Bryan Stewart Bryan Stewart of Atlanta’s Morris Manning & Martin.
Photo: John Disney/ALM

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.

Millennials are making their mark on Atlanta’s largest law firms. Even though most still occupy the bottom rungs, their firms have launched a surprisingly wide variety of homegrown initiatives to respond to the needs—and talents—of their youngest lawyers.

Firms are providing more training and mentoring to advance millennials’ lawyering and business development skills. They are taking millennials’ viewpoint into account on everything from office redesign to new legal technologies, and they are creating more flexible workplaces.

Managing MillennialsThat said, they are expecting a lot in return.

Millennials have been stereotyped as “snowflakes” with a sense of entitlement, short attention spans and a constant need for feedback and encouragement. In other words, they’re perceived as a group that needs to be catered to.

That’s not the message from talking to leaders of Atlanta’s biggest firms.

Rather, they describe a hard-working generation of lawyers who are more assertive about understanding the business of law and advancing their careers—both keys to success for their firms—than their predecessors. They want their firms’ help in doing that in an era when the path to partnership does not seem as direct or likely as for their Gen X and baby boomer predecessors. Born in 1980 or later, millennials, at 36 or younger, are basically today’s associates.

“There is more of a demand for information from younger lawyers today than before and an expectation that they receive more information about the firm and feedback about their performance and opportunities,” said Mark Wasserman, co-chief executive officer of Eversheds Sutherland. “I think that’s good.”

They want to know “where they are heading, their position, their future, where they are going,” Wasserman added. “In the 1980s, that wasn’t as much of a thing at all.”

He said millennials want greater transparency from the firm, both in terms of its financials and strategy and what they need to do to succeed. “It forces more senior lawyers giving the feedback not to push issues aside, which is better for training, better for the next deal—better all around,” he said.

“These people are going to become the leaders in our firm,” Wasserman added.

Millennial Big Law breakdown Now clustered in the associate ranks, millennials are poised to become their firms’ main breadwinners in the coming years.

Getting Connected

Connecting associates across offices with their colleagues is a top goal for firms with hundreds of lawyers.

At Eversheds Sutherland, the firm started a “Pass the Baton” program where U.S. associates can visit their colleagues in other offices around the world and vice versa. It’s part of a firmwide integration push after Atlanta-based Sutherland Asbill & Brennan combined Feb. 1 with U.K.-based Eversheds, creating a more than 2,400-lawyer firm.

They meet their far-flung peers, participate in client meetings and learn about doing business worldwide. “Culturally it makes us a stronger and better place—and it’s better for their experience as well,” Wasserman said.

In a similar vein, King & Spalding, which has more than 1,000 lawyers, recently held a “Milestone Academy” in Washington. The event, launched in 2016, convened 150 associates where third and fourth-year associates met with sixth- and seventh-years.

Both cohorts are at a milestone, explained Lisa Keyes, King & Spalding’s professional development director. The younger ones are becoming midlevels who are managing newer associates, and the senior ones are looking to make partner.

“How to connect people is a big thing that I think about,” Keyes said, adding that the most common comment from a recent associate feedback session was they want to meet the people in other offices with whom they work.

Feedback Loop

One of the major themes Keyes said she’s hearing from King & Spalding associates is they want “more individualized guidance in real time and more frequent feedback.”

Members of the associates’ committee are asking for “more transparency about their career progression,” she said. “’Am I on the path to partner or counsel?’ They want one-on-one feedback.”

In response, King & Spalding kicked off a pilot program in October, designed by Keyes and Michelle Carter, the associate director of lawyer development, that pairs each of its fourth-year associates with a partner to guide their professional development. There are 54 pairs of partners and associates participating in 14 offices worldwide, Keyes said.

Millennials across the board want “more open discussion of career goals,” she said, “even if it’s ‘I want to go in-house or be a law professor or be a judge.’”

“People at King & Spalding have lots of connections and they can help with that,” Keyes said, adding that associates also want more ways to connect with alumni.

“We want people to be part of the King & Spalding family but not have to be at King & Spalding if that is not their goal,” Keyes said.

The Business

One winning proposal at a recent innovation tournament held by Eversheds Sutherland was educating associates on the business side of law. In response, the firm has rolled out training on financials and performance metrics, including matter planning, budgeting and profitability.

Smith Gambrell & Russell is also addressing associates’ desire to learn the legal business. One way is by including them at the annual meeting, where they attend leadership’s presentations on financials and strategy along with the partners, said the firm’s managing partner, Stephen Forte.

“We are trying to cultivate them to become partners,” he said.

It used to be that young lawyers could concentrate on developing legal skills, said Smith Gambrell’s business development partner, Brett Lockwood, but now they need business development skills as well—and they know it.

“This younger cohort of lawyers is much more savvy about what it takes to succeed in the business of law—and they know they are not going to develop these skills overnight,” Lockwood said.

In response, Lockwood in 2011 spearheaded a one-year leadership training program, Leadership SGR, for junior partners and senior associates.

