Making the most of millennials in your law firm

  • September 28, 2016
  • James Careless

Pay attention, baby boomers: Millennials now make up the largest share of the Canadian workforce. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians born between 1980 and 2000 accounted for 36.8 per cent of our workforce in 2014, compared to 33.9 per cent for Generation X (people born between 1965 and 1979) and 31.1 per cent for boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964).

“The millennials are taking over, including in law,” said Jane Grant. She is president and senior HR consultant at the Calgary-based human resources firm Grant and Associates HR Inc., which specializes in connecting job-seeking lawyers with potential employers. “They might not be in charge of law firms yet, but the size of their workforce means that boomer managers have to get serious about dealing effectively with them.”

Unfortunately, there is a cultural generation gap between the boomers and the millennials, many of whom are the same ages as the boomers’ own adult children. In particular, the millennials’ tendency to question authority, demand autonomy, expect to have a life outside of work, and insistence of being constantly plugged into their smartphones is both confusing and exasperating to many boomer bosses. These tendencies, plus many millennials’ willingness to live with their parents, play video games, and attend comic book-themed fan conventions dressed as their favourite fictional characters, has led many boomers to dismiss the upcoming generation as lazy, unmotivated and unfocused.

As with the negative accusations that the baby boomer’s own parents cast upon the boomer generation in their youth, these accusations are both inaccurate and unfair. “The millennials are just as motivated, hard-working, and productive as anyone else,” said Lynn Foley. She is partner & CEO of fSquared Marketing, a niche marketing and professional services consultancy that serves law firms of all sizes. “They’ve just been brought up at home and at school to ask questions, direct their own initiatives, and expect both mentoring and nurturing from those above them.”

As for millennials’ insistence on having a fulfilling, rewarding personal life outside of work, plus doing something that makes a tangible difference in the world? “These adults grew up watching their parents work endlessly long hours, and spending very little time with their children as a result,” said Julie Wong, manager of human resources at the Toronto law firm Minden Gross, and herself a millennial. “This is why my generation is so intent on striking a realistic balance between work and personal life.”

Like the Depression-generation partners who struggled to work with their young boomer associates 40 years ago, today’s boomer managers have to adjust their own attitudes if they are serious about making the most of their millennial employees. Here are some tips for making that happen:

Get used to being questioned

As a generation raised to pose questions and to seek answers though the internet, millennials are not being disrespectful when they ask, “but why?” Boomer managers need to park any sense of being second-guessed, and use this questioning to the law firm’s advantage. “Millennials are extremely adept at taking charge of their own projects, and getting things done under their own steam” said Grant. “Rather than get offended by their questions and squashing them, use their inquiries to open their minds to what needs to be accomplished, and then let them go to it.”

Acknowledge effort

Despite their reputation as being dreamers, millennials are realists. Although they know that Google employees have access to onsite ping-pong and foosball tables, haircuts and laundry facilities, a fully-equipped gym, and subsidized massages, millennial lawyers don’t expect the same treatment from a Bay Street law firm. This said, “Millennials do expect their efforts to be acknowledged and rewarded from time to time,” said Foley. “This includes giving them constructive feedback on how they are doing – both good and bad – and rewarding good work, even if it is with something as small as a Starbucks card from time to time.”          

Get connected

Millennials are accustomed to using their smartphones, tablets, and computers constantly to stay in touch with the world. They are also quick to adopt new technologies as they become available, and are mystified that their boomer bosses aren’t keeping up with what’s hot and new. “Since we have our smartphones with us all the time, we only think it natural for people on our Contacts list to be immediately accessible to our emails and texts,” said Wong. “So if a boomer doesn’t answer a work-related question after-hours or on the weekend, we question their commitment to the job. Just because we aren’t in the office 24/7 doesn’t mean that we aren’t accessible to it, and willing to deal with issues as they arise.”

“It is true that many boomers are out of the loop when it comes to new technology; just as their parents were when it came to getting rid of the flashing “12:00” on their VCRs 25 years ago,” said Grant. “But as far as the millennials are concerned, age is no excuse: boomers need to be up-to-speed and on track with the latest communications equipment and applications. That’s why it makes sense to have a millennial keep your law firm technologically current: This comes naturally to them.”

Be ready to mentor              

Millennials expect to be mentored in their work, and guided along tangible career paths lined with incentives and rewards on the way. Boomer bosses may consider these expectations to be unrealistic and unreasonable, given the economy’s move towards disposable employees over the past three cost-cutting decades. “However, given their numbers in the workforce, millennials are in the driver’s seat on these demands,” Grant said. “If you expect to attract and retain the best of them, you better be ready to mentor them and help build their careers.”

The moral to this story: It makes sense for boomers to make the most of their millennials, because millennials have a lot to offer their law firms. Besides, with Canadians working later in life, it makes sense for older managers to forge good relationships with their new employees. One day, the boomers who are in charge now may find themselves working for the millennials they hired.

James Careless is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.