BY MEREDITH J. KAHAN, ESQ.
One of my favorite memes is a picture of four seated figures riding a subway. To the left of the subway pole are two gray-haired bespectacled men reading newspapers. To the right the of divide, two young women are wearing jeans and staring at mobile phones. Capital letters above the group loudly pronounce: “Generation Gap.” 1 While differences in outlook or opinion between generations is nothing new, over the past few years, this “gap” has widened both literally and figuratively. With hybrid and virtual work becoming ever more commonplace, one group of workers may be sitting in an office conference room and others working from homes, coffee shops, or other locations that are miles away.
There are currently five generations in the workforce (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z).2 Studies show that an overwhelmingly large segment—84% of Millennials—say that remote work is an “important” factor in evaluating a job (more than any other generation).3 This group is also the largest segment of the workforce at 35%.
Millennials’ formative years saw 9/11 and Columbine, tragic events that sent the message that spending your time at work or school is a risk; this generation doesn’t want to spend time at these places unless there is an inherent value to them. And that is why they aren’t afraid to leave a job if it doesn’t serve them. Therefore, it’s essential that leadership ensure that millennials feel that their time at work is worthwhile.
Moreover, Millennials—the Trophy Generation—grew up in the age where every sports team got a participation trophy and every kiddo competing in a gymnastics, karate, or dance competition got a medal just for showing up. As adults, this has manifested in a need to feel included and appreciated.
Therefore, leaders are facing what feels like a double bind—how do you manage a generation that wants to work remotely yet simultaneously feel included and connected—and if they don’t get this value, they will leave?
This problem is particularly acute for leaders at law firms—where a recent study shared that by the end of 2021 all law firms were close to losing almost a quarter of their associates.4 It’s time for leaders at all legal organizations to learn how to communicate with and manage the mostly-Millennial junior workforce.
Understanding motivation for the talent you are overseeing in your workforce is not just good business—it’s a necessity.
Think broadly about communication.
It’s important to continue to think of how else to communicate outside of phone, video, and email. Millennials are the “text” generation. Instead of using the phone or email, consider what other methods of communication might work for your team. Although email is an electronic form of communication, it doesn’t foster the same connection as texting does because of the gap in time between responses—with immediacy comes bonding. You are more likely to share when you have less time to calculate your response. On the other hand, Teams chat, Skype chat, Slack, and other organizationally-approved internal “chat” functions can provide the back-and-forth volley that creates a natural connection (without the need to speak on the phone).
Furthermore, consider using chat even when you and others are in the office. It may feel counter-intuitive not to just walk down the hall, but creating a one-size-fits-all forum for everyone in your group is essential. Using one modality for those who are in the office and another for those working virtually is likely to further fracture your team. Creating spaces for the whole group to share is essential to fostering a team, as discussed further below.
Make sure each employee feels like they are part of the team.
You don’t need to hand out trophies, but you do need to make sure that each and every attorney feels like they are part of the team. What does this look like? It means taking the time to share what the common goal is: what their research will be used for, why they are making a binder, or giving context about the type of work that the client does when they are copying and pasting bylaws or looking for typos in an agreement. It also means inviting the attorney to sit in on phone calls, observe arguments, and attend client pitches, even if they can’t bill for their time.
Another way to solidify the team dynamic, despite differing locations, is to encourage those working physically in the office to bring laptops into a conference room meeting. This allows virtual workers to see each person in the meeting up close instead of blurry faces around a large conference table, unable to attribute comments to one person or another, and ultimately, feeling disengaged.
Ultimately, this is about creating a team culture. Why do sports and dance teams feel so bonded? They help out each other during the stressful times, they feel the sense of victory together, and they rely on each other. These things can still happen even if you are not sitting in the same room. If you are working on a TRO or closing through the night, are you checking in with the other attorneys like you might if they were down the hall? Keep an open line of chat communication and don’t underestimate the value of sharing: “Arghhh, I’m so tired!” or asking: “How’s it going?”
Ensure everyone feels that they are valued.
As mentioned above, Millennials demand that their job is worth their time and it’s essential to make sure they feel valued. Spend time with someone one-on-one without a specific work-related agenda item driving the meeting. Creating and nurturing mentor relationships show that you are investing your time in someone because you see them as a worthwhile investment.
Another strategy is to ensure that you allocate opportunities fairly. If the same people are getting exciting assignments, attending interesting meetings, and assigned to well-respected committees, it sends messages to other employees that they are not as valued.
Review the allocation process for each of these assignments and if there is not a procedure in place, create a fair and equitable one and make sure that the process is shared with employees so that they know how these decisions are made.
Finally, thank your employees. Yep—a good old “thank you” goes a long way. An even better thank you is one that is specific and genuine.
Provide ongoing and consistent feedback.
One of the defining characteristics of Millennials is their need for constant feedback. It is not sufficient to provide this during annual reviews— it must be immediate. It’s important to provide feedback about performance on each piece of a project—rather than waiting until the end of a project to give your thoughts about performance. Feedback about the quality of the research, the draft language in the motion, and other individual components of the process is more valuable than waiting a month to share your thoughts after the motion is finally filed. Moreover, this will also be more valuable for a supervisor—giving contemporaneous feedback is more likely to result in specifics that will elicit change and better work product down the road. Trying to recall the shortcomings in research two months later is unlikely to provide any real high-quality feedback.
As a corollary, it’s important that the attorney recognizes this as feedback. What a manager or supervisor may think is feedback, for example, saying “Thanks, that was just what I needed,” may not be what the attorney on the other end is seeking in terms of feedback. (That language may be helpful to make a junior attorney feel valued, but not to provide feedback.) Be clear about what is feedback and when you are providing it. “Attached is feedback—I put it in a redline of the document so you can see how I changed this.” Or, “let’s carve out the first five minutes of our call about the new research for the motion in limine so I can give you feedback about your work on the last project.”
Supervisors may find themselves wanting to push back against these suggestions, feeling as though it’s unnecessarily catering to a segment of the population and questioning whether any individual employee is “worth it.” But if you overlook how experiences fundamentally mold a generation and their needs, you will be losing out. In particular, organizations will find themselves constantly seeking to replenish their talent ranks—and at great cost. Rehiring a single attorney can cost up to four times their salary in lost revenue and out of pocket costs (for a starting salary of $120K, that’s easily $480K or more).5 And the person you rehire? Let’s not forget that they are likely to be a Millennial.
Rather than push back, it’s time to embrace these changes. Generational diversity is a type of cognitive diversity—naturally involving different types of thinking (experimental, creative, analytical, logical, etc.). Take this for what it actually is: an opportunity to strengthen your team and your legal services organization.
- For more information on each generation see here: Generational Differences in the Workplace□ [Infographic] (purdueglobal.edu)
- Millennials drive remote work push (axios.com)
- Law firms came ‘dangerously close’ to losing almost a quarter of their associates in 2021, new report says (abajournal.com)
- The Cost Of Law Firm Associate Turnover – Above the LawAbove the Law
Meredith J. Kahan, Esq. is the Chief Legal Talent Officer at Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP where she oversees the firm’s attorney recruiting, development, and diversity efforts. She has more than 20 years of experience in the legal field and speaks and writes frequently on these and other topics.