Participants work in small groups on marketing and communication skills, which includes matching them with events, speaking and writing opportunities. Another goal is to facilitate cross-selling work.

Leadership SGR currently has about 35 participants—a significant percentage for a firm with a 215-lawyer headcount. That’s larger than past groups, Lockwood said, because of increased interest from associates and the firm’s desire to add more senior lawyers for learning across age groups.

“This past year, we intentionally mixed more senior lawyers in with more junior ones—even first years, whom we had been wary about including in the past, because we don’t want to divert them from learning law,” Lockwood said.

Forte said Smith Gambrell also offers one-on-one coaching in business development to associates by the firm’s CMO, Lee Watts, and her staff. “How do you succeed in a law firm? You can’t leave the client service and business development aspect out of that,” Forte said.

Firm Management

Several firms are giving associates more of a role in firm management beyond traditional associates committees, including planning for the firm’s future.

Alston & Bird has a Technology Liaison Committee that meets quarterly to assess emerging legal technologies and review tech deployments in the works. Its 28 members are primarily millennial associates and partners who are nominated by their practice group leaders, according to Nola Vanhoy, senior director for legal technology innovation.

“We have in trial a cognitive learning product for our transactional lawyers and have millennials involved in testing some of the latest machine-learning tools for application to their practices and clients,” Vanhoy said in an email.

Last year, Morris Manning & Martin started a 20/20 Committee, run by millennials, to give younger lawyers more of a say in the firm’s direction. Bryan Stewart, a 34-year-old IP associate, suggested the initiative to the firm’s managing partner, Louise Wells. The oldest person in the group is 38.

Stewart said the 20/20 Committee is a test lab for emerging legal trends. The 11 lawyers and staff take on three initiatives per year, which have included defining and promoting the firm’s culture, automating forms, such as contracts—a hot legal services topic—and using sales tools for business development, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system to track prospects.

“This is not necessarily mind-blowing in general, but it is in a law firm,” Stewart noted.

The 20/20 committee holds quarterly lunches where anyone at Morris Manning—attorneys and staff—can suggest ideas, Stewart said, which led to an initiative looking at using blockchain.

The group has a lot of autonomy in designing initiatives, Stewart said, but the executive committee must sign off on activities requiring big expenditures of money or people’s time.

A New Look

One area where firms are routinely including associates is office design.

At King & Spalding, which is in the middle of a major restack of its Atlanta headquarters after renewing its lease at 1180 Peachtree St. in January, there are about as many associates as partners on the space-planning committee, reflecting an orientation toward the future.

“The associates are really thoughtful about how to use space and about the technology aspects—it’s a process that’s really helping us,” chief operating officer Derek Hardesty said in January.

One big trend for recent renovations at Alston & Bird and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton—and at King & Spalding and Troutman Sanders, which is also in the middle of a restack after renewing its lease at Bank of America Plaza last year—is creating more collaborative work areas with tech infrastructure that allows for the easy movement of laptops and devices.

Smith Gambrell’s Atlanta lease isn’t up for another three and a half years, but Forte said the firm has added several associates to its space redesign committee as it starts exploring its options.

Providing lactation rooms for mothers is one thing they’ve suggested, Forte said. That is important, since the office redesign could include clear glass interior walls for lawyer offices—another trend to admit natural light—and most of the lawyer offices have doors that don’t lock.

“We are aware of the changing needs of our younger lawyers. Those are the types of questions where we’re looking for input,” he said.

Flexible Face Time

A flexible work schedule is important for millennials juggling demanding jobs with family and other commitments, said Arnall Golden Gregory partner Brian Smith, who is a member of its recruitment committee and its pro bono chair.

“Millennials see work as part of the life experience, not the life experience,” said Smith, who at 37 is just past the millennial age range.

“They acknowledge billable hours requirements, but they want to hit them on terms that meet their life’s demands,” said Smith. That could mean leaving the office early to pick up young children, then booting the laptop back up after the kids are tucked in bed.

Having daycare adjacent to the office and favorable maternity and paternity leave policies are also important to millennials, he said.

Kilpatrick Townsend is allowing greater work flexibility with a formal policy “that provides structure to the process for those seeking to work remotely,” said its chair, J. Henry Walker IV, in an email. Firm leaders assess requests for remote work schedules to make sure they “meet the firm’s needs but, importantly, clients’ needs as well,” he said.

At Arnall Golden, associates are not expected to spend every working moment in the office, Smith said, but partners still walk down the hall when they have work that needs doing, so associates still need face time.

Eversheds Sutherland’s Wasserman said there is still some difference of opinion among firms about allowing lawyers to work from home. “The risk is that you are missing sitting in on an impromptu phone call or a quick meeting to go over an M&A document—picking up on how more experienced lawyers do things and how they talk to people.”

But the expectation that lawyers need to be on the premises every workday plus Saturday mornings is diminishing. “Fewer people come in over the weekend. With technology, they can do it from home,” said Wasserman. “Most partners and clients could care less about where their people are sitting these days.”