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June 09, 2008

Can You Really Afford To Bash The 'Millennial' Lawyer?

(This is a little long but worthwhile :-)

There has been much discussion recently about the Millennial in the workforce and particularly in law firms.  I need to weigh in because I feel differently then those in the legal community who have been quite vocal about their disdain for what is being called the 'Slackeoisie.'  While I immensely respect the writers of What About Clients? and the prolific Scott Greenfield, I view this generation differently then they do.  (And as 60 minutes portrays here.)

Maybe it's because, even though I'm two generations removed from a millennial, I understand some of what they feel. I don't believe the mindset of the Millennial is a new one. I think in large part they just harbor more entrepreneurial drive then previous generations....and I get entrepreneurial.  They are not willing to put off starting their dreams. They are certainly less inclined to sacrifice unless their career goal is attainable within a relatively reasonable period of time. They don't see their world segmented - work life in one corner and personal life in the other.  They just see 'life.' And there is a stronger belief in one's self but it has been nurtured on a fast food mentality.  They are simply in the fast lane 24/7.  It's saying 'no' to the old model.  And it is by saying 'no' some interpret them as arrogant, disrespectful and dismissive of those who did work within the old model to get where they are today.  I believe this is what irks those who have trudged the traditional path....barefoot through 10 feet of snow...to school...without a winter coat.  We can't be mad at an entire generation because they don't want to play by the rules most of us felt we had to abide by.

Of course, there is much more (positive and negative about this generation) that can be (in)appropriately broad-brushed.  Yet, as in any generation there are those who are driven to achieve who have a strong work ethic and those who are slackers.  But for some reason, this generation is really getting slammed.  I believe it is unfair.

What role has corporate America (you and me) played in this?  Let's see.  These kids grew up:

  • watching their parents slave away at jobs only to be laid off over and over, again,
  • lose their pensions and health benefits to criminals like Enron;
  • watching corporate America outsource their jobs overseas;
  • seeing a corporate culture change from one where employees were valued and shown appreciation to a culture of poor treatment and being told they should be grateful to have any job;
  • being told if they didn't like 'any job' there's ten more people who look just like them lining up to take their place. 

The days of feeling proud for having given all your working life to one company and getting the gold watch and retirement dinner have disappeared. Today's young worker sees working for another based upon the old model as indentured servitude with no realistic brass ring and they want no part of it.  This is especially true after being told over and over again that their generation will be the first generation to not do as well as their parents.  Now there's an exciting future to consider as they carry $100,000 + in student loans. 

So, if they want to do an end run around the old model because they think it's broken can we really fault them?  If they want to look up at the sky and see endless possibilities of their own creation rather than the big round butt of a manager who blocks their innovation and creativity can we blame them?  If they want to try and figure out a new and better way that works for them should we tell them they're wrong and publicly ridicule them for trying?  Who are we to say what is best for them? Now who's being arrogant, disrespectful and dismissive?  What I have heard over and over, again, from clients and others is, "I wish I hadn't been so scared?  I wish I had their guts."

Bravery, stupidity...call it what you will.  But those brave or stupid people created Google, Zappos, Amazon and so much more than we could ever have anticipated because they DIDN'T follow the traditional models (all driven on customer service and regard for their employees, mmmmmm).

And for those who are in management at law firms, have you ever heard of 'internal marketing?'  It is a wonderful phrase coined by Sybil Sterchik who discusses the concept during an interview with Toby Bloomberg at the very popular Diva Marketing Blog.  She says that when you value your employees, your employees value your customers. 

Internal Marketing is a strategic blend of marketing and human resources focused on taking care of employees so they can take care of customers. While that still sounds warm & fuzzy, nonetheless it’s critical because if your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your customers!

Appreciation, involvement in the process, being part of a company's dialog and success, the creation of a community, translates into loyalty by the employee and profits to the company. 

