Throughout my career, I have heard partners at law firms complain about "associates these days." They complain that associates are unwilling to work hard, feel entitled to have it all and don't know how good they have it, compared with what it was like back in the day.
Undoubtedly, the partners' views are reinforced by the fact that most of those associates are millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), a generation that has been repeatedly lambasted as being lazy, self-entitled and coddled.
Although I suspect there may be a kernel of truth in their critique, this article is not about whether the complaints are grounded in reality. Rather, it is about the dangers of disregarding the millennial viewpoint in this generational culture clash.
Law firms ignore millennial ideas at their peril
Change is hard – everyone knows that. The problem is that the status quo, while comforting, can also be dangerous. If you refuse to move forward, you may be left behind.
It is far easier to dismiss an idea if you discredit the person who espouses it as nothing more than a lazy millennial whiner. But this results in good ideas being ignored. By over-diagnosing an entire generation as lazy whiners, law firms are giving themselves an easy excuse not to change. The irony is that tech-savvy millennials (who also understand how other millennials think) are well suited to help firms adapt to the changing landscape.
Not all ideas proposed by millennials are motivated by a desire to work less
Why should a firm care if, instead of working until 9 p.m. at the office, a millennial associate goes home, sees his children from 5-7 p.m., and works remotely from 9-11 p.m.? He is working no less, just in a manner that allows him to see his children. This seems obvious – yet, many associates feel that being seen leaving the office at 5 p.m. every day will be held against them.
Not all ideas are bad even if proposed by a millennial with "unworthy" motivations
If an idea is good, a person's motivation for proposing it should be irrelevant. If Jen, a millennial associate, suggests her firm invest in technology to reduce the amount of time she spends reviewing documents, the only relevant question should be, "is it a sound investment?" If the answer is "yes," then the firm should invest. It should be irrelevant that Jen's motivation for finding the technology stemmed from her hatred of doing document review, a task that she considers boring. From the firm's perspective, that Jen will no longer have to spend time doing work she hates should just be a bonus.
If millennials find ways to accomplish the same results while putting in less effort, or doing more rewarding work, well then good for them. They should be applauded for their good ideas, not reprimanded because their motivations are deemed unworthy.
Decision makers should be careful to ensure that their decisions do not stem from a desire to make the next generation "suffer" in the same ways that they once did. We get it: you walked uphill to school, both ways! That doesn't mean that there isn't a better way of getting there today.
Law firms should evaluate the status quo before criticizing those who propose change
I was mocked by a partner at my previous firm because I told him that it was non-negotiable that I needed to eat lunch every single day. Apparently, for him, skipping lunch some days would have been a sign of my devotion to the law and the firm. For me, it was inane. I was willing to give up many things, but lunch was not one of them.
In many firms, discussing work-life balance and law firm culture issues (outside of recruiting season) is a no-no. The problem with this mentality is that it presumes the older generation's approach to work is the right one.
Before complaining that millennials' views of work-life balance and firm culture are wrong, law firms should be evaluating whether they currently have it right. How many partners are divorced? How many missed one too many dance recitals? How many battle with anxiety and alcoholism? Law firms should be asking themselves if they are 100-per-cent confident that the system doesn't need to change – even a little bit. Because if it does, then the topic needs to be open for meaningful discussion.
Small changes in a firm's policies and attitudes can make big differences to morale without affecting the bottom line. A small but telling example is the propensity of partners to set false deadlines. There was nothing more frustrating than the Friday afternoon call requiring me to spend my weekend drafting a document, allegedly due Monday morning, that was not reviewed until Thursday. If believing that I should not be required to spend a weekend working for no real reason makes me a self-entitled millennial, I accept the title. I suggest, however, that it simply makes me someone who believes that I should be treated with common decency and a modicum of respect. Make a small change; set a deadline when it is really a deadline.
Bigger changes can affect a firm's bottom line because they relate to the overall number of hours that lawyers spend working. I understand that firms are reticent to open this can of worms because, generally speaking, hours worked translate into dollars earned. What I don't understand, however, is why law firms seem to believe that there is only one way to skin a cat. In many firms, either an associate is willing to put work above all else, or he or she is unlikely to rise to the top. If a brilliant lawyer wants to work four days a week, does that make him any less brilliant? No – it just means that his pay should be adjusted accordingly. Law firms' rigid one-size-fits-all mentality only ensures that they will continue to lose great lawyers for no good reason.
Our profession is only as strong as the minds it attracts and retains. If firms refuse to listen to those moving up their ranks, they risk losing bright millennial minds. Instead of wasting time complaining, firms should be spending their time trying to understand how to best harness the millenials' energy. They are, after all, the future.
Allison Speigel is a commercial litigator with Speigel Nichols Fox LLP, a boutique commercial litigation law firm.