Managing Your Practice

X Lawyers Mark New Spot

Understanding the post-baby boomer attorney

By Linda Green Pierce

They are demanding. They are also bold, confident, savvy and setting today's legal community on its ear! Forty-five million young adults were born between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s. Dubbed Generation X, they stand out in today's law firms and corporate legal departments. Conservative and staid by reputation and history, law firms, particularly, find this new generation perplexing.

According to the World Future Society, a source which predicts business and societal changes, 'society will increasingly take its cue from Generation X and dot-com rather than the baby boomers who have dominated its thinking for most of four decades.'

Statistically, many Xers may have 'raised themselves' and carried keys home from school to let themselves into empty houses. A great percentage of them come from broken families or were raised by a single parent. Even if not from homes of divorce, in many cases both their parents were away from home fighting corporate battles. They are not uncomfortable with being alone and they have a strong survivorship mentality.

Record numbers of Xer parents, competed for jobs and climbed corporate ladders successfully during their day of mostly economic boom times. Frightful eras like the Vietnam War were fading behind them. Their Generation X child, while enjoying the financial glow of the last 10 years of little down turn, grew up in the shadow of an increasingly unsafe world - exploding airliners, world environmental disasters, attending school amid guns and drugs, children kidnapped from their own homes. Boomers, on the other hand, tell tales of growing up in their abundant, safe world with plans for success and to do good things. The view of Generation X is less optimistic, if not downright negative. Members of this group realize that things will come harder to them than they did for their parents.

Some law firm partners believe Generation X candidates to be idlers, less willing to carry a briefcase and learn at the knee of an experienced corporate transactions or litigation-wars scarred partner. Yet, as Xers make their impression on society, we are finding not a lack of work ethic, but a group of people who need to work in an atmosphere quite different than most law firm cultures. They are less inclined to see a job as a long-term commitment; they desire flexible work environments and part-time opportunities. They are not driven by the same objectives as more traditional employees.

If there was a lack of family connection in their upbringing, Xers search for a family connection at work. Law firms with the best success of hiring and retaining this young legal talent have created family-style workplaces. Silicon Valley technology companies lent a hand in creating more casual and comfortable law firm environments. It's important to note that that specific industry, which led the way to 'casual everyday' dressing, for instance, wasn't the catalyst for change. The change occurred because the populations of workers in high technology were largely Xers who preferred this dress. Companies and law firms which create a home environment and home-like surroundings - a relaxed architectural setting, casual dress, the foosball table, the stocked refrigerator and peanut butter and crackers in the cupboard - create an environment where Xers will more readily stay on or stay to work late.

But it's more than peanut butter than motivates Generation X. It's a total mentality. Unlike boomers, who learned technology as it was invented, Xers grew up with computers. They process information differently. The spurts of immediate information provided by computers and television has created a generation accustomed to getting information and education quickly and in sound bites. That short attention span, which may arguably limit focus, enhances the ability to do multiple tasks. A range of available information through the media and computers has enhanced this generation's ability to draw conclusions from readily available sources. Xers are accustomed to learning and working in groups (starting from when they entered play groups or day care as children) and will thrive on brainstorming and team interaction, with some senior-level supervision. A variety of tasks using multiple sources of information translate to freedom and responsibility - big motivators to this generation.

Perks that motivated boomers do not do it for Xers. In fact, ostentatious displays of 'things' are sometimes embarrassing to this generation, who tend to de-emphasis ownership and status. Motivating them by the reserved parking place (a baby boomer favorite) means little to the mass-transportation supporter or bicycle commuter.

The myth that Xers are not motivated by money is incorrect. Certainly they are not motivated in the same way as their predecessor generation. Firms assumed this myth because time and again when an executive committee offered more money for more billable hours, associates turned them down cold. The Xers said: 'Thanks, I'd rather keep the same amount of money and protect my lifestyle.' Responsibility, mentoring, training, more interaction with partners and communication motivate this generation. They will work more hours for more money if the exchange is right for them individually, but not for money alone.

'One of the most obvious responses to this generation within Ater Wynne is that we've put a new compensation plan into effect,' says the firm's hiring partner Brenda Meltebeke. 'This was partially driven by market forces, but really polished and finalized with input from our new associates. The new system gives them a market rate salary for a reasonable base level of billable hours. Beyond the base level of billable hours, the plan gives associates incremental pay for more hours - the notion being to give people options on how they wish to place themselves on the work/money/life scale.'

Partner Meltebeke goes on to say, 'It's been well received. People know where they stand and what to expect; it's very clear.'

Here are some additional suggestions for success with the X Generation:

PARTNER TRAINING. Develop an organizational obsession with training. Not just for the new associates who will demand it, but to teach old partners new tricks in management and human relations. All partners will need to delegate effectively and mentor. Send them back to school if they don't get it.

JUGGLE. Xers like work they can juggle. They enjoy lots of simultaneous tasks and projects and they want to prioritize them in their own way. Partners who have historically parceled out work a little at a time on a need-to-know basis will not work well with Xers. This generation has an extreme desire to have some control over their work and accommodate the needs of their family. If little Johnny Xer's father never made it to Little League games, you can bet Johnny is determined to be there for his own child. The firm that respects and helps the associate with his or her personal and family time will retain that employee.