And this is not a new concept.  It is a forgotten concept,  I know because I experienced it in the companies I worked for in the 80's. I worked at not one, but two, companies who had office happy hours every Friday afternoon hosted by the president.  One company president drove his motorcycle through the company offices giving employees rides.  This same company handed out turkeys to every employee at Thanksgiving, held birthday parties for each employee.  Ten year anniversaries were celebrated with a one week trip to London and a stay at their corporate apartment with show tickets.  Was this a small private company?   One was small.  The other was the U.S. headquarters for an international corporation where I worked for 3 years.  This was a time before executives took $50 million dollar bonuses while telling their employees the company can't afford to give COLA raises while simultaneously reducing their health benefits. When I left the company with the motorcycle-riding president, it was the only time I actually grieved for 'family" because the company invested in creating a culture within the workplace...a culture the employees didn't want to leave.

And I believe the companies I worked for are being described by Ms. Sterchik when she states:

I find it ironic that many companies who do Internal Marketing well aren’t necessarily aware that they’re using Internal Marketing. These are companies with a workplace culture and operations committed to the value of both customers AND employees.

If a company who has employees really believes they can skip this step and retain employees, either they are paying their employees so well they can't afford to leave or they are deluding themselves.

Despite different generational attitudes in the workplace, companies will still need to engage their employees. And that’s where Internal Marketing comes in – enabling organizations to communicate and reinforce a sense of common purpose, a sense of belonging, and a sense of being part of something special, particularly in workplace that’s becoming increasingly insular. Internal Marketing will continue to be relevant as a ‘high touch’ people-centered management approach in a ‘high tech’ world.

So, you see this isn't a generational mandate unique to the Millennial.  This is just good business.

This new generation can't work within an environment which does not respect their goals and values, a management hierarchy which can't conceive of, never mind nurture, a new way of doing things which actually benefits the company and the clients foremost, If law firm managers, even solos looking to hire an associate choose not to recognize this but, instead, behave antagonistically, then they are going to lose the talent they have and certainly not attract new talent.  If this talent strikes out on their own without regrets why are the law firms so mad?  Why should these new lawyers have to take 20 years to figure out they don't want to waste their time at that law firm?  There is 'paying your dues' and then there is selling your soul.  This generation didn't create disloyalty.  It was the previous generation of employers who were disloyal and dishonest and gave this new generation permission to say, 'screw you.'

So, there are some mea culpas to be made by employers.  There are some steps they have to take to create environments to attract today's young worker.  Today's generation is suspicious and self-serving because they've learned no one is going to look out for their best interests better than themselves (or their parents.)

This generation grew up (and is continuing to grow up) connected to a vibrant and diverse community through technology and they can no more leave this connectivity when in the workplace then they can leave their left arm.

Employers should capitalize on this connectivity and the freedom they, too, can experience released from the confines of the 9-5 workday and sterile cubicle and harness the additional strengths of the millennial worker instead of straitjacketing them.  And when there is a strong work community it mitigates the needs for a rigid caste system. The caste system is dead..at least for this generation.

And that is why I believe, more and more lawyers will strike out on their own.  Millennials will be more inclined to pursue their entrepreneurial bend, especially in the law.  And you will see those who have worked so hard within the current system who get the boot or are not rewarded in ways which are meaningful to them more inclined to become solo practitioners.

Then consider the economic times we are facing.  In a time of uncertainty, the direction this world is going, extraordinary debt, health care in crisis, global warming, endless war...there is a certain 'live for the moment' feeling which propels them to say, 'if this isn't working for me, I'm outta here.'  They don't just say, "time is precious."  They live and work knowing time is precious.

Rigidity and lack of consideration for the mindset of this generation is a recipe for economic disaster for businesses of all stripes. Law firms are definitely not immune.

As a solo, there may come a time when you may choose to bring on an associate.  Remember this.  And remember why you chose to go solo, the freedom to control your own time, your own destiny. You realized you'd rather be responsible for your own financial security and you have faith in your abilities to do this.  And when you made (or make) the decision to go solo didn't you, regardless if you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X or Gen Y, basically say the very same thing?  I think the phrase was 'screw you.' :-)


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When Millennials choose to go their own way by opening their own firm, they are (and should be) free to approach it in any way they see fit. On this we're in complete agreement.

They just can't choose to recreate their job and responsibilities on someone else's dime.

To be fair, not every member of the Slackeoisie demands that the world revolve around them. Some possess an excellent work ethic and appreciate the responsibilities of a professional to their client. Of course, they were just raised properly. Ultimately, they will attain the rewards they seek, the admiration they crave, and stand out amongst their peers as the few who are deserving and capable of being trusted with the future of our society.

