How to Manage Millennial Lawyers? Hint: Become a Better Manager, Period.

As a keynote speaker on multigenerational workplace success, I frequently work with law firms. In this article, I’m focusing on some of the unique generational issues faced in the legal industry – in particular, the management of Millennial attorneys.

What is the secret to better managing today’s Millennial attorneys (the generation defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between approximately 1981 to 1996)?

The answer is surprising to many: after more than 15 years of studying intergenerational workplaces, I have concluded that the secret to better managing today’s Millennial attorneys is not much different than the secret to managing earlier generations.

The problem is that too many lawyers — and leaders across most other industries as well — never really learned how to manage well.

The reason that Millennials feel more challenging to manage is because they speak up when they are unhappy with their leaders, and they leave organizations where they don’t feel valued. This is one of the most constructive changes younger generations have brought to the workplace overall: because they have the tools and confidence to expose bad bosses, they are doing so.

Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 to 1964) and Gen Xers like me (born between 1965 and 1980) often had bad leaders and plenty of complaints about them; what we didn’t have were public places to air our angst, like, Glassdoor, Twitter, or Above the Law. Add in the increase in 360-degree feedback and upward reviews at many organizations today, and junior employees have even more of a voice in exposing poor managers.

In the past, there was also more of a stigma against changing jobs or firms too frequently. This meant people would continue working for a poor leader even if it made them unhappy and less productive. Most of the time, they just accepted what they got. Today, when people — especially Millennials — are more comfortable jumping ship when they are unhappy, we can’t help but notice the captains of the ships they are jumping from.

Several people in law firm staffing roles have told me there are certain leaders whom no junior person will agree to work for. These leaders rose up the ranks because of their superior work outcomes or skill with clients, so everyone looked the other way at their mistreatment of employees. That will no longer fly, and we have Millennials to thank. Many of these leaders, in order to maintain their positions, are being required to take management training programs or executive coaching that, frankly, they should have had long ago.

What exactly do effective people managers do? Here are some best practices that help leaders better manage Millennials and all members of multigenerational teams, with a focus on habits and tactics that are reasonable for busy professionals to implement.

Demonstrate What Excellence Looks Like

One law firm partner told me that he was unhappy with the writing quality of his firm’s Millennial-aged junior associates. He blamed it on the casualness of texting culture, but he learned pretty quickly that blame and judgment were not going to solve the problem.

So, he and his colleagues took the time to create a binder of what they considered to be well-crafted writing samples — client email messages, briefs, memos, and more — that associates could refer to for guidance. “This is what good writing looks like,” he told them. And so, they learned how to meet his expectations.

Where can you take the time to create a document or folder of strong work examples that everyone can access? You only have to do this once. Can you also make it a practice to copy your team on correspondence that meets your standards?

Be a One-Minute Manager

I often ask executives what they recommend as the best book for learning how to manage people. Far and away the number one answer is The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, which was originally published in 1982.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the first-ever revised edition of this book, now called The New One Minute Manager, was published in 2015, just as Millennials were becoming the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. The authors knew back when Millennials were in diapers that the best way to manage people is to provide regular, specific feedback in exactly the way the book title describes: short bursts of (1) one-minute praising and (2) one-minute correction. It can really be that simple, as long as managers are consistent.

If you lead too large a team for ongoing individual feedback to be realistic, then consider offering regular “office hours” during which anyone can schedule an appointment or just pop in to talk — in person or via phone, Skype, text, instant messenger, or any other medium. One of my clients, a leader who is a Millennial, offers office hours to his intergenerational team from 8:00 am to 9:00 am every weekday morning. If no one shows up, he uses the time to catch up on his own work. And if any of his direct reports wants to talk about a non-urgent business issue any other time in the day, he feels no guilt reminding them exactly when he is available for feedback and career-related conversations.

Give More Explicit Instructions

As Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.” A law firm partner once complained to me that he had tried to support a young associate’s career by bringing her with him to a client meeting, but she blew it. When I asked what happened, he said with disdain, “She talked.” According to this partner, a junior associate absolutely should not speak in a meeting with clients. When I asked him if he had told her that in advance, he said, “She should have known not to talk.” That is absolutely a failure on the part of the partner. “You should have known better” is not exactly helpful feedback.

The need for more explicit directions may be related to the fact that Millennials had more oversight from parents, teachers, and coaches when they were children, or it just may be the simple issue that we don’t know what we don’t know. Specific, explicit instructions are important no matter what generations you manage.

Hold More One-on-One Check-ins

Adobe is one company that has abolished annual performance reviews and decided to replace them with “check-ins,” frequent meetings between employees and managers. One-on-ones are by no means a new concept, but if more leaders actually held them, imagine how much more productive and engaged employees of all generations might be.

Stay Conversations

A more formalized variation on one-on-one check-ins is known at some organizations as a “stay conversation.” This is a deliberate conversation between manager and employee, or partner and associate, about the more junior person’s future at the organization. While not a promise, a stay conversation is an opportunity for a manager to explicitly tell key talent how much they are valued. In today’s uncertain times, stay conversations can be critical to alleviating stress and supporting retention.

