Millennials now make up the largest generational group of attorneys in the U.S., and a new study finds that they are poised to bring about an unprecedented change to a traditionally static legal industry.
A new report by global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, in collaboration with ALM and Law.com, found that as millennials make their way through the ranks at law firms, their demands for change in their work environment will recast how firms structure their compensation, real estate decisions, information technology and flextime policies.
Millennials now account for 43 percent of attorneys, outnumbering Gen Xers and baby boomers in the legal industry, the study found.
“By 2025, over 50 percent of attorneys practicing law in the United States will be millennials,” said Sherry Cushman, executive managing director of the legal sector advisory group at Cushman & Wakefield.
The priorities of millennial associates are much different than older generations, and as more and more millennials assume partnership positions their preferences will start to reshape the legal industry, Cushman said.
“[Their] top 5 [priorities], other than money or compensation, are all about warm, fuzzy things—a collegial work environment, work-life balance, mentoring, and exposure to clients,” Cushman said.
For example, law firms are redesigning their offices in response to millennial demands for flextime and collaborative spaces. The study found that 17 percent of respondents have already moved to single-size offices for all attorneys. A third of the nearly 500 law firm managing partners and decision-makers surveyed for the report said they expected to go completely virtual over the next 10 years, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying they will achieve below 500 square feet per attorney in their offices.
“For the younger generation, they still want a private office, but it can be much smaller,” Cushman said. “They’re more driven by what the environment feels like, how it creates a better mentoring environment.”
Cushman noted that an estimated 30 percent of equity partners are currently approaching retirement, and she said a few law firms will now even forgo a senior partner vote on a 15-year lease simply because the decision will affect millennial associates more so than its aging equity partnership.
“They’re saying this decision is not about us. It’s about our future generation and legacy and succession plan, and we shouldn’t even vote,” Cushman said. “On the other hand, there’s still a majority of the firms that are letting the older generation dominate a bit more.”
Of course, it isn’t solely millennials that are responsible for the intense pace of change. Their demands are also coming at a time of transformative change in the use of technology in the profession, globalization and fee-structure concerns.
“These are all things that are really impacting the speed at which things are changing,” Cushman said.
In 2017, there were 120 law firm mergers, one of the busiest years for combinations since the Great Recession, Cushman noted. Of those, 52 were cross-border. She also noted that 80 percent of law firms reported positive profits last year. But she also said it’s often the case that firms hold themselves back from greater success.
“Whether you’re a big firm, small firm or a one-off firm, a lot of the biggest issues for a firm is themselves—is internally being able to build consensus to effect change,” Cushman said.