Millennials: How to Prepare for Tomorrow's Power Generation at Your Firm

An interview with Sarah Sladek 
Sarah is a contributing author of 
Generation Shift: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining the Millennial Lawyer and CEO of X,Y, Z University, a consultancy that provides companies with insight and guidance about Generation X,Y and Z so they can grow membership, reduce turnover and increase participation.

1. In your chapter featured in Generation Shift: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining the Millennial Lawyer you identify tasks that partners and law firms can do to fundamentally understand the wants and needs of Gen Y/millennials. Why do you think this generation has the power to be so influential on the future of today’s law firms?

This generation has the power to be quite influential on all of our collective futures for two key reasons:

a.) they are the largest generation in history

b.) they are the first generation of the post-industrial era

In 2015, Generation Y (also known as the millennials) became the majority of the workforce. This is a young majority, assuming the largest percentage of the workforce the same year they turned between the ages of 20 and 33. As you will note, the youngest members of this generation are still in university and launching careers, but by 2025 this generation is expected to comprise a whopping 75% of the global workforce. 

By sheer volume, they will influence more spending, voting, and economic power than any generation that has come before them. But their arrival also marks another transition in history because millennials are the first generation to come of age in an economy driven by technology. They are the Digital Natives and their perspectives of the world are dramatically different, as are the generations that follow them. Millennials have always known the world to be driven by connectivity, innovation, globalisation, customisation, and instant gratification. Not surprising, this generation is influencing and reinventing everything about the way we live, work, and do business, trying to adapt it to the post-industrial world of which they are the trailblazers.


2. You identify key attributes and characteristics of a typical millennial. What do you think is the single most important characteristic that will help millennials to become tomorrow’s law firm leaders?

Millennials have been shaped in some very unique ways. They are the first generation in more than 70 years to be raised during a recession, they are the most protected and supervised generation in history, and they are the first generation to be rewarded for participation and not achievement. It shouldn't come as a surprise to society that this generation will question traditions, and steer towards new methodologies and processes, yet society tends to balk at their intentions and shame them for it, which is why millennials have commonly been referred to as the "entitled" generation.

Millennials excel at collaboration, connectivity, innovation, and activism. They make excellent leaders in environments which allow them to work with others, build relationships, generate new ideas, problem-solve, and do work that makes a positive difference for others. This generation wants to follow people, not companies. They want to inspire others, not manage them. And they want to work for organisations that value people more than profits. Their leadership styles and expectations will be dramatically different from the hierarchy and tenure models of yesteryear. A team-centric approach is probably this generation's greatest asset -- and also the kind of leadership many organisations desperately need right now.

3. You state that meaningful work relationships are considered the starting point of a good legal career by millennials. You also say that a lack of them are the number one reason why Gen Y will leave a firm. Why do you think working relationships are so important to millennials, perhaps more than previous generations?

As mentioned previously, Gen Y is the most supervised, protected, and provided-for generation in history. The parenting pendulum shifted dramatically during their childhood, largely due to increased access to media and education. Cable and satellite television and household computers brought more awareness about the dangers of the world to the parents of millennials and they started to worry about their children's safety. Parents kept a closer watch on their children and prevented them from straying too far from home.

At the same time this was happening, more people were attending university and more women were working outside of the household. Most millennials were raised by Baby Boomers, and Boomers were raised during the wealthiest most prosperous era in history. They aspired to get a great job and own a great house and car so they invested in their education and careers. Baby Boomers also wanted the same for their children.

Suddenly, toddlers had playdates and soccer practice, and after school programs and childcare centres were popping up everywhere. Millennials became the first generation to have 'organised childhoods', mirroring their parents desire for them to be successful and because their parents wanted to protect them. From a young age this generation was shuttled to numerous activities and their parents were criticised for treating them as "little adults", and for creating stress in their young lives. Essentially, this generation has never learned to be alone. Not only were they raised within arms-reach of their parents, millennials communicated with their peers via smartphones and social media. They've been raised in constant connectivity, both in-person and online. They struggle with being alone because they never have been alone, and that's why they crave connectivity and positive relationships at work.

4. How do you think law firms need to adapt their current working practices to accommodate this?

There are many ways to foster teamwork and collaboration at work, such as:

  • Organising a volunteer activity for the firm each month
  • Creating more collaborative workspaces, bringing teams of lawyers with various skills and expertise to work on projects together

I suggest asking your employees for ideas on this. Thinking like a team means acting like a team, and that starts with asking for input from the team, not making decisions for them.

5. 30 conversations with 30 millennials is your challenge for today's law firm partners. To really understand a millennial's viewpoint of the future is one way to prepare for it. What would you say to law firm leaders who would consider this approach to be unorthodox and an example of 'pandering' to the needs to millennials?

Throughout my career, I've had numerous interviews with Baby Boomers. Time and again, they say they got to where they are today because someone helped them. Someone mentored them, took a chance on them, explained to them the importance of the work they were doing. Yet, now that it is their turn to return the favour, I see few Boomers extend themselves to help the next generation.

If a law firm really wants to retain young talent, and the future of the firm is really important, then a firm's leaders won't be threatened by this activity. Rather, they will see it as an opportunity and something critical to succession planning and sustainability. The fact is this: if you fail to plan for the future, you plan to fail. I find that the people who complain about 'pandering' to others and resist talking about the future are the people most concerned about facing that fact. Consider another fact: if a firm can't engage the majority of the workforce (soon to be 75% of the global workforce) the firm won't survive.

6. Your interest in the declining engagement of membership associations led you to establish a consulting company that specialises in helping organisations stay relevant to Generation XY and Z. Why do you think there has been a lack of participation in membership associations by these generations and do you think this trend will continue past Gen Z? 

Yes, the trend will undoubtedly continue with Generation Z. The first membership associations were founded in the 1600s, and many of the traditions and practices of associations have remained largely the same ever since then. Associations enjoyed a real upswing when the Boomers came along, and have been observing declines in participation ever since. The year 1965 introduced a wave of tremendous social change. People born in 1964 or earlier valued conformity. Be a good citizen, follow dress codes, do what you're told, be loyal, serve your country, and join an association because it's the right thing to do.

But people born 1965 or later were raised to value individuality. Do what you want, when you want. Do what makes you happy. The transition in values changed the prominence of associations, which were suddenly being asked 'what's in it for me' and 'how will membership make a difference in my life?'. Associations still have a relevant and important role to play, but they must adapt to survive. Strangely enough, this isn't unlike the average law firm.