Managing Multi-Generational Law Firms: Who Are These People?

By Cheryl J. Leone, Law Firm Coach

Part 1 of a 4-part series

In 2008 I wrote a four part series on generational management for Lawyers Weekly. At that time most people had heard nothing about it. I have updated it as a post to Law Firm Coach because I think it is the top issue in work cultures today. Remember: Today we have four generations (almost five) working side by side and none of them speak the same language!

George Orwell said it best; “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

Nothing will have more of a financial and growth impact on employee management in law firms than understanding one thing; law firms that are already implementing generational management are seeing the difference. Each generation has a name and is conditioned and responsive based upon events in their lives, their parental generation, and conditions within which they were exposed to growing up.

Traditionalists were born before 1945, will be 62 or older and make up approximately 5% of today’s work force. Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, (ages 44 to 62) and make up about 45% of today’s work force. Generation X was born between 1965 and 1980, ages 28 to 43, and comprise 40% of the workforce. And Generation Y or Millennials were born from 1981 to 1999 and are ages 9 to 27. Millennials are holding about 10% of the workforce but are growing rapidly as more and more finish their education and jump into the career game.

There are also those people who fall somewhere in between generations. They are on the cusp so to speak. You might find a Traditionalist who was born say in 1944 but who is more a Baby Boomer governed by exposures and events than a Traditionalist.

Today’s workforce has gone from World War II to the World Wide Web. They are sitting side by side wondering what is wrong with the other and creating great departures in the way lawyers must work to maintain a pro-active, high productive team. Turn-over rates in law firms have never been higher. And some is easily explainable and some is not. It takes understanding to make it work for you.

What percentage of your firm is made up of members from each generation? Whether you are an owner, an associate, management personnel, paralegal, or support personnel, you must understand these four generations and what they need. Without it a law firm will simply head towards continued chaos. Diversity training is now about generational workers. This knowledge not only applies to your firm, but your dealings with your peers or your adversaries. Understanding what makes someone tick wins the game every time.

Look at today’s Traditionalist law firm life-form. He or she may be a lawyer or non-lawyer approximately 62 years or older (more likely male). This person was born at the end of World War II and raised in a multi-generational family environment by parents and grand-parents with strong family unity. He was raised on stories of the great depression with loyalty and devotion to one’s country and family. No sacrifice was too great for the common good. He knew the value of hard work to get the job done or to keep the job done. He embodied the phrase “the company man”. The Traditionalist knew if he worked very hard, was very loyal and had strong morals and ethics, the pay-off came with a good retirement and the golden years. Ask a Traditionalist what he thinks of events in his generation and he will clearly talk to you about leaping under desks to practice for a potential nuclear attack (the Cuban crisis), the other world power (Russia), the assassination of Kennedy (conspiracy theories), and the collapse of the Berlin Wall (the end of the cold war). He wanted to give his children opportunities he did not have. This by the way created the Baby Boomers (or the me generation). Again, the Traditionalist will expect reward and recognition for his long service.

In When Generations Collide by Lancaster and Stillman, they talk about clash points; those incidents that occur when generations don’t understand each other and the impact upon our work environment. According to the authors, the following is how generations differ on just retirement:

  • Traditionalists: Reward
  • Baby Boomers: Retool
  • Generation Xers: Renew
  • Millennials: Recycle

Draw a partnership agreement off of that thought. It also can explain why threats of firing don’t work anymore. Baby Boomers see changing jobs as getting you behind in a career move (until their later years) but threaten to fire a Xers and they will tell you to go ahead they will be a better person for it. Threaten to fire a Millennial and they will see it as part of life and not sweat it.

Law firm owners and managers constantly complain of the turn-over in staff. The question becomes should this be an accepted trend? According to a Bureau of Labor & Statistics newsletter release in 2006, baby boomers held an average of 10.5 jobs from ages 18 to 40. On average, men held 10.7 jobs and women held 10.3 jobs. Both men and women held more jobs on average in their late teens and early twenties than they held in their mid thirties. This is an important trend to be aware of in planning tomorrow’s work force; the days of longevity are over with.

A bigger question to answer is how you keep them down on the farm, so to speak. It isn’t hard to get great partners, associates or great staff; it is hard to keep them, particularly if they no longer have the Traditionalist viewpoint of being the “company man.”

Good law firms have to rethink motivation, rethink expectations and rethink development and growth of its existing workforce. And to gain productivity, you have to teach the generations how to talk with each other.

About the Authors

Principals Dave Favor and Cheryl Leone are the founders of Catalyst Group, Inc. with its corporate offices in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rounding out the Coaches is Attorney Carl Solomon of Columbia, South Carolina. They share a common value and belief system that everyone deserves a chance to work for themselves and do it in such a way that it is profitable, enjoyable and respected by others. For more information email our Head Coach.

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