Mind the gap

  • July 15, 2014
  • Emily White

When I was an articling student at a large firm in Toronto in the late 1990s, I stepped into the elevator right behind a man who I recognized as one of the firm’s senior partners. I pushed the button for my floor, 62, and the partner turned to me and said, not unkindly, “Deliveries go to 60.”

I was a bit confused. Why did he think I had a delivery? Then it hit me. He thought I was a bike courier. I was wearing a windbreaker, a backpack, cords and walking shoes, and I had a bike helmet tucked under my arm. To the partner, I must have looked like anyone else off the street. I certainly didn’t strike him as a young and up-and-coming member of the firm.

“I work here,” I said hesitantly, and he looked baffled, as though he couldn’t imagine where in his firm I might fit. “I’m an articling student,” I added, before he turned away, clearly unimpressed both with me and my outfit.

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but our exchange in the elevator was, in many senses, a harbinger. As a twenty-something, I didn’t want to dress in uncomfortable clothes; as a sixty-something, the partner had a fixed notion of what I should be wearing. What we were experiencing—although neither of us named it as such—was generational conflict.

To some degree,there has always been generational conflict at firms. Lawyers who entered firms in the 1960s, for instance, might have had little in common with the generation before them, whose members had lived through the Second World War. But what’s happening today is different.

There are three main generations at law firms: the baby boomers (those in their fifties and over), members of Generation X (those in their thirties and forties), and members of Generation Y (those in their twenties). What’s most striking about these different cohorts—and what makes today’s generational conflicts different from those of the past—is demographics. Generations X and Y are smaller than the baby boom generation they’re replacing.

It’s awareness of the difference which shades conflicts in a multi-generational workforce—even as employees and employers deal with shifts in the legal services market, the changing health of law firms and legal departments, and intra-generational competition for the most sought-after legal careers and credentials. It is the sense that, while the boomers had no choice but to ‘toe the line,’ members of younger generations can ‘pick and choose’ where they might work.

“With the boomers, we had twice as many people as we needed all competing for the same jobs, the same job security, the same promotions. So they had to suck it up and do whatever to stay employed,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. “But Generation Y? They’re 40 per cent as large as what they have to replace [Gen X]. Whatever they want, they are going to get.”

And what the younger generations want and expect from their workplaces is sometimes quite different from what boomers are used to. There can be a clash of values, with the younger generations attaching greater importance to work-life balancethan boomers did at their age, saysAlan Levy, an associate professor of business administration at Brandon University in Manitoba who has presented CLE on resolving inter-generational conflicts in law firms. A boomer lawyer faced with an unfinished file on a Friday afternoon might throw away her weekend; a twenty-something might refuse to do the work.

Many younger workers feeltheir parents “give their heart and soul to the organization,” says Duxbury, whose research on issues in managing a changing workforce has been recognized internationally. “And they’ve seen the consequences of those kinds of activities. They’ve seen their parents get divorced; they’ve seen their parents on Prozac; they’ve seen their parents on stress leave. They have absolutely no intention of sacrificing their life for their job.”

The problem, says Levy, is that many law firm leadershave tended to view generational conflicts—over hours, or clothing, or extended parental leave—as one-off difficulties.

“They personalize the issue,”says Levy of boomer managers. “So they don’t think about this in a critical, analytic fashion. They think about it in individualized terms, which only exacerbates the problem—one person will leave, and they’re going to have the same problem with the next person.”

Future shock

To Levy, an arbitrator and mediator with 25 years of HR experience in the public and private sectors in Canada, what many law firms are experiencing is a form of “future shock,” confronting themwith values and behaviours that don’t mesh with what they expect from a practising lawyer.

Levy and other experts on the changing workplace frequently point to a willingness to ‘pick up and leave’ as the trait that most clearly distinguishes Generations X and Y from their boomer predecessors. A hyper-competitive job market meant that even boomers who wanted work/life balance lacked the mobility to make those goals a reality. Younger lawyers, however, are more than willing to walk the talk.

“If law firms don’t balance these competing demands [of younger and older lawyers],” says Duxbury, “they’re simply not going to have staff. Or they’re not going to have the right kinds of staff. Anybody with specialty skills—they’re going to be in demand, and there will be shortages there.”

There are things that law firms can do to respond to the changing generational tide. One notion is to move away from the hourly-billing system. “Everything is hours,” says Duxbury, “Hours. Hours. Hours. And hours is not the same as output, and it’s not the same as deliverables, yet in the law office, the assumption is that if you work these long hours, you’re good.”

Another thing that firms can do, adds Levy, is to make expectations clear to everyone at the outset. There’s nothing wrong with a firm expecting long hours, but, if it does, it needs to make this expectation clear to all the new hires, or it will find itself five years down the road with far fewer people than it started with.

Levysays that by embracing “generational sensitivity,” firms can produce positive results not just with junior lawyers but with clients themselves. “I’ve seen all kinds of issues where an older lawyer is having great difficulty with his clients,” says Levy. If a client is in her thirties, she might not want “marching orders,” but the senior partner might not recognize this, and might begin to view the client as difficult.

“You can blame your clients all you want,” adds Levy, “but that’s not going to resolve your problems for you. You need to understand how their world view is different from yours.”

Workforce policy shift

It’s for this reason, says Levy, that younger lawyers are signing up for executive MBA or social work programs—to better understand the situations their clients are facing. This eagerness to embrace a different world view is part of the slightly different approach that Generations X and Y bring to the practice of law itself.

“They really appreciate collegiality, and team work, which is not something some law firms are particularly good at,” notes Duxbury. “They also want to make a contribution, they want to make a difference, and this also might be a little challenging for some law firms.”

Ultimately, it’s those firms that are most adept at bridging the generational divide that are going to flourish. “If a firm is known as being generational- and gender-friendly,” says Levy, “they’re going to have no problem hiring people, they’re going to have no problem keeping people, and they’re going to be able to pick from the cream of the crop. And they’ll get more productivity and commitment to the firm.”

Levy notes that there are things that the younger generation of lawyers needs to learn from the boomers—how hard they’ve worked, for instance, and the fact that failure is sometimes unavoidable. The challenge is not to create a firm that’s specifically tailored to needs of one generation or another, but to create one that’s flexible and responsive to the needs of a variety of lawyers.

What’s happening now, says Levy, is that boomer lawyers are retiring without fully understanding the motivations or values of the lawyers who are going to be replacing them, and the result is a sense of bewilderment (on the part of the boomers) and frustration (on the part of the younger generations).

A more proactive approach—with forward-thinking, clear policies in place, more flexible billing systems, and more options about how law might be practised—could go far in diffusing some of the confusion and miscommunication that can now spring up between members of the same firm who might be separated by a span of years.

Emily White is a writer based in St. John’s.