(Credit: Jon Reinfurt)

Millennials are ruining everything—or so people say. From napkins to golf to restaurant chains, millennials are leaving behind a trail of industry corpses in their wake as they ride past on their bicycles, S’well water bottles in hand. (Don’t know what a S’well water bottle is? Ask your nearest millennial.)

And the next target in their sights is Big Law.

In a battle of wills in Big Law, law firm management has started to bend to millennial demands. Firms have begun to craft and adopt policies to cater to these new members of the legal profession.

In the process, they are casting aside old traditions synonymous with the industry. Firms are swapping out corner offices for collaborative spaces. Large oak desks are now motorized standing desks. Paneled walls are now glass. While these changes might be aesthetic, they are indicative of the very real need for Big Law to bridge the gap between the older models of legal practice and the demands of the profession’s future standard-bearers.

By making changes to satisfy their youngest talent, law firms may be making the management changes they’ve needed all along. Are millennials the answer to some of Big Law’s thorniest problems?

Born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, millennials have remained an ever-elusive, label-defying generation who are, by all accounts, turning the legal profession on its head. “Millennials are cut from a different cloth, says Ru Bhatt, managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa. “In generations past, you kind of came in, put your head down and didn’t rock the boat—’This is the system and this is how it works,’” Bhatt says.

However, as millennials enter and rise through the ranks of Big Law, they’re exposing the inefficiencies of its structures, Bhatt says, in a way that may help develop a better working system and a better working model.

A slew of studies and surveys have attempted to define what’s unique about millennials. While there’s no perfect method for assessing a generation—the endeavor remains inherently subjective—certain trends have emerged. Millennials tend to be deeply committed to their personal learning and development, and they want a good work/life balance and strong diversity policies from their employer, a PricewaterhouseCoopers study found. Millennials are diverse, well-educated and entrepreneurial. They’re also the first generation of “digital natives,” and they want to use that technological knowledge to forge career paths. Millennials also want to be creative and do work that has a positive impact in the workplace and in the wider world, a 2017 Deloitte study found.

These distinct characteristics have forced corporations to make changes to the way they do business. It’s no different in Big Law. Here’s how.

Millennials want to make a social impact. “People want jobs that they feel are challenging, that are intellectually rigorous, that are professionally rigorous,” says Perry Teicher, a second-year associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who was recently named the firm’s first impact finance and investment attorney.

Like most Big Law firms, Orrick has been working to make management adjustments to address the needs of its younger associates. After consulting with their associates, law schools and other professional services firms, the firm developed a strategy that focused on the specific desires and wants of millennials in the workforce: opportunities to do work with social meaning, to have flexibility, to leverage the latest technologies, and to develop their own career path.

Initially brought into the firm on a fellowship, Teicher saw his role made permanent in July. Teicher, who is based in Orrick’s New York office, works with clients such as private equity firms to early-stage entrepreneurs to help them invest in projects that have a positive environmental and social impact. One example is Copia, a food recovery app that collects surplus food and redistributes it to communities in need. Some (but not all) of his work is pro bono.

Being able to work on projects like these is what some millennial associates strive for, Teicher says, and he credits the firm for its responsiveness to those desires.

“I think that a big part of [creating the position] was the sense of wanting to create an environment where millennial attorneys [are] able to feel acknowledged, feel that they’re doing something that is making a positive impact,” Teicher says of his new title.

Millennials want to have an honest dialogue about their career aspirations—which may or may not include Big Law. Millennials clearly want a different type of feedback than has been historically given at law firms, says Joe Conroy, CEO of Cooley. “And that’s sometimes misconstrued.”

It’s not that millennials want to constantly be told they’re great, he says. They merely want to get feedback on a consistent basis about their work product and how that translates into the firm’s investment in their development, Conroy says.

And while partnership is on the minds of some millennial associates—nearly 44 percent of millennials wanted to become partner in some capacity, according to a study by Major, Lindsey & Africa—the reality is that most associates will depart for positions in-house or other jobs outside the firm. In the meantime, they want to have an open conversation with their managers at the firm about their career paths.

Law firms are traditionally less than great at giving feedback. But it’s in the firm’s best interest to have those conversations and provide mentorship to help associates meet their goals. After all, those associates may end up referring work back to the firm down the road if they’ve had a positive experience, Conroy says.

“We certainly cultivate them going into clients, [because] we’re trying to create stickiness with clients and market ourselves into new clients,” he says.

Millennials want to leverage technology to solve problems. Technology is changing everything that lawyers do in the law firm, says Darin Snyder, diversity and inclusion partner at O’Melveny & Myers. And millennials bring a greater facility with using devices and technology, he says, including a willingness to experiment with technological solutions and to adopt ones that work. That can help firms looking for ways to exploit new technologies. “It’ll be up to us to be more efficient and find ways to innovate through leveraging technology and to be sure we’re delivering the same unit of value to clients more cost effectively,” Orrick’s Zuklie says.

At Bryan Cave, for instance, millennial associates are directly confronting how technology will impact the legal profession and developing solutions as to how it can be used to enhance the value of lawyers. Some midlevels have developed ideas for software that uses “smart tags” required in bankruptcy filings that would make them easily sortable by in-house and outside counsel.

Millennials want flexibility in the way they work. “One of the changes that [technology] has created is the ability to work anywhere, anytime, which creates almost limitless flexibility, and what I see in millennials is a desire to use that flexibility to their advantage and in a way that works for them,” Snyder says.

Of course, millennials aren’t the first lawyers to want more flexibility in their work lives. Work-life balance has been an issue at firms for decades now, especially for lawyers who are parents. But firms are listening harder now.

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius was one of several Big Law firms that last spring announced formal plans and policies to allow their associates to work remotely.

“The remote working program is obviously a way for us to provide a meaningful benefit to our associates,” says Amanda Smith, associate talent and pro bono partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. “[But], maybe more importantly, even better service to our clients.”

One of the unintended consequences of allowing associates to work remotely one or two days a week is that attorneys can now maximize their productivity and work on matters for clients that they didn’t previously have time to do, Smith says. “It’s a win-win that will allow us to be responsive to the way the world actually works,” she says.

Millennials love efficiency. Millennial lawyers are skeptical about the billable hour, Bhatt says, and they feel that they can deliver a superior work product without it.

Deanne Barrow.

“The problem with the billable hour is that it doesn’t incentivize efficiency,” says Deanne Barrow, a third-year associate at Norton Rose Fulbright. She argues that compensation should be separated from timekeeping: “I think that concept has to change.”

More and more clients would agree. This summer, for instance, Microsoft deputy general counsel for litigation David Howard announced in a blog post that the tech giant aims to have 90 percent of its legal work by outside firms done under alternative fee arrangements instead of the billable hour.

By listening to their associates’ complaints about the billable hour, and taking action to replace it with pay systems that reward efficiency, firms can align themselves more closely with their clients. That’s not a bad place to be in an increasingly competitive legal market.