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Law Firms and Millennial Attorneys: Strategies to Develop Leadership Pipelines for Smooth Firm Transitions

Next year millennials will make up one-third of the workforce.  A recent study released by ManpowerGroup provides some compelling insight about millennials in the workplace.   The study asked 19,000 Millenials and 1,500 managers across 25 countries how they viewed their careers and what were their career priorities, with the goal of offering practical advice for millennials and their employers in the quickly evolving work environment.  The results offer some statistics and finding for employers generally, and law firms, specifically, have some lessons to take to heart.

According to the survey, 23% of the millennial respondents said making a lot of money is their main goal, 21% want to make a positive contribution and 20% want to work with great people.  But only 22% of the millennials surveyed indicated an interest in growing into leadership roles and only 4% of millennial respondents valued “managing others.”

These factors, when combined with the boomer exodus out of the workforce is pointing to a leadership vacuum across industries, with 84% of organizations anticipating a shortfall of leaders over the next five years.  In fact, leadership transitions are becoming more frequent and complex, and developing a leadership pipeline in law firms needs to become a top priority.  Law firms, when working with millennial attorneys, would be well-served to find ways to incentivize leadership, increase transparency surrounding firm decisions, especially the partnership process in order to create a leadership pipeline to ensure successful succession planning and relationship management.  To examine this issue, we spoke to several law firm consultants on the state of leadership in law firms,  how firms can engage and cultivate their millennial talent to take on leadership roles, and how marketing and business development teams fit into this process.

Importance of Developing Millennial Leadership and Talent at the Associate Level

Jonathan Kirschner, CEO of AIIR Consulting, points to conditions in law firms, that may make developing leadership habits in millennial attorneys more challenging.  In a traditional law firm structure, leadership at the associate level is not incentivized. Associates are valued for their ability to work hard and long, creating a situation where young lawyers are not encouraged to reach out and develop leadership skills, but rather rewarded for keeping their nose to the grindstone.  Kirschner says, “If a newly minted lawyer has to choose between a single billable hour and coaching a colleague or peer, the former is a much more useful currency in today’s traditional firm.”  Alycia Sutor of GrowthPlay points out that many of the characteristics that comprise good leaders are important to millennials--just divorced from the authoritarian and hierarchical packaging associated with a traditional law firm. Kirschner says, “firms need to do a much better job defining what leadership is and why it is important.  If leadership isn’t treated as a significant factor in promotability, then there is a strong chance it won’t be cultivated.” 

The Role of Transparency and Feedback in the Law Firm Leadership Pipeline

Sutor points out that firm looking to secure their leadership pipeline would do well to “exemplify the kind of behaviors that millennials value--being more transparent . . . and being relationship-focused and investing in the success of the people at the firm.”  In doing so, firms can cultivate their high-potential talent and help ensure the firm’s leadership for years to come.  By providing young lawyers with feedback and offering mentorship and advice, Kirschner says, “associates become more self-aware of their strengths to leverage, develop key leadership skills, and cultivate client management skills, and firms will, in turn, build up bench-strength.”  Finding ways to offer feedback and evaluation--in a positive, affirming way can show young attorneys that they are an important part of the firm’s future.  John Remsen, Jr of the Remsen Group points out that providing positive feedback in a public setting can be an easy, inexpensive way to cultivate the kind of behavior law firm leadership wants to see, and help younger attorneys feel invested in turn with the firm. 

As part of embracing transparency,  Kirschner suggests that eliminating some of the mystery around the Partnership approval process can help. Young attorneys are often likely confused and frustrated--they have the ambition and desire to reach that level, but don’t know what else is required beyond hard work.  Kirkschner says, “firms with great succession planning practices favor transparency over keeping a black-box around both the process as well as the necessary skills and competencies.”   By clarifying advancement criteria law firms can develop a system where important metrics are met, and this can open the door to non-billable activities the firm may want to encourage--such as pro-bono work or legal marketing activities.  Remsen  agrees, saying, “Everyone will give you what you want, if you indicate that it matters, set the expectations, apply metrics and ultimately reward the desired behaviors.” 

Creating a Law Firm Culture to Develop Leadership Talent

According to Remsen: “There are things law firms can do beyond dollars to build a culture where young lawyers want to go and thrive.”  Law firms find extreme value in taking steps to craft a leadership pipeline, such as shifting the hierarchical structure to create a space for younger attorneys to flex their leadership abilities and shape the firm into a place where they want to be.

There are plenty of ways to do that, and Sutor says, “firm leaders can give millennials opportunities to practice leading on a small scale.”  Remsen agrees, suggesting law firms create “deputy” positions with the firm to encourage younger attorney engagement.  By getting more creative about leadership development, firms can reconfigure talent pipelines to create new leadership levels, Kirschner says, “this can increase career optionality and make mobility less of a zero-sum experience.”  

Firms should also consider asking younger attorneys for input on firm culture issues--especially in relation to changes to make the firm more attractive to attract and retain talent.  Sutor suggests: “create opportunities for millennials to reverse mentor or teach others . . . charge them with connecting to others across the firm for the purpose of feedback and perspective on an issue up for discussion.”  Keep in mind this may open the door to some dramatically different suggestions about how the firm does things--especially surrounding work-life balance issues.  However, the changing dynamics of the job market coupled with millennials' willingness to change jobs or even careers, large changes in workplace culture at law firms may well be worth considering.

Pro bono projects are excellent opportunities for young attorneys to take a leadership role, manage a matter, and contribute to their own development in a way that can make a difference both to the pro bono client and within the firm.  This can be a win-win for the firm and the attorney involved, as he or she can use their legal education to make a positive contribution (something a fifth of millennials surveyed want to do) while elevating the firm’s reputation in the community. 

The Role of Business Development in Law Firm Leadership Development

Client relationship management is very important for a firm’s bottom line, and the voice of the client--a voice that is increasingly demanding diversity from outside counsel can be instrumental in advocating for the kind of change many firms need to enact.  Sutor says, “Marketing and Business Development folks can champion millennial participation by encouraging senior partners and law firm leaders to consider who may not be represented at the table in key activities like client pitches or network building activities.”  Sutor explains that the demand for diversity coming from clients also includes a generational perspective.  Including associate attorneys in business development activities with clients--including networking or other events, not just at pitch meetings, the relationship between firm and client can be strengthened across generational lines.  Increasingly millennials are also making key decisions in retaining law firms.  By using the voice of the client, marketing and business development teams can make a compelling argument for law firm leadership to examine the gaps in their age, gender and cultural representation and encourage the participation and development of younger attorneys. 

Law firms that are able to find ways to engage and develop their millennial attorneys through firm initiatives are building a competitive advantage in the increasingly competitive legal marketplace.  By harnessing the voice of the client, crafting pathways and pipelines for young attorneys to contribute meaningfully to the culture of the firm as well as providing newer attorneys with feedback and training opportunities to develop their own skills and abilities, law firms can smooth out some of the succession bumps and ensure the next generation of leaders will be ready to take the reins.    Kirschner says, “The best way law firms can gain leadership capacity is by growing it organically.” 

Copyright ©2023 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 290

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