, is that Millennials come to the workplace with an enthusiasm to contribute and make a real difference early in their careers. It is imperative for law firms to take advantage of this eagerness and ramp up their efforts to mentor and train young attorneys.

As a Millennial yourself, you worked at small, medium and large law firms looking for the right fit. But you say none of these provided professional satisfaction. Why?

In a way, that is the question I set out to answer in The Millennial Lawyer. I left three firms at the precise moment in which I had become an integral part of their teams—earning the trust of clients and the respect of partners. When I left each firm, partners pressed me for the reason why I had not found professional fulfillment at their law firms. At the time, I really did not have great answers to their questions. I was simply following a gut instinct that my journey did not end at that particular firm.

However, with the passage of time, I began to reflect upon my legal career. I realized many of the tensions that I felt practicing law could be traced, in large part, to generational misunderstandings. Simply stated, what motivated Gen X and Boomer partners early in their careers did not consistently inspire me and my generation. I felt that many law firms focused too much on the business of law, including the emphasis on billable hours and the trappings of partnership years down the road. However, for an idealistic generation ready to make meaningful contributions early in their careers, these traditional firm motivators often fall flat.

What are some immediate steps law firms can take to connect with, inspire, motivate and retain Millennials?

Incorporate commonly held Millennial values into law firm culture! By embracing a Millennial-friendly culture, law firms can motivate and retain top-level associates while improving productivity and retention rates along the way. Immediate steps include:

(1)  Embrace work-life blend. When we treat work and life as weights to be balanced against each other, we short-change both. Instead, Millennials believe work should be an enhancing and enriching aspect of life. As part of this blended environment, law firms must give associates the time and space to manage their professional and personal lives.

(2)  Empower associates to contribute immediately. Your young associates are eager to make a real difference from day one. Don’t fight this enthusiasm; harness it! In the words of one senior partner with whom I worked: “JP, I like my job, but I like it even better when you can do it for me.”

(3)  Take mentorship seriously. Mentorship has never been more critical. Millennials are a confident generation that desires autonomy but not necessarily independence. Importantly, Millennials grew up receiving ongoing feedback from parents, teachers and coaches, and they expect caring mentorship to continue into their professional careers. If law firms seize this opportunity, they have the opportunity to shape and develop the next generation of attorneys.

(4)  Create community at your law firm. Millennials consistently rank the social aspects of work – that is, the relationships built with colleagues – as one of the most important aspects of their profession. If Millennials feel lonely and disconnected at the office, their motivation wanes along with their commitment to the firm. To their credit, many law firms are starting to create opportunities for associates, partners and staff to form communities at the office. “Lounge-braries” (library-lounge hybrids), for example, are becoming increasingly common.

(5)  Embrace the notion of doing well by doing good. Law firms must offer associates competitive salaries and benefits to get them in the door. However, to keep them committed to the firm, partners should focus on the positive impact of our profession. The days of asking an associate, “If you can use the hours, I could really use your help on a new case,” are over. Instead, try this approach: “If you’re interested in helping someone, I’ve got a great case for us.”

You write that Millennials favor flat hierarchies. How can law firms address that?

Law firms are one of the most hierarchical workplaces anywhere, so this is a key issue. Millennials think horizontally, focusing on the task performed by each team member. In contrast, many Gen Xers and Boomers think vertically, focusing on the hierarchical status of each team member. It’s important to remember that Millennials grew up enjoying peer-like relationships with caring adults, and they expect this benevolent mentorship to continue at work. At a horizontal law office, associates have access to senior partners, office doors are kept open as the norm and a free flow of ideas is promoted.

Is there a danger that setting up law firms to appeal to Millennials risks alienating Gen Xers and Boomers and only attracting other Millennials?

Changing culture is not easy. However, in my opinion, maintaining the status quo is the riskier option for law firms. Increasingly, Millennials are colleagues and clients. My goal is to show law firms how they can incorporate commonly held Millennial values into their culture, not just to be nice to Millennials, but because it will improve the firm’s overall productivity. If I can help a Gen X or Boomer partner understand how to connect with a younger associate, then that improved working relationship benefits the firm. The end goal is a law firm where everyone, irrespective of generation, works together efficiently and harmoniously.

Have you seen law firms make the sorts of changes you outline, and with what results?

Ask me in a few years! Seriously though, law firms are beginning to pivot in new directions, incorporating elements of the Millennial mindset into an improved firm culture. We are seeing firms return their focus to the noble practice of law to inspire associates, embrace the office as a workplace and community center for young attorneys and reassess how to connect with the youngest generation of attorneys in creative ways. We are at the start of this journey. I firmly believe that, over the next five to 10 years, the thriving law firms will be those that understand and embrace the Millennial mindset.

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