October 23, 2012

Communicating Across Generations

Issue Cover Law Practice Magazine Logo


Say so long to your comfort zone.
What you need to know
about managing the multigenerational law firm.

June 2006 Issue | Volume 32 Number 4 | Page 15

Five Things: What you need to know to get and keep new business

By Rochelle Karr | Edited by Ann Lee Gibson

There are some much-ballyhooed differences among Gen Xers and baby boomers. But ascribing communications issues in the workplace strictly to stereotypical generational profiles is akin to running your life based on your zodiac sign. Other differences—particularly behavioral styles—contribute much more to the mysteries that younger and older lawyers must negotiate with each other. In the end, it boils down to everyone simply wanting to be appreciated and feel important. With that in mind, here are observations on how all ages can work together more effectively in law firms.


  1. Know your behavioral style and how to adapt to other styles. In the language of the DISC Behavioral Style Self-Assessment tool, you likely have one of four native styles: Dominance (direct and decisive), Influence (optimistic and outgoing), Steadiness (sympathetic and cooperative) or Conscientiousness (concerned and correct). When you understand your own style, and the styles of those with whom you work, you become a more effective communicator and sought-after co-worker.

  2. Become a mentor only if you care. Lawyers who can empathetically remember what it was like to be in a mentee's shoes can be effective mentors. If you aren't one of those people, you're probably wasting everyone's time trying to mentor. The good news is that empathetic mentors say they get as much out of the relationship as they give.

  3. Remember that mentors can't read minds. Mentees who benefit the most think through their goals for the relationship and then look for a mentor whose talents match those goals. They also prepare for each meeting with their mentor, rather than waiting passively for the mentor to feed them mystical nuggets of advice.

  4. Women deserve tough feedback, too. One clue to why law firms have so few female partners comes from a study conducted by a Big Four accounting firm. It found that women associates did not receive—from either men or women supervising partners—the same tough, critical feedback that men associates received. The hugely negative impact was that women were deprived of chances to learn from their mistakes. Do not "go easier" on your women associates. "Being kind" is neither kind nor fair.

  5. Acknowledge differences about "face time." The more senior generation often suffers from the misperception that being "committed" means always being physically present in the workplace. Younger generations believe they can be just as productive, if not more productive, working from home or from a laptop in a cafe. It behooves all parties to communicate about expectations and for "face timers" to practice some flexibility.