Some call them slackers. Others are more diplomatic. But whatever the moniker, “Generation Y” associates are getting a bad rap for what some say is a flabby work ethic and an off-putting sense of entitlement.

Attorneys from Generation Y-those born in 1978 or later-are plenty smart and generally well educated, say firm leaders and industry experts. But these young attorneys also are lacking in loyalty, initiative and energy, so the criticism goes.

And though some associates sharply dispute the assessment, the perception is forcing managing partners to rethink their motivation strategies and their expectations for their firms’ future.

Big money at large firms may be intoxicating for young lawyers with mounds of school debt, but new associates often are not willing to make the sacrifice that those salaries demand, said Bruce McLean, chairman of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“It entices people to come to big firms who really don’t want to do what we do,” said McLean, adding that Akin Gump has a “significant number” of hardworking associates.

Generation Y associates often come from the nation’s top schools and have other impressive credentials, McLean said, but what many do not have is unbridled ambition. “Just being successful and a partner in a firm is not enough of a motivating tool,” he said.

But third-year associate Moe Keshavarzi at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles said that firms with unhappy Generation Y associates are not tapping into their potential.

“I have friends who are fourth-year associates at other firms who are sitting in the library researching,” he said.

Studies indicate that young workers are less willing to put in long hours and instead are more focused on pursuing interests outside work than were their predecessors. A report issued by the Families and Work Institute in October, Generation and Gender in the Workplace, found that younger employees are less likely to be “work-centric.” The study also found that young men and women are more interested in staying at the same rung on the career ladder in order to preserve their quality of life.

With regard to law firms specifically, a study conducted by Edge International, a professional services consulting firm, found that the 25- to 30-year-old group ranked the following factors as motivators at their jobs: time for personal life; opportunities for advancement; professional growth; achievement; intrinsic nature of work; security; leadership; and being a member of a team.

“This group wants to grow professionally and advance to partnership, but not while compromising their personal lives,” said Karen MacKay, a partner with Edge International. The survey, “Motivating the Next Generation,” was sent to about 4,000 members of the law firm network Multilaw. About 800 attorneys responded.

It may be that new associates simply are more vocal about what they perceive as meaningless work, even if they are handsomely paid, said Reed Smith fifth-year associate Alicia Powell.

“After you make so much money, it’s enough,” Powell said.

Part of what is fueling management’s perception relates to the dot-com bust, said Morrison & Foerster chairman Keith Wetmore. Older partners may view any grousing by associates who receive assignments from them as a sign of being ungrateful for work that three years ago was scarce, he said.

“It may be more in the eyes of the observer than in the associate,” he said.

The ‘pack mentality’

But other firm leaders are less forgiving. One managing partner at a New York firm cited a “failure to take charge of their career” as a common problem with young associates. “They are more willing to sit back and wait for things to happen to them instead of making them happen for themselves,” the attorney said, adding that new associates today are more brazen than those in previous years. “They are willing to turn down work they don’t want to do. They don’t volunteer for committee or other firm work.”

Another managing partner at a national firm said that many new associates, unlike associates before them, no longer “feel lucky” to have their jobs. The attorney also said that associates now operate under a pack mentality.

“[Newer associates] have a very strong connection with each other as opposed to the institution. If someone is treated badly, they all react to it,” the attorney said.

“Vigorously” rejecting the Generation Y characterization, however, is Jonathan Cole, immediate past chairman of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. Associates today work harder, if not more effectively, than in previous generations, said Cole, who made partner in 2003 at the Nashville, Tenn., office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.

He acknowledged, however, that associates, who in the past may have blindly met a firm’s demands, now more closely consider the tradeoff to their personal life. “People are looking more ‘big picture,’ ” he said. “ It’s a good trend.”

Generation Y workers may be too smart for their own good, which contributes to management’s perceptions, said Carolyn Martin, co-author of Managing Generation Y (HRD Press, 2001).

Employees in that generation, especially those in professional positions, place a high value on education, something their parents drilled into them, she said. Consequently, young associates have a low tolerance for less-than-challenging tasks that management often relegates to them, she said.

In addition, the group has a greater degree of cynicism than in generations past, she said, stemming from the dot-com failure and 9/11 terrorist attacks. The result is diminished long-term loyalty to their employers.

“They’re saying, ‘I’ve looked at the world and there’s no such thing as job security,’ ” she said.