Working with Different Generations

by Joan Newman

Most law firms, in-house counsel, and other legal employers have four generations of lawyers working together, and each generation has differing views on career development, motivation, loyalty to the employer, client relations, communication styles, interactions with peers, and work life balance. The generations are different because of their life experiences and each generation’s perspective is important, credible, and relevant to them.  For example, if you ask a traditional or baby boomer partner about younger associates who work with them, you will most likely hear grumblings about the associates’ lack of work ethic and their sense of entitlement.  From the younger generation’s perspective, the older lawyers seem “out of step” with the world, have this “pay your dues” mentality, and a work ethic that compromises relationships with family and friends.  These generational differences cause significant challenges for law firm management, and managing partners readily admit that generational differences are impacting everything in the law firm. 

The next generations think differently, act differently, and value different things.  The new generation of lawyers is not motivated by the same rewards that motivated the traditional and baby boomer lawyers.  Although younger lawyers take their careers seriously and are willing to work hard, work-life balance is of equal importance to them.  They use technology to their advantage and rather than work late in the office or on weekends as the generations of lawyers preceding them did, they are able to do their work effectively outside of the office.  On the other hand, many older lawyers, who are shaped by their parent’s values of dedication, commitment, and a strong work ethic are not as comfortable with technology, and still think that if you are not in the office, you are not working.

The generational differences not only affect working relationships within the firm but also impact many other aspects of the practice of law, such as recruiting and retaining lawyers, professional development and training, retaining and developing new business, succession planning, relationships between staff and lawyers, and internal and external communications.  It is important to your organization’s success in this ever changing and highly competitive market to understand these generational differences, learn from and value each generation’s perspectives and differences so that you can develop effective working relationships with each generation. 
The following briefly describes the generations, what they want, and some tips on how to deal with them.  

Traditional or Builders Generation (over age 68)

The Traditional or Builders generation lived through the Depression, World War II, and the Korean War.  They watched their parents make tremendous sacrifices during those historic times, and as a result, they were shaped by their parents’ loyalty and commitment to organizations and work ethic.  As a result, this generation of lawyers is extremely loyal, fiscally prudent, committed to institutions, and has a strong work ethic.  They want challenging and satisfying work that uses their skills and expertise, a work environment in which they can enjoy their colleagues, formality in the work place, and a culture that appreciates them.  Some tips for dealing with them are:  include them in strategic planning, respect their expertise and experiences by utilizing them in mentoring and training programs for younger lawyers, and focus on the transfer of knowledge from them to younger lawyers.  They want to leave a meaningful legacy – their experience, knowledge, and wisdom. 

Baby Boomers (ages 49-67)

The Baby Boomers fall into two age groups; ages 60-67 and ages 49-59.  The older group is often described as the Woodstock or flower child generation and they lived through the Vietnam War, Kent State shootings, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. They dreamed of social revolution and rebelled against the establishment and rules their parents created.  The younger group of Baby Boomers was too young to fight in Vietnam and to participate in the social rebellion of the 1960s.  Instead, they experienced Watergate, gasoline lines, the Iranian hostage crisis, and a faltering economy.  As a result, Baby Boomers distrust many people in authority.  When they emerged from college, they gave up their hope of social revolution and entered the establishment. Whether the Baby Boomer is in the older or younger group, they are the most educated of all generations so far.  Baby Boomers are very ambitious, workaholics, materialistic, good at relationships, and intensely identified by their careers.  Work became their identity.  Older Baby Boomers want work/life balance and are beginning to think about how to re-invent themselves for the next step in their life.  The younger Baby Boomers want challenging work, family friendly work environments, work/life balance, and state of the art technology.   Some tips for working with Baby Boomers are:  recognize them for their skills, contributions, opinions, and knowledge and use these skills in decision making for the organization; honor their historical memory; use them as mentors and coaches because they have excellent people and client relationship skills (much better than Gen X and Gen Y); challenge them continuously because they want new learning experiences; and train them in technology because it will help bridge the gap between them and younger generations.     
 
Gen X (ages 33-48)

This generation is often referred to as the latch-key generation.  Their childhood was consumed by Watergate, the energy crisis, the AIDs epidemic, sexual abuse at home and in day care centers, and “milk carton” missing children.  Their world was scary without a war.  Gen X parents were extremely permissive resulting in Gen X being the most unsupervised generation in parenting history.  They are the first generation to face rampant divorce rates among their parents and they blame this on their workaholic parents.   They were left to take care of themselves and grew up to become very independent, goal-oriented, entrepreneurial, and techno savvy.  Their expectations of employer loyalty were shattered with the economic downturn after 911 and they realized again that they had to take care of themselves.  They mistrust institutions and reject rules, and foremost, they are not team players. 

Because of the divorce rate among their parents, they want work/life balance and although they are willing to work hard, they want to work smart, and not at the expense of their own life.  Money is not their motivating force and they are not willing to pay the same price for success as their parents.  They also want their employers to develop them professionally because their goal is to stay marketable.  Finally, they want a friendly and fun work environment, variety of challenging work, constant feedback, and state of the art technology.  Some tips for dealing with Gen X are: provide work/life balance options such as flexible work arrangements, constant feedback, responsibility on projects, training and development opportunities, and continuous communication on the organization’s vision and values.       

Gen Y (under age 33)

This generation is referred to as the Millennial or “entitled” generation.  They are the children of Baby Boomers and the younger siblings of Gen X.  They grew up in scary times – 911, the Oklahoma City bombing, World Trade Center, and Atlanta summer Olympics bombings, the Iraq War, and Columbine and other school shootings. As a result of these childhood events, Gen Ys will tell you that their number one concern is for their personal safety.  They have been tethered to their parents, often referred to as “helicopter” parents, who have hovered over, protected, and coached them since birth.  In short, the world revolved around them and as a result, Gen Y is the most sheltered and structured generation in our country’s history.  They are also the most technological savvy generation in our history, being the first generation to use email, instant messaging, and cellphones since childhood.  They value work/life balance, a fun/casual work environment, diversity in the workplace, challenging and meaningful work immediately, and constant feedback. Many of them are relationally and materially untethered which affords them the ability to move from job to job if they are not satisfied and as a result, they want to be trained and developed so that they can remain marketable.  Because Gen Ys have grown up highly structured, they find time management challenging so a key to working with them effectively requires clear goals, specific deadlines, and setting priorities.  Gen Ys want their contributions and ideas to be valued and respected and they want their employer to demonstrate how what they are doing will contribute to the success of the firm.  Finally, very few Gen Ys have any relationship with individuals outside their generation except their parents.  Therefore, they would benefit from training and coaching on developing relationships and because they enjoy working on teams, this is a good vehicle to develop these skills.      

Generational differences not only affect working relationships within the firm but also impact just about every aspect of the practice of law, such as relationships with clients and marketing efforts to current and prospective clients.  How a law firm addresses these intergenerational differences is critical to its success and the recruitment and retention of associates.  So how does a firm create an atmosphere where generations work side by side, learning from and valuing each other’s perspectives and differences?  The firm must first recognize that these intergenerational differences exist and then it must educate each generation about the other to help bridge the gap.  Finally, the firm must find creative and innovative ways to address these differences in all facets of firm governance and administration.  


Joan M. Newman is an adjunct consultant with Altman Weil, Inc.  She specializes in coaching law firm partners and associates as well as in-house counsel to improve their leadership and professional skills.  Her coaching enables lawyers to distinguish themselves in firm and practice group management roles, business development efforts, and relationships with colleagues and clients.


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