This story is part of a series exploring how law firms and others in the legal industry are adapting to manage their millennial workers, from recruitment and real estate to training and technology and beyond. Read the overview here.
While they still make up a small percentage of law firm partners, millennials are helping to transform what it means to make a career in the law. Many of the largest firms in the country have trumpeted millennial-friendly policies and programs, including remote work accommodations for associates, committees for junior partners and in-house innovation labs involving young lawyers, to name just a few examples.
But regional and midsize firms are also evolving to accommodate—and to take advantage of—the generational shift.
Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard, a 140-lawyer firm based in St. Louis, recently hosted its first “Idea-a-thon,” in which associates competed to generate the best improvements to the law firm’s operations and culture. The firm also created a millennial task force, which serves as a liaison to leadership.
Sandberg Phoenix managing partner Bhavik Patel said the Idea-a-thon idea came from looking at how successful tech companies brainstorm.
“We didn’t create any limitations or restrictions,” Patel said. They simply split 50 associates into four groups and asked them to memorialize their discussions to share with firm leadership later.
Some of the ideas they generated have already been put in place.
After the Idea-a-thon, Sandberg Phoenix created an Uber allowance, so lawyers can feel more comfortable attending networking events outside work hours without having to drive home late in the night. The firm implemented a “nanny” allowance, as well, also aimed at helping lawyers with families cover babysitting costs, so they can develop business at after-hours events. It created a vacation credits program, in which lawyers can get billable credit just for taking time off.
The vacation credits are aimed at alleviatiating “the feeling of going on vacation but knowing you have to make it up,” Patel said. “There are some associates who will get 80 or 100 hours reduced from their budget … that allows them to truly check out.”
At Burr & Forman, a 290-lawyer regional firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, managing partner Ed Christian created a 10-lawyer associate advisory committee when he became managing partner earlier this year. Christian estimated that all of the firm’s 86 associates are millennials, as well as some junior partners.
The committee has proposed several changes so far, including alternate work schedules for lawyers with family obligations and an expansion of the paternal leave policy. Those improvements are underway, Christian said.
“When you have a good chunk of revenue generators who are doing well, you want to do whatever you can to encourage that and make it happen,” he said.
Unlike their larger counterparts, midsize and regional firms are less likely to have a human resources staff that can dedicate substantial energy to millennial-focused initiatives. And few can afford to attract millennial associates with salaries that match their Big Law counterparts in major markets.
But gathering young lawyers and giving them a platform to voice their opinions requires few resources. Adjusting to millennials doesn’t require an extreme makeover, or providing costly benefits without hesitation.
“They didn’t come back with a list of demands,” Christian said of his associate committee. “They came back saying, ‘We want to do things to make the firm better.’”
Christian said Burr & Forman already had some of the programs in place that millennial associates were asking for. They just hadn’t advertised them. For instance, the committee wanted to know whether the firm would allow associates to choose a nonpartner track while remaining full-time, something the firm had implemented previously in specific cases.
“I think they like concreteness. They want to know what’s there and see it,” he said.
Mathieu Shapiro, managing partner of Philadelphia-based Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, made a similar observation, saying much of what his firm’s millennial lawyers want are the same things their predecessors in Generation X fought for, like the dissolution of traditional gender roles in the workplace and a balance between work and personal life.
The biggest change at Obermayer Rebmann, he said, is “the ability to do meaningful work from anywhere, and at anytime.” Like many firms, Obermayer Rebmann has expanded remote work options for lawyers as millennials have entered the legal landscape.
“That’s one place you kind of see the generational divide,” Shapiro said. “Particularly baby boomers like to have associates sitting on the other side of the desk. Millennials I don’t think get that at all.”
Happier Millennials = Healthy Firms
According to data from ALM Intelligence, almost 90 percent of associates are millennials (born between 1981 and 1999). So efforts at associate outreach mostly touch that generation. These young lawyers may not have seniority, but law firm leaders are increasingly seeing value in keeping them happy.
“At the end of the day, attorney retention, associate retention, associate loyalty and growth is how the law firm is going to make money over the long run,” Patel said. “Bluntly, happier associates results in more money, and better-satisfied clients.”
Instead of fighting the generational differences, the firm leaders said, it’s better to embrace them, and capitalize on each generation’s strengths.
Christian noted some of his associates’ strong points. They’re tech savvy, which has helped as the firm works on a new brand strategy, he said, and many are more entrepreneurial at a young age.
“They’re interested and inquisitive and want to know about the business of running a law firm,” Christian said. “It is certainly different from when I was an associate 20 years ago. I came, did the work in front of me and went home. … I was told at the time, don’t worry about business development.”
Shapiro agreed. The millennial traits that often earn eyerolls from older generations—their desire to be constantly connected with the world around them, or their cravings for frequent feedback—do not have to be weaknesses.
“There’s nothing bad about any of those things. I think all of those things can be used to the benefit of the firm and our clients,” he said.