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Retaining Millennials at Law Firms Requires Change

Managing attorney departures at a law firm can be a daunting task, especially if a departing attorney has a book of business and takes clients along when leaving the firm. Although it can be difficult for the firm, a practice area and, often, the attorneys who remain, it has been a fairly rare occurrence in the past, particularly for equity partners. 

That rarity is changing at an increasing rate as baby boomers have phased out of the workforce, leaving millennials to become the largest percentage of the U.S. employee pool. In fact, millenials are expected to make up 75 percent of our nation’s workers by 2030. They bring a different attitude regarding their careers and longevity with a particular company than we have become accustomed to, especially in a law firm culture. 

As most business professionals are aware, it takes much more money to hire and train a new employee than to simply retain astute professionals. And, with millennials’ perceptions of how office life should be, law firms will need to pay much more attention to those ideals in order to keep excellent talent, which is imperative for a successful firm. 

Millennial Expectations

So, what do millennials expect in the way of work life? This is a frequently discussed topic in the media, at companies and within law firms throughout the world. I’ve read several good articles on the subject lately and will share from one in particular written by Jeff Fromm for Forbes magazine. 

Fromm, who consults on the “Millennial Generation” or “Gen Y,” often speaks about the attributes these employees want from their companies, and it’s not all about salary and benefits. 

Although there is no precisely defined birth date range for this segment of the population, it is often described as people reaching young adulthood around the year 2000. These individuals were raised with technology and gadgets at a time when developing a child’s self esteem and individuality was a predominant theme in educational and behavioral methodologies.

Other attributes discussed include:

  1. Millenials want to be a part of  “the process.” They have strong entrepreneurial tendencies and desire growth. If they do not feel they are growing at a company or firm, they are much more likely to move to another than their older peers. 
  2. Millenials prefer to be coached and mentored instead of “bossed” or just told what to do. Interestingly, this does not mean that they want to work independently with little supervision; it’s quite the opposite. They actually prefer more interaction and feedback than the typical baby boomer. 

Conforming to the Millennial Way of Life 

So, what does this mean for law firms and particularly law firm management, practice area leaders and the like? It means an almost 180-degree change in the way associates have been managed in the past. 

Millennial attorneys will want to be part of the process from the beginning. They are not content to receive a directive such as, “Research a particular point of law and prepare an annotated brief on the subject.” Instead, they want to know about the case, why the research is important for the case and how it will be used to benefit the case. 

Likewise, instead of just receiving a red-lined document back with few instructions regarding how to improve the work, millennials will prefer to discuss how the work product was perceived, why changes were made and how the changes make the information better in relation to the case. They want to learn and grow from the process; i.e., from performing their work. 

These types of processes will, indeed, make for a better learning experience for associates, enhance their skills and grow more capable team members. However, this approach will also take more time and patience on the leader’s behalf. Just a “do as I say” directive, without an explanation of why to do it, doesn’t sit well with a millennial. Over time, such treatment will erode the associate’s desire to stay at the firm. 

Millennial Mentoring

Remember, these younger attorneys need to feel included and that they are growing and making a difference to be motivated and engaged. Just receiving a good paycheck and the chance at equity ownership isn’t a long-term motivator for them. That really is a cultural change in how many, if not most, young associates used to be trained to be the future leaders of a law firm.  

Also, consider that dramatic change in a firm’s processes can’t happen all at once, or else the culture will implode. Instead of instituting entirely new training and evaluation programs, try adding in or updating your firm’s processes. As a start, adding a strong associate mentoring program with real checks and balances will go a long way toward including associates in the process. And know that opening up the lines of communications top-down and bottom-up at any organization also will result in better operations and more-satisfied employees. If good communication isn’t standard at your firm, offer training across the board. 

The impact the changing workforce has had on law firms isn’t just beginning … it is happening and must be addressed now to avoid major business operational issues for law firms. Take note of this growing trend and make the necessary changes to ensure your firm has the best talent today and in the future. 

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