Our workplace is more diverse than at any other point in time. This variety is represented by those of different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities and age. 

David Laud

David Laud

Greater mobility, socio-economic growth, progress with civil liberties and legislative support account in the most part for the increased diversity, but what specifically of age? What caused this widening of the generational spectrum in the workplace?

Historically in law firms, the older generation, in particular partners, would move toward retirement and hand over the reins to the next generation of ambitious lawyers. Improved healthcare, increased life expectancy, greater knowledge of fitness, fiscal worries and fears over personal finances including pensions, has resulted in a reluctance to let go. For others more ready to hand over the challenge of law firm ownership the issue has been in finding suitable and available candidates. The snaking line of eager, prospective equity partners has reduced as the understanding of risk and liabilities associated with owning a practice weigh heavily on Millennials.

In current law firm ownership and leadership terms we’re mostly talking about the two older groups; Baby Boomer generation, aged between 55 and 73 and, as the name suggests, are not in short supply and Generation X partners aged 40 to 54. Baby Boomers were typically schooled in a traditional hierarchical command management style. The latch key generation X’ers grew up often with both parents working and are noted for their fierce independent approach. These two older generations are the ones more likely to be faced with tackling the integration of the more technologically adept and collaborative, but unhelpfully considered less loyal and committed, Millennials (aka Generation Y’s). They’re now having to cope with yet another group, the newest arrivals, Generation Z’s, who bring an even greater affinity to everything digital, acutely aware of the failings of the older generations in managing the planet but not quite so comfortable with traditional methods of communication. Just note the reluctance to make or take a phone call.

This melting pot of generational preferences, pet hates and priorities could prove to be the single most important people management challenge leadership teams tackle, in order to ensure future growth and sustainability for their organisation. For all too long, consideration of generational differences as tangible issues to be managed have been overlooked or at worst consigned to the suggestion they’re akin to aligning someone’s personality traits with their horoscope. Millennials are now the single most researched generation and this analysis has proven enlightening, confirming generational diversity as a genuine factor in causing both headaches and help in running a firm in the 21st century.

My own direct experience and fascination in noting the clear differences in each generation prompted me to undertake research on the subject and share my own findings alongside the data from Deloitte, Pew Research Center and the Edelman Trust Barometer. My aim was to take a ’deep dive’ into the differences between the generations, their influences, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, to better understand and thereby better manage the staff who fall into the respective age groupings.

Boomers & Beyond

The consequence of older generations remaining in post is a fascinating and yet challenging prospect. Law firms can be presented with the task of managing at least four and sometimes five different age groups. It becomes five if we add those fit and able and working who are in their mid-70s and beyond, who belong to the ’silent generation’. Multiple generations in one practice with the oldest holding on to the power base and ownership can create pressure points for younger, ambitious professionals seeking a stake rather than simply a ‘steady job’.

The Millennial Masses

It’s likely that in many law firms those with an eye for a place at the partners’ table will now be coming from Generation Y or Millennials, aged in their early to late 30s. Millennials are considered more focused on experiences outside of work than within, but this does not hide or diminish their need for recognition and reward.

“Squeezed” Generation X

X’ers are something of a filling in the generational sandwich, with slices of Millennial below and Boomer above. Gen X’ers will mostly be in their 40s and early 50s and the majority of this group will already have established their partnership credentials. In other words, if it was going to happen for them, it’s likely to have been handled one way or another.

The Generation X cohort is not as large as either Boomer or Millennial and they will need to find appropriate skills and knowledge to work with their younger and older generational colleagues for mutual gain.

By 2020, 50 percent of the workforce will be made up of Millennial or the ‘Y’ Generation; by 2030 it will be 75 percent (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). These Millennial employees, born between 1980 and 1996, have ridden several seismic waves of change, from political, economic and environmental to communication and technological innovation – and this pace of change shows little sign of abating.

Having experienced an ever more connected, digitally-driven world, Millennials are now moving through firms to take greater responsibility, head teams, run departments or when permitted entire businesses or in certain cases create their own version of a law firm.

In undertaking my research, I explored the various generations within law firms and the challenges, threats and opportunities they face as staff deal with colleagues from younger or older groups, be they Baby Boomer or Generations X, Y (Millennial) or the next wave of ‘Z’s’ as they enter the world of work. The approach taken was to follow the lifecycle of lawyer and support staff from qualification, hiring through to their development, management, ambition and values, leadership, partnership and business ownership.

Generational diversity raises interesting questions when hiring, training, managing, communicating with clients, colleagues and leading within the firm. Here are eight examples of queries that the generational divide may prompt.

1. Do we need to adapt our recruitment policies and procedures to attract candidates from different generational groups? (Consider the difference in approach taken by a senior candidate looking for a partnership or HoD opportunity opposed to a Gen Z straight out of college or university)

2. Is our training meeting the needs of our employees across each generation and learning style? (Baby Boomers comfortable with ’chalk and talk’ style lectures whilst Millennials favour online resources such as podcasts and webinars)

3. Are we communicating effectively with clients who are from diverse generational groups or are we simply offering each the same options? (Older clients will prefer traditional methods of communication such as phone and letters while younger clients prefer e-mail and text – are you accommodating those preferences?)

4. Do our staff receive training in interpersonal skills and management that reflects the diversity in generations? (Important to increase awareness of generational differences amongst staff to counter stereotyping or prejudicial views)

5. Are we aware of the staff who operate *side hustles and know what they do? (25% of the UK’s adult population run *Side Hustles or alternative income generating ventures above and beyond their day job – these are predominantly Millennial and Gen Z staff)

6. What do we know about our staff interests, beliefs, values outside of the workplace? (Millennials and increasingly Gen Z’s are seeking employers who follow their own values relating to equality, diversity and issues such as environmental concerns)

7. Have we identified and nurtured our next group of leaders within the firm? (Note below the average tenure of the younger generations is falling, having an active and effective progression path for staff offers staff the prospect to see their future career path and not ’shop around’ for new opportunities. Critical here is the training of managers to ensure they nurture and develop the talent and not dissuade them from realizing their ambitions)

8. How do we work at retaining the interest and loyalty of our staff so as to retain the talent we need to succeed? (Average tenure of a baby boomer is 10 years, average tenure of a millennial 2.5 years - Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Gaining a better understanding of traits, tendencies, beliefs and influences of ALL generations can significantly assist those responsible for leading, growing and managing succession within organisations.

The legal sector is under increasing pressure to evolve and adapt to the changing world. Despite the rise in technological solutions such as AI, AR, blockchain and smart contract, law firms remain heavily reliant on their human resources. Without an appreciation of the challenge generational diversity brings to the legal sector, firms will continue to struggle. One further, and many would argue critical example rests with the perennial issue of succession and encouraging the next wave of ’bright young things’ to take the responsibility of managing the future of the business.

For this succession process to work, a firm requires a strong cohort of suitably qualified, engaged, motivated and committed practitioners. Arriving at that point requires preparation, planning and effective implementation of management initiatives that acknowledge the needs of that generation and those following on behind.

Having a comprehensive understanding of the generational diversity within your business and applying suitable measures will help when it comes to hiring, firing or managing that tricky question of retiring. Effective management of these different generational groups can offer a true competitive advantage.

David Laud is a law firm CEO and management consultant and author of Baby Boomers to Generation Z – Capitalizing on Generational Diversity to Grow Successful Law Firms