June 21, 2011

Recruiting and Retaining Lawyers: A Generational Approach

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 38


By Marcia Pennington Shannon

Security, prestige, freedom, nonlinear careers or multidimensional skill building? What should you be offering in your efforts to attract, and keep, the best and brightest? Figure it out and your reward will be people who contribute much to the firm’s success because you’ve created an environment in which the generations are blended successfully.

These are interesting times for those tasked with recruiting and retaining lawyers. For the first time in history, law firms today may consist of four different generations of lawyers working under one shingle. That fact might present occasion for a lot of hand-wringing—but it also presents opportunities to create dynamic work environments. How can you take advantage of these opportunities to build a richer law firm?

The more you know about what makes the various generations tick, the more your firm can tailor strategies aimed at attracting and keeping the people you need to succeed in a competitive marketplace.


Legacies versus Career Skills: Who Wants What?

To begin, there are some fundamental factors that affect your ability to recruit individuals from the four generations being employed by law firms today: Traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers and Generation Yers (also called echo boomers or Millennials). As authors Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman make clear in their book When Generations Collide—a must-read on the topic—there are significant differences in what each generation wants to accomplish and, correspondingly, how each will react to the workplace.

According to Lancaster and Stillman, Traditionalists want to build a legacy and protect the future. Boomers want to build exceptional careers. Gen Xers want to build portable and secure careers. And Gen Yers focus on building multidimensional, nonlinear careers.

Given the difference in their desires, of course, each of these generations also seeks different rewards from their work. Traditionalists want to be recognized for work well done and to be respected by their peers. They are fiercely loyal to organizations. Boomers, while loyal to organizations, value prestige and recognition and will be unsatisfied if those factors are not forthcoming at their firms. Generation X, on the other hand, is widely known to value freedom and flexibility. But Gen Xers also value career security, as opposed to job security. They want to build their career toolboxes—meaning the skills and experiences that will serve them well in the marketplace.

And what about Gen Yers, the newest entrants in the mix? They value work that has meaning and learning potential. They see more than one way of being successful. This is a generation that was raised on the belief that you look for multiple opportunities to build your skills simultaneously.


Recruiting with a Multigenerational Bend

Armed with a perspective on how the generations vary in their concepts of work and career, you can now more carefully consider the components of your firm’s recruiting process. Your first task is to identify who you are trying to attract and then to take a targeted approach to your range of candidates. Think about your current recruiting materials, your Web site, how you search for candidates, who conducts the interviews, what questions are asked and how you follow up with applicants.

Are your materials and your Web site dynamic, and do they have sufficient information to attract candidates from the various generations? During interviews, are questions open-ended enough to elicit what the individuals are seeking from your firm? You want to include questions such as “How would you describe the perfect job?” “What motivates you?” And “How do you accomplish your best work?”

Remember that Gen Xers and Gen Yers are particularly savvy interviewees. They ask a lot of questions, and they expect solid answers about potential career paths with your firm.

In addition, quick follow-up is especially important for Gen Xers and Gen Yers. These are generations who have come to expect things immediately—and that includes feedback. Delay indicates a lack of interest to these candidates, even if that isn’t what you meant to convey.


Retaining Your Talent: What Will Keep Them Happy?

Part of the reason for turnover being on the rise in law firms is that individuals are not getting what they want from their jobs. Add to that the fact that the newer generations are much more likely to change jobs to find satisfaction. As a consequence, skill building, variety of career paths, managerial style, feedback and flexibility all play a greater role than ever in retaining your most important asset—your lawyers.

For all generations, the ability to continue growing in their skills is important. But for the newer generations, again, special factors are in play. Gen Xers want to build skills quickly by taking on responsibility as soon as possible. To them, their careers are not secure unless they continue growing. If they can do that at your firm, they will remain with you.

Gen Yers differ in that they want the opportunity to grow in several areas. For junior lawyers, this means building their legal skills, but it also means having time outside of work to build other types of skills and experiences.

The ambitious boomers continue to want the opportunity to build stellar careers and to be recognized. Many partners have been persuaded to leave their firms because they didn’t feel they were receiving recognition or support. If it is a partner you want to keep, make sure that your retention efforts are focused on all generational levels.

Managerial style is particularly important to Generations X and Y. While both groups are not as loyal to an organization as previous generations were, they are very loyal to individuals. Thus, if they feel their supervisors care about their development and are seeking opportunities for them to grow professionally, they will remain. That makes ongoing feedback especially essential for these two generations. Where the Traditionalists often feel “no news is good news” and the boomers expect to get feedback at their annual reviews, Gen Xers and Gen Yers will lose the desire to stay if they are not hearing how they are progressing on a regular basis. You want to give them feedback at the end of each project—if not more often.

In addition, because Gen Xers and Gen Yers are not necessarily driven by the desire to make partner, offering a variety of career paths to success is a key element in their retention. This is one of the most difficult tasks for law firms today, since most firms are still in the up-or-out mode. Ultimately, though, firms risk losing some of their most talented individuals if they are not exploring other ways for their lawyers—of any generation—to have successful and satisfying careers within the firm, while at the same time enabling those people to handle the other demands of life. If you want to keep your best talent, create paths that they can visualize.


Mixing the Generations to Create a Rich Workplace

The differences among the generations add new dimensions to recruiting and retention in a law firm. But they also add real richness to your firm. If you can appreciate and accept the varying perspectives that each generation brings, it will only add to your firm’s success. The process of identifying the different generations in your firm and bridging the gaps between them will, in the end, result in a stronger, more collaborative work environment—a necessity in today’s marketplace.