Law Firms Must Change to Retain Millennial Talent

Generations evolve and priorities change. Emerson Csorba explains why law firms must evolve too if they are to retain their youngest, brightest legal talent.

Ethan Bronner wrote of the steep and sudden decline in law school applications across the United States in the New York Times' article, "Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut" in 2013 . Indeed, at the time of writing, "there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council". Not surprisingly, these numbers have "plunged law school administrations into soul-searching debate about the future of legal education and the profession over all".

Bronner linked the decline in interest in the profession to the decline in the job market. With outsourcing of basic legal functions to low-cost jurisdictions, and with increasing competition with legal technology startups – such as CaseHub, a successful company based out of the award-winning Entrepreneur First – the traditional path to wealth and power is no longer as achievable through law as it once was. But even if this were still the case, law would not hold the same appeal today that it once had. Whereas compensation and prestige will always matter to employees, this new generation of workers cares less about these factors than their predecessors. 

Although we must be careful not to make broad generalisations about a particular demographic in the workforce, our work at Gen Y Inc. suggests that those now beginning their careers – known by many as "millennials" – place a particular emphasis on "work-life integration" and "social purpose" when thinking about their life trajectories. Furthermore, they seek meaning in their work and view their employer as a means to fulfilling particular life goals and taking advantage of special skillsets and personal qualities. For instance, in a recent London Business Review article, Christie Hunter Arscott and Lauren Noel write about their research on millennial women in the workplace, commenting that they "heard emerging women leaders talk excitedly about times when their organisations knew them as people, challenged them with interesting work, connected them to a dynamic community, inspired them with purpose, and unleashed them to lead". We feel this emphasis on the self among the millennial generation applies to men and women alike. 

Millennials care about generating social impact
On a recent trip to Geneva for a World Economic Forum event known as the Annual Curators Meeting, representing the city of Cambridge, I was struck by the consistency in mindset across top young leaders in attendance. In discussions with 450 leaders between the ages of 20 and 30, each representing cities as diverse as Boston, Palo Alto, Mumbai, Tokyo and London, two trends emerged: first, nearly every person cared about generating "social impact" in their work; second, a significant number of attendees were looking elsewhere at opportunities for new employment, even though they saw value in their current work environment. The reason? They imagined new opportunities would help them grow as individuals, above and beyond opportunities in their current roles. 

In order to maintain its talent base over the short- and long-term, the legal profession will need to consider their emerging leaders' values, aspirations and expectations in order to survive and to guard against major costs associated with recruiting and retraining new employees. If law is seen as a profession that creates "debilitating anxiety", as was reported to be the case in the July 1 2015 ABA Journal article entitled "How lawyers can avoid burnout and debilitating anxiety", then it will surely lose many of its most talented staff to greener pastures.

Internal practices must be reformed
In 2015, the reality is that talented employees have a range of excellent options, and because of new technologies, they have access to countless opportunities at their fingertips. And yet, the prestige, history and expertise in the legal profession are hard to match in other disciplines. Firms then must consider how they will reform their internal practices and consider how best to communicate with their future leaders. Those who fail to act will lose their star employees to more purposeful and dynamic organisations. But those who adopt a more proactive mindset will reap the rewards over the long-term through increased productivity, happier employees and decreased costs associated with turnover.

Emerson Csorba is a contributing author of Generation Shift: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining the Millennial Lawyer  and Director of Gen Y Inc., a workplace culture consultancy focused on cross-generational engagement and the future of work. He read for a M.Phil in Politics, Development and Democratic Education at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College) and contributes actively on business and education topics to the Daily Telegraph, World Economic Forum Agenda and other publications.