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Firms harness multi-generational power

Firms harness multi-generational power

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management Workplace 


Generational differences are being embraced in law firms reaping the benefits of diversity.

Time was, law firms were strict hierarchies run on generational lines. Senior – in age and experience – partners ran the firm. Younger associates, partners and lawyers from later generations worked hard, learned a lot and hoped to reach the upper echelons one day.

But in an increasing number of law firms, generational differences are being embraced as part of the recognition of the value of diversity, but also as a necessity for future survival.

Younger lawyers, once seen as raw material to be moulded into the culture of the firm, are now seen as bringing energy and innovation, middle career lawyers are seeking and getting more flexibility, and older lawyers are being valued for their experience and steadying influence.

Of the roughly 18,000 lawyers in Victoria, 15 per cent are under 30, 56.5 per cent are in their mid career between 30 and 50 years of age, while 28.5 per cent are over 50.

At DLA Piper, managing partner Amber Matthews says in order to survive, law firms need to value and capitalise on what each generation has to offer. “Being able to accommodate all generations in an inclusive and flexible way is very important to the ongoing success of all law firms,” she says.

“We want everyone to feel their contribution is valued. As a firm we are focused on innovation and inclusion.”

La Trobe Law School lecturer and author of The Modern Lawyer Mira Stammers says it’s important that firms understand what motivates each generation in order to keep them happy and committed to the firm.

“Firms have to think of their staff as different customer segments,” she says. “Only then can they understand the mindset of their staff more clearly and create staff incentives that are attractive to each of the generations, thus improving productivity and retention rates.”

Gatehouse Legal recruitment firm director John Castello says younger lawyers play an important role within firms because their innovative approach challenges the status quo “to find better ways and efficiencies of doing things to better service their clients and those internal to an organisation”.

“They bring a new perspective and viewpoint to a law firm or business of what the next generation of clients will want.”

Millennials or gen-Ys who feel they aren’t challenged or appreciated are likely to move on, says Ms Stammers.

A survey carried out a couple of years ago by Deloitte found that only 19 per cent of millennials in Australia expected to stay with their current employer for more than five years, with nearly half expecting to leave their current employer in the next two years.

“Millennials expect a high level of feedback that baby boomers aren’t used to giving,” Ms Stammers says. Given that most partners are baby boomers and most new lawyers are millennials, that can cause a clash with older lawyers who expect younger lawyers to just get on with the job.

Millennials’ preference for open door, accessible workplaces can also be a challenge to baby boomer lawyers who respect a hierarchy and often like a closed door office, she adds.

Junior lawyers come into the job with expectations of having their input respected from an early age, rather than waiting patiently to ascend the ladder to seniority, says Ms Matthews. That’s because millennials have grown up in a world where work is done collaboratively and they expect that to continue when they go into the law.

“Younger people just naturally collaborate,” she says. “Even at university everything is a group assignment and they’re always on social media. That’s just the way they’ve grown up. So they come into a law firm and sometimes they see silos of work and don’t quite understand how that operates because they’ve never really worked within those kinds of silos.”

Within the flatter structure at DLA Piper, lawyer Grace Powell, 28, says the firm makes her feel she has as much to offer as more seasoned lawyers. “I have the ability to say, why don’t we try this approach with a client?”

Her colleague, senior partner Gerry Bean, 58, says he appreciates being able to tap into the way younger lawyers like Ms Powell see things. “I can talk to lawyers younger than me and get a different way of seeing things.”

Meanwhile mid-career lawyer Jane Coventry, 33, says there is no firm delineation between generations within the firm and the views of people from all age groups are valued. “Everyone has a part to play,” she says.

The three currently work together on the firm’s Reconciliation Action Plan, and say that having a team that includes lawyers from multiple generations just makes sense.

While it’s essential to have the seniority and the safe pair of hands brought by an older experienced lawyer like Dr Bean, the perspective of a mid-career lawyer like Ms Coventry and a relatively junior lawyer like Ms Powell keeps things moving along.

“I like the way we are able to bounce ideas off each other,” Dr Bean says. “That’s something we do all the time and it works both ways. I can talk to lawyers younger than me and I’ll get a different way of seeing.”

The over 50s – generally baby boomers – have traditionally assumed their years of experience and sacrifices they’ve made working their way up t entitles them to having the say over how things are run and who gets the rewards.

But while they may feel entitled to the authority they’ve earned, that can be undermined by fear of not being able to keep up with new technologies.

However, Ms Matthews says that is not necessarily the case, and argues that while older lawyers may not have been digital natives like their millennial colleagues, most have successfully adapted to enormous changes to technology and workplace culture over the past 30 years.

“People often portray the older generation as less able or less willing to adapt but I don’t think that's true,” she says. “I think they have had to adapt considerably over their careers and continue to do so.”

Unlike some other firms, DLA doesn’t expect its older partners to go into retirement in their mid 50s. One consultant is in his 70s. “Senior partners can be great mentors and leaders in the firm and also provide the diversity of ideas that helps DLA Piper stand out in a competitive market,” Ms Matthews says. Dr Bean, who has no intention of moving on in a hurry, says he has friends the same age in other firms who have been told it’s time to go.

In between, the mid-career lawyers, often gen-Xers or older gen-Ys, have been waiting patiently for their chance to lead. This middle generation has straddled both worlds, coming into the law on the cusp of the huge changes brought by the internet, but still subject to the more traditional law firm model where the convention was learning under a partner and progressing through the ranks of the firm.

Many are juggling parenthood with their growing seniority and responsibility within the firm. While this is probably the first generation in which men are taking on family responsibilities as much as women, the load clearly still falls more on the women, according to statistics from Victorian Women Lawyers which show the number of female lawyers dropping by 75 per cent between 35 and 55.

This middle generation was also the first that did not benefit from a free university education and instead had to be focused on getting their degree, often working more to support their studies. That’s something that Ms Coventry contrasts a little wistfully with the experience of younger lawyers.

“When I was at uni, you did your law degree and you might have had a part-time job in a bar or at McDonalds, you did your clerkship and you got your job,” Ms Coventry says. She believes the less single-minded approach of younger lawyers is a healthy development.

“Graduates who come in now have really impressive CVs with a really diverse set of life experiences. That gives them a completely different take on things because of what they’ve seen and what they’ve done.”

With that rich extra-curricular experience, younger lawyers want more of the same, something that DLA Piper caters for. Ms Powell is soon to leave for a three month international secondment with the firm’s London office. “It's a huge opportunity and an amazing experience,” she says and was one of the reasons she chose DLA “because I wanted that diversity of experience”.

That is a far cry from Dr Bean’s experience as a young lawyer when if you wanted to work overseas you had to quit your Australian law firm and find a job overseas. He can see the value of keeping young people like Ms Powell in the firm. “What it means is that you don’t necessarily lose that person out of the business just because they want to have experience working overseas.”

Ms Coventry too is getting her chance to experience working overseas, having recently returned from a short secondment in Hong Kong.

What younger lawyers are also less likely to put up with for long these days is the traditional law firm culture of long hours and presenteeism that sees them stay in the office until late.

Ms Powell says her generation is happy enough to put in the hours where it's needed, but feels entitled to more flexibility on time required to put in at the office, especially given the ability to keep on top of matters with technology. “I don't see a clear work-life divide.” 

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