Managing the Multigenerational Law Firm

This article originally appeared in Law Practice Today June 2020.

While law will always be among the more conventional industries, successful firms know that they have to pivot to meet the needs of new generations of employees. I frequently work with law firms on multigenerational workplace success plans and have been impressed with many firms’ recent efforts to update procedures and policies to be more inclusive of all generations’ preferences—from more relaxed dress codes to a more tempered work/life balance.

If you are struggling to manage younger attorneys, you are certainly not alone. But you may be surprised to learn that no secret is specific to managing these younger generations. The secret, instead, lies in becoming a better manager, period. The truth is, unlike senior corporate leaders, many law firm partners never really received any training on how to manage people.

This is a problem because, unlike past generations, today’s newer professionals won’t put up with poor managers—they either voice their complaints on channels like Glassdoor or Above the Law, or they simply walk out the door.

Could your managerial skills use a brush-up? Here are some actionable strategies that fit into the busiest of schedules, and take into account the realities of the increasingly remote work-based Covid-19 environment.

Let your team know how best to communicate with you.

We all have communication preferences, but don’t expect your employees to be mind readers. One best practice I recommend is having the “style conversation,” a concept put forth by Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins in his book, The First 90 Days.

The style conversation involves simply explaining to associates exactly how you like to work and want them to communicate with you. What level of formality do you expect? Is it okay to text you? How can people best get your attention when you are working remotely?

Even better, consider “showing” rather than “telling,” by giving examples of what you consider to be impressive communication. I had one client who created a notebook of what he considered to be well-written documents that associates could refer to for guidance on writing client email messages, briefs, and memos that would meet his expectations. And remember that communicating your preferences and expectations is even more important if your team is working remotely, and you don’t have the benefit of impromptu exchanges.

Provide feedback on the fly.

Today we are deluged with feedback options, from pulse surveys to apps to 360-reviews. But when I talk to law firm leaders, many tell me that The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson is still the gold standard, even though it was originally published in 1982. Its formula of providing each person you oversee with one minute of praise and one minute of correction on a regular basis is timeless for a reason—it’s fast, actionable, and very effective when used consistently.

What can vary is the channel you use to offer feedback—and when and where, especially if your team is too large to feasibly connect with each person regularly. One Millennial manager client shared his clever strategy of offering “office hours,” where he invited his team to contact him using whatever channel was convenient for them, whether in-person, Slack, phone, etc., for client- or career-related feedback and advice. That allowed him to be accessible while protecting his work time from interruptions.

This best practice can be especially helpful if your team is currently distributed, and you are unable to have those brief hallway chats that often yield the best opportunities for on-the-fly feedback.

Make your meetings more inclusive.

There will always be a young associate who speaks up at every meeting. And while it’s easy to listen to extroverts who speak their mind, you could be missing out on a lot of potentially great input from quieter associates. As a manager, it’s your role to create more inclusivity.

If you find the same person is always taking notes, switch up the duties. If people tend to speak in the same order, switch up the way you call on people. Another way to elicit more participation is by sending out meeting or call agendas in advance, so team members can have more time to formulate their position, which can result in more voices.

The pivot to remote meetings during the pandemic might actually help to foster more meeting inclusivity. As we’ve all gotten a little more adept at video calls and realize they might well become a fixture of our working lives, leaders can model best practices to give everyone a voice. Make liberal use of the “raise hand” feature to call on speakers, rather than letting the fastest and loudest voice be heard first. And give team members a verbal heads up that they are next so they can put together their thoughts before being called on.

Finally, even if most of the team returns to the office, consider making the majority of your meetings remote as appropriate. One organization has a policy that if one member of the meeting is calling in, they all do so in order to create a more level playing field.

Initiate career conversations.

On a regular basis, some part of an ambitious professional’s brain is ruminating on their position on the career ladder, whether it’s an ambitious Millennial trying to make partner, a mid-career Gen X trying to drum up more business, or a well-established Baby Boomer wanting to solidify his or her legacy. As a law firm leader, you can help people at all levels know their options and achieve their personal and professional goals. While frequent input is vital to feeding this need, consider occasionally initiating a more formal, deliberate discussion, often known as a “stay conversation,” where you discuss each individual’s future at your firm and help them achieve their unique goals.

This reassurance is more important than ever in today’s uncertain times when stress levels are high. The last thing you want is to learn during an exit interview that a star performer felt that she couldn’t achieve her goals at your firm—goals that you never even knew existed.

Say thank you.

Don’t wait for a formal “stay” conversation to let your team know how much you appreciate their efforts. I find that acknowledgment and praise are vastly underutilized management tools across all generations.

Sometimes we are sparing in our praise with younger generations because we don’t want to be seen as giving out “participation trophies.” Or we forget to offer kudos to more experienced professionals because we think it doesn’t matter to them. If your team is currently working virtually, this appreciation is even more valuable as it can be hard to gauge your contribution when working in isolation. My work over more than 15 years consistently shows that professionals of all generations appreciate acknowledgement of their work and achievements.

Especially in a time of tight budgets, it’s good to remember that thank yous are free, as are all of these best practices. The key to better managing in an intergenerational law firm doesn’t lie in extensive training sessions. All these management practices focus on building genuine, trusting relationships between human beings of various generations and experience levels. And really, what more universal success strategy could there be?

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