Others will be sitting in their parent's basement wondering why no one thinks they're as wonderful as their mommy does. They can tinkle amongst themselves all day long, wallowing in their misery and self-importance. Or they can get up off their butts once they realize that bills don't pay themselves and become effective at what they do.

If they can open up their own shop and thrive, with no one to answer to accept their clients and themselves, then they aren't the generational slackards that have come to characterize the offspring of soccer and helicopter moms. This may well be the outlet that allows them the freedom they desire, but they will have to do it on their own because they can't do it when someone else is paying the tab.

Harry Hackney

I think you make some valid points. I'm from the tail end of the baby boom, which almost puts me at the front edge of Gen X. I remember well my first job for a big company. It was a local paper that had been acquired by a bigger national chain. The new owners brought in a hatchet man who mercilessly cut off people who'd been with the company for 30+ years and were just about to see their payoff arrive. They were reduced to begging for clerical jobs or jobs mowing the lawn so they could hang on until retirement. What affect did that have on me as a recent high school graduate? I learned immediately that the company would never value my contributions, that there was no reward in working for "the man," and you were never safe. Right then I learned that I would always have to rely on myself and no one else. The Millenials have seen nothing but disloyalty to employees combined with skyrocketing CEO compensation so why shouldn't they put themselves first?


and how! Great post.


Thanks for this post. As a 'millenial' lawyer, I think you've nailed it. I watched my parents slave away at jobs and not be home for most of my youth. As I have gotten older, I have watched their jobs disappear from under them due to government regulation and a changing marketplace. When I first joined a large law firm (600+ attorneys), the partners that I worked for complained about too much work and many were on their third marriage.

With these sorts of examples, how can I really be expected to follow? As you say, endless war, a broken health care system and knowing that social security will be a wreck in the near future do propel an urge to enjoy life while we can.

Thanks for this post and for thinking so much about this, especially given the recent grumblings about the under-30 crowd.


This really resonates with me. I decided to go to law school after being laid off by a Fortune 100 company where I worked in a field I had just gotten an associate's degree to enter. It has become obvious that no one can take care of me but myself, and that is why I am considering going solo when I pass the bar and why I am watching this blog. I live in a town saturated with lawyers, though -- the home of my law school -- so I'm currently struggling with the question of how long I might need to "pay dues" through employment before I can compete as a solo practitioner.

Susan Cartier Liebel

@shg We are actually agreeing. However, you are emphasizing the slackers...who would be slackers in any generation. Gen X, Baby Boomers had there share. It is the ones in this generation with the work ethic that seek to do it differently. And when you say someone else's dime it seems like you are saying, 'this is my model. Work within it or outta here.' The fact is that kind of rigidity closes your doors on skill sets which are unique to this generation and prevents growth of a company. There needs to be compromise and learning on both ends.

@Harry - I'm at the tail end of the Boomers, too, and I've watched the changes. It is not a work force I would want to enter today. I remember back in the 80's when I negotiated salary I always asked for more (or the highest end of the range) than what they were offering because I wanted them to show me they valued me the only way a company really can, especially in the beginning...$$$. Then they would say, 'well you better make us very happy.' I always responded, "as long as I am happy first, you will be ecstatic.' And I never let them down. Should I be classified as a millennial because I made sure my needs were met first as well the companies?

@Nicole - We share a brain :-)

@Ed Putting yourself first doesn't mean the employer suffers. This is a misconception. (See my response to Harry). A strong work ethic is part of one's character and putting yourself first is also about investing in your character. Putting yourself first and investing in your character are not mutually exclusive concepts.

@Adrian - going solo? If you aren't already, keep your eye on the construction of Solo Practice University - the 'practice of law' school.

Thanks to everyone for joining in the conversation. This topic is not limited to law firms but it definitely impacts them and I hope more join in.

Edward Wiest

Today’s Blawg Review #163 at More Partner Income (http://www.morepartnerincome.net/)refers to a Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog post entitled “A Boss Who Changed My Life”, noting law firm managers would well be advised to follow its suggestions, which include the following points:

Promote your team in the organization;
* * *
Champion your people.

