Building law firms for millennials—a challenge or an opportunity?

Much has been written of late about the challenges and the impact of millennials in the workplace—some critical (they don’t want to work hard, they are demanding job-hoppers) and some positive (they are self-assured, have high expectations and are tech-savvy). David Stevenson, chief executive of George Green, and Andrew Hedley, director of Hedley Consulting, assess how law firms can effectively recruit, manage, mentor and invest in millennials.What have recent reports suggested about millennials in the work place? How do their views and expectations of the workplace differ from previous generations?

David Stevenson (DS): Recent reports suggest what we perhaps felt, but dare not assume, in a world where rhetoric often trumps the reality—that is to say that, despite stereotypical labelling it is far too much of a generalisation to say we are faced with a generational change in workplace attitudes. The position is more complex than that, and in my view, always has been. The fact is that everyone is different and has their own definitive hopes, fears and expectations—the key is to recognise this and be able to tap into individual needs accordingly.

While this has not changed, what has changed is the background rhetoric reflective of a society as a whole which at least aspires to an environment that is more conducive to so-called work life balance, for example. Recent reports appear to suggest that millennials in the work place are more likely to move around, and require instant gratification and more input into things earlier on—but this has always been my experience in the legal world.

Andrew Hedley (AH): What is clear is that societal and generational shifts are playing out in the workplace, and those in positions of power in many firms are failing to understand the positive potential of their younger colleagues or the changing nature of their clients’ expectations. There is nothing new in the challenges of an incumbent generation. The millennial generation is different to my generation in the same way that my generation was different to that of my parents, and theirs to their parents. Not better, nor worse, just different.

In the workplace right now, we have at least three generations represented—the baby boomers born between 1945 and 1960 who still constitute 33% of the workforce, Generation X born between 1961 and 1980 (35% of the workforce) and the millennials born after 1980 who comprise 29%.

Millennials want to be given opportunities to do interesting work that ‘makes a difference’ and to be recognised for their achievements. Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory identified that the opportunity for personal achievement, together with recognition for this, are the two most important motivators. It seems that millennials are simply prepared to voice what long-standing research tells us about motivation. They also seek a work-life balance—a not unreasonable position to take, and one which firms are increasingly responding to as they seek to build their employer brands.

So what challenges and opportunities do millennials represent for law firms?

AH: The emergence of the so-called millennial generation is seen by some as a disruptive force which will have a negative impact on firms. The more visionary management teams see it rather as an opportunity to reshape their employee proposition, reposition their brand and ensure that their firm is fit for the future.

The opportunity presented to firms by the societal shifts that we are witnessing is clear—to position their firms to run the different race that the 21st century will require.

There also needs to be a clear recognition that the employer/employee psychological contract has shifted to one which is less ‘job for life’ and more transactional in nature. One might summarise the nature of this change in the question: ‘over the time I am with your firm, what opportunities for development will you provide to me, in return for which I will provide high-value services to you and the firm’s clients?’

So how are the expectations of millennials met by law firms and to what extent does the average law firm meet these expectations?

DS: The average law firm is (we assume) run by partners skilled and trained in the law with personalities to suit—analytical, risk averse, and so on. The average law firm partner puts clients first and works with people in his/her firm as a necessity. It is proven that you get the best out of people (millennials or otherwise) if you take an interest in them. People only become engaged if they feel listened to and are given an opportunity to be the best that they can be and that is what makes a great place to work. Average law firms simply do not get this, in my experience.

What millennials perhaps want and demand is time and attention from the partners (I still say that is no different from previously) and the issue here is that time is obviously at a premium in law firms and, vitally, law firm partners lack the skillset to appreciate this desire for attention, let alone the ability to engage effectively in this context. What works (but is largely absent) is a coaching culture—one where the need and value of personal growth and development, and time set aside for such, is recognised and acted upon by people with the right skills to question and to listen to them, and so on.

Why does all this matter to law firms? What impact could it have on their businesses?

DS: This should matter to law firms because engaged employees are vital to a successful law firm. When you strip law firms down to their bare essentials, all you are left with (ignoring the building and some IT kit) are clients and people. It might be a trite thing to say but it really is a ‘people business’. People buy from people and the law is no different. Engaged employees do not come about by accident, and you get the engagement you deserve. It’s a function of understanding and hard work.

Critical to this is an appreciation that everyone is different, driven by different needs and desires. What is required, and what law firms are bad at is to drill down with individuals as to what is important to them and then seek to respond accordingly. Not to do so risks dissatisfaction and, ultimately, the loss of a resource that has been expensive to train.

There is a need to take time to coach, ask questions, find out how people feel and how they want to be treated and then tailor bespoke a response in terms of development plans. Key to this is recognising that not all law firm partners have the skillset or inclination to undertake the task. However, they need to recognise that this is a major issue—in my experience the majority of law firm partners struggle to see the need for time to be put into this piece at the expense of chargeable hours.

AH: There is now a fast-growing recognition in firms of all sizes that the ability to attract, develop and retain its people is fundamental to longer-term success. At the core of this is the development of strong employer brands which sit alongside and support the client brand—indeed both are simply different sides of the same coin. Many of the positioning strategies which are being deployed play strongly to the values and views of the millennial generation.

It should not be overlooked, however, that while the younger generation may be the drivers of change, the benefits flow to all employees.

Interviewed by Nicola Laver. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

Relevant Articles
Area of Interest