Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

BY PAT YEVICS  

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

~Understanding the multi-generational legal staff~

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words . . . and exceedingly impatient." Regardless of your age, doesn't this sound like something you have thought of the generation that has come after yours? Don't we all think that the next generation does not work as hard as we did, is not willing to pay its dues and do what it takes to get it done right? Well, the quote above was written by the eighth-century Greek poet Hesiod, so it seems as though the idea that the next generation is never as good as the current one is nothing new.

Recently I had to conduct interviews for the position of web assistant. During the dreaded process of looking for, interviewing, choosing and training the new employee, I came to really understand that there truly is a new world order and that I had to either figure out a way to work within it or miss out on the best the new generations have to offer. I had to finally accept the fact that, in order to work with these new generations, I was going to have to understand them and how they differ from my own generation: Baby Boomers. [Note: Since this column is read by practitioners from all generations, the purpose is to discuss the differences of all the generations and how practitioners from each generation need to understand all the others.]

For the first time in history, the workplace will include four generations of workers. Although solos and small firms have few (if any) employees, this workplace phenomenon and the conflicts will still have a major impact on the future success of our practices.

The generations, and their broad characteristics, that now comprise the workforce in many organizations, including law firms, are:

  • Traditionalists, born between 1900 and 1945, are very loyal and have seldom worked for more than one employer. They are motivated by the recognition of a job well-done. They are comfortable with a top-down management style.
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, tend to be extremely competitive. They are motivated by symbols of recognition, yet they are optimistic and idealistic. They are driven and work long hours.
  • Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, have little trust in the system. They are not usually considered team players and tend to work independently. They are more interested in freedom. They are very concerned with balance in their work lives, and they are much more willing to switch jobs frequently.
  • Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1999, believe that their work has value and want to make a difference. Unlike Gen Xers, they are more civic-minded and sociable. [This was taken from a chart from the article "Managing a Multigenerational Workforce," www.thediversitytoolkit.com.]

These are clearly generalizations, but they point out how difficult it can be when attempting to manage a firm, deal with clients, and work with other attorneys or clients when confronted by these real differences. I am firmly convinced that we must learn to work with all generations if our practices are to prosper. We need to understand how the different generations think (even if we do not agree with how they think) so that we can communicate effectively.

These generational differences are most evident when we need to hire someone, be it for a legal staff position or an associate. It can even be an issue if we want to join forces with another practitioner or firm for the ultimate purpose of retiring from the practice. We need to understand how the different generations think and why in order to make many of these transitions successful. That may mean giving up on our widely-held belief that our generation (whichever it is) is the best and hardest-working. I know how hard that can be, but it is absolutely critical.

According to the Mediation Training Institute International, over 65 percent of performance problems are a direct result of strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in individual employees' skills or motivation. And many of the causes of these strained relationships stem from generational differences. A person's outlook on life and work depends on when he/she was born. (www.mediationworks.com)

Keep in mind that multigenerational issues affect much more than just working relationships in the firm. These differences can affect client relations, attracting new clients and marketing efforts. It can also affect jury selection and trial outcomes.

What can you do to turn these differences into advantages and opportunities? According to Mary E. Brady, in an article entitled "Managing a Multigenerational Workforce" (www.womens digest.net/departments/career/car0603a.html), there are commonalities:

  • Everyone wants to succeed and people want to feel valued. In most instances, people do not like conflict, although this might not be completely true in the legal profession. However, we do see some of this changing as more people look to mediation for "win-win" situations.
  • All arrows must be pointing in the same direction. There must be common goals and people need to know what those goals are. We all need clear communication. "Because I said so" does not work with the X and Y generations.
  • No one wants to operate out of a sense of fear. You cannot bully people into good work. Collaboration must be encouraged.
  • And finally, the one that we often forget: Everyone likes to have fun. It is possible and even preferable to have working relationships with others from different generations. All generations can and must learn from others. Our firms, our clients and our lives will be much better if we realize that each generation has much to offer the others.

Much of the discussion about multigenerational firms is about how the "older" generations need to understand and learn from the "newer" generations, but I think that is short-sighted. It is just as important that the learning and understanding move in both directions newer from older and older from newer. Each generation has much to offer, and those practitioners who understand this will be much more successful in handling the demands of running a practice.

In doing research for this article, I found many informative articles, which are listed here:

  • "Closing the Generation Gap," ABA Law Practice Management Section. Law Practice (June 2006; www.lawpractice.org).
  • "Managing a Multigenerational Workforce," The Diversity Manager's Toolkit (2004; www.thediversitytoolkit.com).
  • "Five Tips for Multigenerational Inclusion" (www.workforce developmentgroup.com/news_twenty.html).
  • "The Future Law Office: The Changing Face of the Legal Industry" (www.futurelawoffice.com). This is a report and paper done by Robert Half and Associates regarding the changes that are taking place in the legal industry. While they talk about larger firms, these issues will affect the legal profession as a whole, including solo and small firm practitioners.
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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2006