Maybe if GenY lawyers saw their bosses at law firms (the least transparent of employers) actually behaving in such a manner, they might not be seen as slackers—or coming to the conclusion that working hard for themselves outside the BigLaw model is the best revenge

Craig Niedenthal

Susan: Another great post. I was part of the slave away and keep your nose to the grindstone mentality and the rewards would come. But you know, the real rewards never came. I do get frustrated (or envious) of the attitude these up and comers have that if it ain't working for me, I'm out of here. But I do understand where it comes from. They work to live, not live to work.

Dan Hull

Heroic post, Susan--and my only real comment is that employees need to buy into what their firm is doing. If that's client service in highly complex and difficult projects, employees need to conform to that ethos. Not personal, just business. Again, practicing law is demanding and hard, even for gifted workaholics. My firm seeks ambitious and confident people, who realize that they will learn much more from us in the first few years than they could ever "give" back to us (they simply don't know anything, as I did not know anything when I started)--and we even tell candidates that. If you are not ambitious and confident, and not willing to pay dues, we can spot it in about two weeks. We don't owe you anything but a chance to prove yourself on our terms. That's just real life.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Dan, welcome to BSP! First, ironically, we don't disagree. This is not a generation of people who don't want to pay dues. Nor is it a generation lacking a work ethic (except those in any generation who are slackers).

You carefully screen your candidates for qualities you require. This is any employer's perogative.

That being said, there remains a different mindset for the millenial. They have a different goal strategy for employment and life. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive...but there needs to be an awareness so as an employer you can reward those who do well based upon YOUR terms in a way that is meaningful based upon THEIR terms.

For example: An employee of your does an exceptional job. You think a bonus is the answer. Maybe today's employee doesn't want a bonus but an additional two weeks off because they want to kiteboard in Africa. (work/life balance.) See my point?

David Fuller

The difference between a slacker and a millenial is that a slacker wants to define the upside without working for it and a millenial is willing to work for the upside that they define.

By way of disclosure, I may or may not be a millenial. By some metrics I'm at the tailend of gen-X and by other metrics I'm at the start of the millienial generation. I do know that I'll work however many hours it takes to make it as a lawyer, but I won't do it at a place that values PPP over associate development. It's why I'm going solo, and it's why if I hire associates (which I hope to do in a few years) they'll be part of a team that values their input and their committment, rather than their ability to bill and provide me with a BMW 7 Series.

Bad Court Thingy

"So, there are some mea culpas to be made by employers. There are some steps they have to take to create environments to attract today's young worker. Today's generation is suspicious and self-serving because they've learned no one is going to look out for their best interests better than themselves (or their parents.)"

Susan, great post. To me, that is the money quote right there. I've watched my parents generation go through round after round of layoffs, downsizing, and every other corporate buzzword for putting people out on their butts. That's not the life for me.


I love your site. Very insightful. This is my tenth year of practice and my third as a solo. It is the best thing I could have ever done for myself and my family. I'm Gen X and I never bought into the old model even when I worked for a large firm. It is an abusive relationship more times than not.

My father told me years ago that sometimes a man has to stand alone. It can be scary, but yet quite rewarding.

Susan, continue the great work.


As a middle X'er I share the opinions of the Millennials. I have worked for a number of large companies now, and know many others that have as well, and it doesn't matter how hard you work, its all about how well your liked.

And if you fall outside of their ideal, you're rarely liked. Asking the CEO at a company meeting why he deserves his millions when the stock is down is never a good career move, but it is still a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, todays CEO's have no shame.

Kevin McLean

I am writing to you today because you have a great blog for the Solo Practitioner. I loved your post about "The Millennial," because I am one. My old employer brought in a speaker who tackled this issue of "Millennials" in the Workplace" and how to cope. There weren't too many positive attributes attached to our particular generation at that time. We were just a bunch of "gold brickers" who were emotionally immature, lacked common sense and were the least productive generation in over a century. Ouch!

My old employer, a private club, used the rhetoric to explain why the restaurant didn't function well, why the front desk was so disorganized and why we couldn't get good staff for our banquet facilities. I resented that. But I see what people are talking about, as my hometown has no shortage of dreamers who are still waiting for...who knows what.

But I loved your take on Millennials and their entrepreneurial spirit. That's great. That's a good way to look at the attitude of this young generation. It is also an appropriate thing for you to say, as entrepreneurial spirit is what starting a solo practice is all about.

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