When Eric Alvarez moved to Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus in Bridgewater a little less than a year ago, his reasons were of a reputedly common refrain for those of his generation.
“I want to be looked at as a person and respected for the work that I do,” said Alvarez, 30, a litigation associate in the firm’s Bridgewater office, noting what he calls “an unfortunate way firms have evaluated people in the past.”
“I don’t think it’s good for firms to look at people as just a number on a spreadsheet,” he added, naming billable hours quotas and realization rates as two benchmarks he said ought not define a practitioner. “If you just go by the numbers, it doesn’t tell the whole story.”
The experience Alvarez says he’s getting at 136-lawyer Norris McLaughlin, such as face time with partners, along with some added perks, such as the 10-minute commute, are the sort of qualities millennial lawyers are seen as preferring. And while some firm and practice leaders have privately expressed some disconnect in dealing with millennial lawyers—citing a reliance on electronic communication and an affinity for remote work as common concerns—midsize firm leaders in New Jersey don’t report any serious problems, and take steps to retain workers from a notoriously mobile demographic.
Indeed, every generation has a gap to overcome in dealing with its successors, technological or otherwise.
“When we were doing it, we had memory typewriters,” said Christopher Gibson, current managing partner and onetime summer associate at 180-lawyer Archer & Greiner.
At the Haddonfield-based firm, Gibson said, roughly 75 percent of associates, and about 10 out of 50 partners, are from the millennial generation—the definition of which varies, but generally encompasses those born after 1980 through most of the 1990s.
“They certainly communicate a lot more electronically, both socially and professionally,” Gibson said. “I don’t think it’s a weakness. It’s just a fact.”
Though reluctant to assign common traits, Gibson said the firm’s millennial lawyers tend to have some clear strengths: Namely a sense of ownership of the firm, and a high level of curiosity about its makeup and management.
In order to cater to this generation of lawyers, Archer & Greiner’s leaders have implemented more one-on-one meetings, launched an associate development committee, and made other policy-level changes. They’ve also “put real dollars” into social issues their young lawyers care about, donating to organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, where those young lawyers are involved, according to Gibson.
As for diversity initiatives and emphasis on work/life balance, “a lot of that has come about because of young people opening their mouths,” he said.
Michael O’Donnell, co-managing partner at 146-lawyer Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti in Morristown, said he “took up golf” as a rainmaking tool years ago, whereas associates today are adept at generating business via electronic communication. At Riker Danzig, associates are tasked with updating firm blogs, and are trained on business generation, typically by younger partners, he said.
Millennials are more receptive and attuned to climbing the ladder now that partnership isn’t a given based on seniority alone. “They’re looking for ways,” he said.
O’Donnell did acknowledge a couple issues he said are common with millennial lawyers.
One is a tendency to focus on individual tasks in a client’s case, and “you have to remind them it’s an an organic whole,” he said. “If you find something,” such as how another court’s opinion might impact a client matter, “you need to speak up,” he added.
Another issue, O’Donnell said: “When they’re out with clients and they’re supposed to be paying attention, they don’t know to keep their phones in their pockets. But that’s something you can easily correct.”
“I know everyone says they’re so vastly different,” O’Donnell said. “They’re not. They’re just young.”
Norris McLaughlin’s Alvarez said billable quotas and “an expectation to either be in the office or be constantly connected” led him away from the Morristown office of Locke Lord in February 2017.
“Here, management understands we are also people,” Alvarez said of his new firm. There’s also “an investment in the associates here, and you can feel it,” he added. “They look at you as an investment.”
In addition to professional development for associates, the firm invests in community organizations and causes in which associates are involved, Alvarez said. “It doesn’t feel hollow either,” he said.
There’s also the associates committee, which coordinates training sessions, with the help of partners and marketing staff, on such topics as business development and “finding a niche,” and a group of partners who are ”very open about workflow and work-life balance,” he said.
Alvarez said he takes advantage of work flexibility, though he’s always available by phone, and hasn’t run into communication problems or philosophical differences with older partners.
R. Max Crane, managing partner of 140-lawyer Sills, Cummis & Gross in Newark, put the dynamic in different terms: Those who complain about millennials are like “your cranky old uncle,” he said. “Truthfully, I think [millennials] get a bad rap.”
Crane said the firm has long sought to offer the more engaging client work and lifestyle balance that’s harder to come by at other firms, where “they expect to kind of own you.”
“We’ve always looked at our direct competition as the big New York firms, all of whom have some economic advantage over our pay structure,” Crane said. “If you can’t match somebody dollar-for-dollar,” you have to offer better work and lifestyle, he said.
For the past 20 years, there’s also been an annual “technology allowance” at the firm (which, Crane reminisced, lawyers used to use on printers and fax machines).
“[Millennials are] more holistic. We didn’t allow ourselves to be fully integrated human beings,” Crane said of his own generation. “They do sometimes head out earlier, physically. … In our case, we stayed. We stayed as long as we had to and sacrificed some of that home life.”
It appears working remotely was the truly transformative factor. Even if productivity is maintained or improved, it can be difficult to see past the empty offices and cubicles. But it’s long been commonplace for lawyers to be equipped, allowed and even encouraged to work remotely on an almost entirely discretionary basis. How New Jersey midsize firms address those work habits, if at all, varies, with instances of heavy-handedness hard to come by.
At Archer & Greiner, attorneys of all ages work from home at least occasionally.
“Do millennials do that even more? Sure. Do we have a policy on that? No. … Because I find it practically unenforceable,” Gibson said. “The idea is to get the job done. … I don’t care if the guy next door to me wants to work from home four days a week.”
At Sills Cummis, client meetings must be done in person, though there’s much more flexibility with internal meetings, Crane said. Asked if senior lawyers ever complain about too much remote work, he said: “About once a year.”
At Riker Danzig, associates are required to accompany senior attorneys to depositions and attend client functions, but the firm “learned [its] lesson” years ago about flexible work arrangements, O’Donnell said.
“We got so much more productivity,” he said. “If the work is done, it’s done.”