Mind the Gap: Generation Y Attorneys Enter the Workplace

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They go by many names: Echo Boomers, Millennials, Gen Next and Gen Y. Their generation encompasses people anywhere between 10 and 30 years old, though the exact parameters depend on who you ask. But one thing is certain: A new generation is entering the workplace and bringing with it a cultural revolution the likes of which the legal world hasn't seen since the Baby Boomers came of age four decades ago.

Now Boomer bosses must integrate a legion of young and sometimes confounding in-house attorneys into legal departments that rely heavily on traditional expectations of how, where and when the work gets done.

"When we hear from other generations, there seems to be a certain level of frustration with Gen Y attorneys, which is not always warranted," says Vanessa Vidal, president of ESQ Recruiting. Just a few of the critiques Vidal has heard: Millennials are used to being handed everything on a plate. They're not willing to roll up their sleeves. They have high expectations of employers and high opinions of themselves. They require constant feedback but do not respond well to criticism. And they leave jobs just as quickly as they take them.

But Gen Y's story is not all irritation and conflict. The generation is also heralded as smart, eager and technologically savvy.

"They bring a fresh outlook on a variety of things," says William Morelli, general counsel of Ingram Industries.

On the following pages, InsideCounsel explores the impact Gen Y attorneys are having on legal departments and law firms--the contributions, the quarrels and ultimately the understanding that must be reached as multiple and vastly different generations join each other in the workplace.

Balancing Act

The idea of a generation gap is nothing new. During the '60s, the Baby Boomers barreled into adulthood amidst a hurricane of political and social change, steamrolling their parents' close-minded views on race and gender equality. Corporate-wary Gen X-ers, shaped in equal parts by Reagan-era prosperity and post-Gulf War lean times, were dubbed slackers by older generations who saw hard work as an end unto itself.

There's something different, however, about the new kids on the block, says Cam Marston, founder and president of consulting firm Generational Insight. Today's young workforce was raised during a time of relative affluence, the present economic crisis notwithstanding. Marston says that type of boom time historically leads to a greater emphasis on individual rather than collective success. In a post-Ellis Island America, success is not defined by assimilating into a new culture so much as by celebrating the differences that make an individual stand out from the pack. Gen X introduced the first wave of self-focus into the workplace. Gen Y, according to Marston, has launched the tsunami.

"Into the workplace come these two generations who say, 'I'm different. I don't want what you have. I'm going to define success differently,'" Marston says.

That definition, he says, puts a greater emphasis on work-life balance. For young in-house attorneys, work-life balance doesn't necessarily equate to fewer hours on the job--but it does often mean a predictable workflow and greater flexibility as to where or when their work gets done. Morelli says he was initially taken aback by the idea of his attorneys working at Starbucks on the weekend or drafting a contract while watching "The Daily Show" in the evening. But soon he realized that by granting them flexibility, they rewarded him with excellent work.

"I guess I was a cranky Boomer, but I think you have to take a deep breath and say it truly doesn't matter if we like how they do what they do," he says. "We have to work with them because they are the future of our law firms, legal departments and companies, so isn't it up to us to find a way to get the best out of them?"

As the father of three young children, 30-year-old Corporate Counsel Anthony Zana says he's grateful the software company he works for, Intergraph, has granted him the flexibility to be present for important milestones. "I want to be a hands-on father," he says, "so having a good quality of life is more than just my quality of life, [it's also] being present and playing an important role in my children's upbringing."

Zana stresses that just because he wants a job that offers flexibility doesn't mean he puts any less effort into the work itself. He praises Intergraph for allowing him to finish some work at home if it's a task that can be completed remotely just as easily as in the office.

"At the end of the day, we all need to be focused on good representation [of our client], but the part that's open for discussion is how to get there," he says.

And so far at Ingram, Morelli says he's witnessed incredibly good representation from Gen Y attorneys. "Our business is as successful if not more successful with a healthy mix of Gen Y and Gen X lawyers as when we had solely Boomers and Matures [born before 1945] in it, so what does that say?" he says. "It shatters the myth that the only people who work hard and produce good results are Boomers and Matures."

Getting Ahead

As important as work-life balance is to Gen Y, studies suggest that a rewarding job with ample opportunities for upward movement is even more highly valued. Nearly 64 percent of Gen Y employees report prospects for professional growth as a top reason for accepting their current jobs, according to a 2009 Deloitte survey of 860 Gen Y employees at Fortune 500 companies.

"This is a generation that is less eager to just sit down and pay their dues and more eager to say, 'Well, why is this going to help me? Where does this belong in the big picture?'" Marston says. "And that's causing some senior attorneys a little bit of frustration. They want to say, 'It will all become clear in time. Just do it.'"

Many Gen Y attorneys are looking in-house for what they see as an opportunity to pursue significant projects right away, says Vanessa Vidal, president of ESQ Recruiting. They also see more opportunities for quicker recognition than at law firms.

The promise of meaningful work drew Claire O'Connor, 30, to her job as legal counsel with steel producer ArcelorMittal USA. She spent a little less than two years with a law firm before making the transition in-house.