Sometimes, we are least transparent with people about their own careers, and this can be particularly frustrating for early career professionals. From their recent experiences as students, Millennials are generally accustomed not only to frequent feedback in the form of grades, but also to constant, transparent discussion of their next steps.

I was once sitting on an airplane next to a young professional who worked in sales for a major beverage company. (We started chatting because I noticed him flipping over his napkin, snack menu, and other items on his tray table. When I inquired, he told me the items had the logo of his company’s biggest rival brand and he couldn’t risk someone snapping a photo of him with the enemy logo. Brilliant.)

When I told him about my work, he identified himself as an ambitious and frustrated Millennial. He asked for advice on talking to his manager about how he could advance more quickly. “I keep asking my boss what else I need to do to get ahead,” he told me, “and my boss keeps saying, ‘Be patient. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.’ And I understand that,” my brand-loyal seatmate said to me. “But can’t he at least tell me what mile of the marathon I’m on?”

That sentiment makes sense to me, and this is why stay conversations can be so valuable. When was the last time you talked to your top talent about the future? You don’t have to make any promises, but you can talk generally and take an employee’s temperature. If you don’t have these conversations, your best young people might leave while you are making other plans for them. So many young people are told in their exit interviews, “Why are you leaving? We had big plans for you!” And they reply, “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

MBWA (Management by Wandering Around)

Another simple, effective, and economical people management strategy and feedback opportunity is the decades-old “Management by Wandering Around,” which is as easy as it sounds: simply walking around and chitchatting with your team. This simple, classic practice has tremendous benefits among employees of all generations. One Harvard Business School study found that managers with the lowest levels of respect are those known for shutting themselves in their offices.

If you choose to implement MBWA, remember to be inclusive in your wandering. Be careful not to visit only the areas where young employees sit, or chat only with outgoing personality types, or longer-tenured staff of a certain level. And let people know explicitly that your goal is chatting and listening, not checking on them. One nonprofit executive director told me that he tried this strategy when he first took on the job and employees “almost passed out” when he came into their cubicles and said he wanted to talk. They thought they were about to be reprimanded or fired. “I realized I had to be a little more casual and careful with my approach,” he told me with a humble smile.

Acknowledge and Praise

Acknowledgment and praise are vastly underutilized management tools across all generations. And that’s a shame, considering that thank-yous are free, fast, and require no particular training. The individuals and companies that are good at gratitude reap the rewards.

One large law firm gives out thank-you cards to attorneys and staff members in recognition of their work. When I praised this practice during a workshop for another firm, one partner scoffed at the practice. “That’s like giving people trophies for participation,” he said. Before I could respond, another partner jumped in to reply to his colleague: “No it’s not. You choose what work you acknowledge. You choose which people you thank, but nothing is more valuable to people than gratitude.”

Again, before I could say a word, yet another partner jumped in to further comment on this topic. She shared that she worked as an employment attorney, and one of her responsibilities was to listen to her clients’ employee complaint hotlines. She said, “I can’t tell you how many employee complaint phone calls start with the person saying, ‘My boss never thanks me. My boss never acknowledges me.’ And they grow from there into expensive litigation.” Needless to say, gratitude is cheaper than litigation.

Thank-you notes and grateful comments are practically high-tech compared to an even easier — and just as important — level of acknowledgment for employees of all ages and skill levels. I have conducted more than a few focus groups at investment banks where junior employees’ biggest complaint was not that they didn’t receive enough praise. “We’d be thrilled,” they told me, “if a single partner just knew our names.”

Note that acknowledging employees isn’t just a “nice” thing to do; it’s a business improvement strategy. Gallup research has found that 80% of employees said recognition is a strong motivator for work performance, and 70% said they would work harder with continuous recognition.

Explain the Why

A common criticism you might hear about Millennials is that they don’t want to “pay their dues.” Always eager to bust a shaming stereotype, I frequently ask younger professionals in focus groups if it is true that they don’t want to do “grunt work.”

While no one says they love menial tasks, Millennials tell me they are willing to do almost any type of work asked of them, with one major caveat: they want to know why they’re being asked to do it. And, “Because it’s always been done that way” or “Because I said so” are not what they’re talking about.

Explanations and context resonate with Millennials; they grew up with information at their fingertips and expect to know what’s going on and how their work impacts an organization’s larger purpose. And again, this is not true only for Millennials, but they are often more vocal about this desire than members of other generations might be. Who doesn’t appreciate having their manager take the time to explain why a task needs to be completed or why leadership is implementing a strategy? Transparency breeds trust.

In the end, what all of these management practices have in common is a focus on building genuine, trusting relationships between all generations and levels of people who work together. That’s the most universal, ageless success strategy there is.

Share this post

hi, i'm lindsey!

Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


Learn 25 Practical Ways to Manage Across Generations