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Millennial Lawyers: disruptors from within?

‘Millennials’, otherwise known as ‘Generation Y’, is the demographic label given to people born between 1982 – 2004.

At the recent Leeds Legal Conference there was a breakout round-table discussion by millennial lawyers, hosted by the Head of Leeds Law School, Professor Alastair Mullis.

The purpose of the breakout was to discuss what millennial lawyers want and need from Leeds and the law firms based in the city.

Many of the issues highlighted were clearly not confined to law firms based in Leeds.  Indeed the breakout got me thinking about when I was in the same age bracket as millennials are today and practising law in London.

I began to wonder: are the aspirations of millennial lawyers so different from their predecessors?  What are law firms doing to meet the aspirations of today’s young lawyers?


What do millennial lawyers want?

My takeaways from the breakout were that millennial lawyers:

  1. Have grown up with I.T. and they are used to gathering and delivering information electronically.
  2. Can become quite frustrated about the way their firms serve their clients. They believe legal services can be delivered better, quicker and more efficiently.
  3. Want to be given serious legal work commensurate with their level of experience; moreover, the work should be challenging enough to stretch and develop their competence as lawyers.
  4. Are willing to shoulder the responsibility that comes with more complex and demanding legal work.
  5. Welcome opportunities to broaden their skill-set beyond the narrow range associated with providing technical legal advice.
  6. Have an ardent desire for a sustainable work-life balance; they are willing to work hard and suffer personal inconveniences to help clients but – and it’s a big but – the thought of clocking up increasing numbers of chargeable hours holds little appeal for them.
  7. Following on from the above they prefer flexible working patterns. We hear a lot about ‘agile working’ now, and it seems younger lawyers much prefer this.  Using technology, they believe they can work effectively outside standard office hours and standard offices.

There was also a realisation and acceptance that the days of working in the same law firm for life have gone.  The impression I got was that millennial lawyers want to develop their own career portfolios, and this may sometimes mean they would not always be practicing law for the entire duration of their working lives.


Is this so new?

Listening to the young lawyers explain their view of the world I found myself experiencing a sense of déjà vu.  As a young lawyer (a long time ago) I held similar views and aspirations.

I already had a background in legal I.T. before practising as a solicitor, so I was particularly keen to see I.T. deployed more widely for the benefit of both lawyers and clients.

After spending several years as a legal academic before practising law, retaining an acceptable work-life balance was important to me too.

My time as a legal academic and in legal I.T. meant that I was a little older – but not much older – than my immediate peers.  One consequence of this was that I felt comfortable proposing alternative ways of working, reflecting my experience outside of legal practice.


Taking a challenge at face value

During one of the periodic episodes of low morale in the department I was practising in at the time, the head of department called a full departmental meeting.  He issued a challenge: if anyone thought things could be improved, we could let him know.

Everyone knew it was one of those challenges best left alone.  Although the head of department said the words, the way he said them made it quite plain he did not expect anyone to respond.

Although fully aware of this I submitted a proposal for change anyway.  I just thought that someone should do something to try and improve the situation the department found itself in.  The primary cause of the low morale was a significant reduction in fee earning work.

The core part of the proposal was to give greater responsibility to the younger lawyers.  I asked that the departmental marketing budget be devolved down to the workgroups made up of Assistant and Associate solicitors.  We would then have real responsibility for finding new work and delivering it.  I also suggested the department be restructured to help achieve this.


Reaction to change

My proposal was meet with a mix of indifference and hostility.  The two partners who ran the department never discussed it with me or referred to it in my presence so far as I can recall.

Word seeped out that I had circulated a proposal advocating change.  I was surprised by the subsequent hostility from my peers.  Even now I am not sure whether the hostility was genuine or whether it was more fabricated than real, in an attempt by my peers to keep on good terms with the head of department and his number two.

Nothing changed so far as I could tell.  People gritted their teeth and waited for the upturn in work.  In due course more work did arrive, as it always seemed to back then.


Prevailing culture

I began to realise that practising law in a department with a culture like that was not for me.  The management style was dictatorial if not bullying at times.  This was tolerated by the rest of the firm, which was such a pity as the firm generally was a good firm to work for.  Speaking to friends in other law firms I soon realised this was not a unique occurrence.

The unspoken deal, familiar to generations of lawyers, was that we were to keep our heads down, avoid rocking the boat, bill plenty of chargeable hours and, if we got on well with the right people, we may eventually be rewarded with a prospect of partnership and the riches that go with it.

As a former academic and I.T. professional, I struggled with the day to day reality of what this actually required.  Even as a young solicitor, I preferred the challenges presented by organisational process improvement (in its broadest sense) rather than direct client work.  I still do.


Aspiration tempered by realism

I think young lawyers today have the same aspirations young lawyers have always had: they yearn for greater responsibility as they believe things can and should be done better.

Perhaps a crucial difference now is that most millennial lawyers fully appreciate that the old deal of not rocking the boat and hoping for partnership is no longer attractive nor credible.  As a result, an increasing proportion of young lawyers (compared to when I was in practice) no longer see themselves spending a working lifetime in the same law firm or, indeed, as practising lawyers.

Talk about disruption in legal services.  These attitudinal beliefs of millennials are possibly the most influential source of disruption facing law firms.


How are law firms responding to ‘millennial disruption’?

To look at the preponderance of law firms at the top of lists (and awards) such as ‘opportunities for social mobility’, ‘LGBT friendly’ and ‘best employer to work for’ it seems that much has changed for the better since my time as a young lawyer.  (And incidentally, the firm I used to work for features prominently in lists such as these).

A recent article in Legal Business has contended that large law firms now game ‘good employer’ awards to such an extent they have now hit ‘parody levels‘.  I would not go that far, but I’d suggest that cultural support for millennial aspirations in the legal sector lags behind other sectors such as academia and I.T.

Nevertheless, let us leave cynicism aside for a moment and take these lists at face value.  If nothing else they demonstrate that law firms know they need to be seen as attractive places to work, where people are valued for who they are and the work they do rather than simply the hours they record and bill.

Many law firms are now more welcoming and nurturing places for young professionals keen to advance their career, however they conceive it to be.  A small illustrative snippet of evidence for this was provided during the millennial round-table discussion in Leeds.  One young man, a muslim, explained that his firm is very accommodating to him regarding his preferred pattern of working hours during Ramadan.


Picking up the pace of change

Young lawyers have always had enthusiasm and a willingness to embrace – if not instigate – change.  I don’t think this is something new, suddenly arrived with the advent of millennial lawyers.

What is newer is the positive response by many law firms to the aspirations of their young (millennial) lawyers and, I hope, other young employees.

The rise of ‘agile working’ (not to be confused with agile project management) and encouragement for young lawyers to develop a wide range of skills such as high level programming, creative design or project management can be taken as evidence that law firms are indeed addressing the needs of their millennial lawyers (and, presumably, their clients).

All this is great to see, although I suspect firms will need to pick up the pace and depth of their response if they are to cope properly with the disruptive challenge from within posed by millennial lawyers.

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