FREEDOM. Giving young associates of this generation the opportunity to enjoy a little freedom, even some fun, goes a long way. Whether it's the firm-sponsored 'Aloha Days' Friday, with palm tree decorations and non-alcoholic Chi Chi drinks or a pick-up basketball game, these breaks and fun keep the positive juices flowing. Providing time to pursue other interests, to the extent they can be accommodated in workdays is helpful. A board meeting for a non-profit organization or a bike lane opening may occur during traditional office hours. This generation will work all the harder if they have leeway in their schedules to attend with the firm's blessing.

LET'S TALK. Feedback is extremely important to Xers. Woefully, law firms have been very poor in this area. Many partners, having experienced lack of feedback themselves and feeling it 'goes with the territory' think associates should be happy with an annual or semi-annual evaluation. Generation X lawyers need more constructive feedback. Perhaps it is their early upbringing away from the feedback of parents that fuels this need. Nevertheless, a partner who spends more time in honest conversation about amounts of work, work quality and how the work of that associate fits into firm growth and success, is the partner who will keep an associate.

PLUG IT IN, PLUG IT IN. Their father or mother's perk was the largest corner office, windows overlooking the world and a secretary (solely assigned to him or her) outside the door. This generation doesn't value that perk and instead appreciates supervisors who roll up their sleeves and work next to them. They appreciate leading-edge technology as the work benefit that shows you care. The latest computer technology and training tells them the firm is willing to invest in them. Hand-me-downs in technology don't cut it. That's not to say that every law firm has to have the latest gadget and software offering. But if a firm is not investing in technology, associates will want to know why.

NOT SHY. Today's X Generation is bold. They will ask questions about partner incomes, net profits per partner and uncomfortable questions such as, 'If I don't like the partner I'm assigned to, what's the procedure to get another?' In our recent strong economy, they have asked questions which push firms and rankled many. On the other hand, because of some of this hard questioning, firms have had to come up with answers. For example, firms have quit writing canned paragraphs about 'collegiality' in their hiring brochures and web sites. They have substantially improved hiring efforts with hard-core internal information about practice group strengths or weaknesses, salaries, difficult partners and who the firm feels is their toughest competitor.

Perkins Coie hiring partner Chris Matthews has this to say: 'Whatever the statistics and trends are, we're always looking for excellence and achievement. There are always those who strive for that; Generation X is no exception. We look forward to the way that the next generation helps the firm's culture evolve. We don't want a static environment. We think Generation X hires are a healthy part of the continued growth of the firm.'

NOT LIKE THEIR PARENTS. Xers crave instructions and road maps to success. Law firms have historically had a smoke and mirrors approach to making partner, which is totally unacceptable to this generation. They demand feedback and an evaluation process that shows them how to be successful in the firm. They ask early and often if they are on track and, if they are not, they ask what they need to do to get on track and be successful. They may have witnessed a family member or friend be 'downsized' or terminated because the person did not have an appropriate new skill set. They won't knowingly allow that to happen to them.

Brenda Meltebeke adds: 'We have a new Associates Committee, which is lending itself to a more formal mentoring and training program than we've ever had before. We've started a series of training lunches; I think we've had four or five so far. They have been well attended by partners and associates alike. The committee was started solely in response to the input of this new generation of lawyers. We've had it going only a few months, and it's a bit soon to tell, but it seems to be moving in a direction that meets the needs expressed by our associates. We're eager to be responsive.'

ELIMINATE THE WORDS 'WHEN I WAS AN ASSOCIATE.' The quotes from partners to associates are many: 'I never asked what was the best thing for me to do, I just kept working harder and eventually I hit what was right;' 'I never went home for dinner. Sure my kids missed me, but that's what it took in those days;' 'Why, when I was an associate, it took me years to make what you are making now for first-year salary. I made less as a partner.' That was yesterday; this is today.

Take Chris Matthews' word for it: 'The culture of every law firm is always evolving as its population changes. Boomers certainly defined their place at the time they came into law firms, and so it will be true with this generation. What's important to recognize, is that you've been on the other side of the coin at their age.'

If a demanding child is in your office, you might want to place your hands over your ears and boot that Xer out while you finish a task at hand. But be clear on this one - if a Generation X child wants something, he or she will ask for it. It behooves you to listen, because if they don't get it from you, they will get it elsewhere. It's good business to listen.

Hiring partner Rod Lewis at Davis Wright Tremaine shoos no one out of his office: 'The new lawyers we have hired are ambitious and willing to work hard. Our challenge is to provide the training and interesting work they expect. We figure it costs $100,000 when we 'turn over' an experienced attorney by losing one and hiring a replacement. Retention is the key, and we pay a lot of attention to integrating new lawyers into our culture and our practice groups.'

Accepting the outdated 'slacker' myth will bring neither new energy nor top talent to today's law firms. Generation X's self-motivation, fresh perspective and balance of life are here to stay - and it will be good for all of us. +


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linda Green Pierce is president of Northwest Legal Search Inc., a lawyer consulting and placement firm established in Portland in 1987. She can be reached by e-mail at linda@ nwlegalsearch.com.


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