"When you're one of many attorneys, and especially a junior attorney at a large firm, it can be a little bit difficult to see the tangible results of your efforts," she says. "Now that I'm in-house, I talk to my commercial clients, and it's very clear how my work with them has a practical impact on our company."

Along with meaningful work that will help advance her career, O'Connor actively seeks mentoring from more senior attorneys within ArcelorMittal's small legal team. The seasoned attorneys have welcomed her desire for mentorship by informally answering questions, recommending networking opportunities and conducting official performance reviews.

"It seems to work out very organically," O'Connor says. "We have an environment here where regardless of seniority we're all very comfortable seeking each other out as peers and asking each other for advice."

Jack Rossi, a 29-year-old staff counsel with JetBlue Airways, says he was the first attorney the airline ever brought into its legal department directly out of law school. The legal department set up a rotation for him so he could gain exposure to the legal areas it tackles, the different styles of lawyering among its attorneys and the team's goals. The rotation, as well as steady feedback from senior attorneys, helps Rossi feel he's both constantly growing and maximizing his current abilities.

"I work best when I know what's clearly expected of me," he says. "At JetBlue, there's no guesswork. I don't spend time worrying about how I'm doing."

That desire for feedback is a Millennial hallmark, Vidal says. "They come from a background where they have gotten a lot of feedback," she says. "And they come into the workplace craving that as well."

Because ArcelorMittal doesn't have a formal training program for young attorneys, General Counsel Paul Liebenson says meeting Gen Y's mentoring wants has been one of the biggest challenges. While the tighter resources of an in-house legal department can make mentorship tough, he says it's worth it.

"There's no magic solution," Liebenson says. "It's just making it a priority. And it's a tribute to the young attorneys that they seek out that mentoring instead of attempting to do things on their own because they're afraid to show they don't know something."

Tuning In or Tuning Out?

Complicating the relationship between Gen Y attorneys and their more mature counterparts is the fact that they communicate in new and sometimes bewildering ways. To Boomers, it might seem like Millennials speak an entirely different language. That's because, in effect, they do, says Arin Reeves, founder of legal diversity and generational consulting firm The Athens Group.

"I've coached partners and associates where partners have just walked out of the room saying, 'I don't understand anything you're saying, so I can't have this conversation,'" Reeves says. "So it's not just communication differences. It's actual communication breakdowns."

Having grown up in a society where texting and e-mailing are the norm, Millennials don't put the same value on face-to-face communication that Boomers do, which Reeves says can lead to serious misunderstandings. She points to a scenario in which a Boomer attorney asks a Millennial to come to his office. Rather than walk down the hall, the Millennial may respond with an e-mail asking, "What's up?"

"Now the partner takes that as a major sign of disrespect, but the associate doesn't understand what's happening because he thinks he showed responsiveness," Reeves says. What really is a communication style issue can then become a relationship issue because the attorneys make judgments about each other--and those judgments are much harder to overcome than a simple miscommunication.

Gen Y-ers like Zana point out that technology often makes communication more efficient. Because he's continuously connected through his BlackBerry, Zana says he receives praise from clients for his quick responsiveness through e-mail during both regular work hours and after. His company, Intergraph, once held lengthy recurring meetings to discuss ongoing projects. After some discussion, the teams resolved the situation by scheduling teleconferences and Web-based meetings that brought everyone together digitally instead of in person. As a result, he says projects move faster--and everyone is satisfied with the degree of collaborative communication.

Difficulty communicating with a particular attorney has less to do with age and more to do with personality, ArcelorMittal USA GC Liebenson says. "There are some younger attorneys that I have an easier time communicating with than some of my peers and vice versa," he says.

Negotiating communication differences is not a generational issue so much as one aspect of being an effective attorney, agrees O'Connor.

"You need to adapt to your audience," she says. "I figure out how much information [my clients] want or should have and likewise try to educate them about when I need to be involved in the process."

When he first joined JetBlue, Rossi says he relied a lot on e-mail--until a senior attorney told him that's not how JetBlue's legal department works. One of the team's goals is to have a friendly, accessible relationship with clients, which he learned could be fostered more effectively through face-to-face or phone contact than via the Internet. And he has learned that at times, in-person communication actually makes work go faster.

"It can take awhile to draw distinctions and figure out when it's most appropriate to pick up the phone," he says. "Sometimes you can fix a problem by talking about it on the phone for five minutes instead of sending five e-mails."

Coming Together

Ultimately Boomer and Gen Y attorneys need to resolve these differences, be they over work-life balance, expectations for advancement or technology's role in the workplace. And it seems that for the most part they have. Few attorneys InsideCounsel spoke with--Millennials or Boomers--noted lasting conflicts that couldn't be resolved with just a little bit of understanding.

First and foremost, Reeves says it's important to recognize that generational variations exist. Just acknowledging that each generation wants different things can go a long way toward easing tensions, she says. And asking questions before making assumptions can halt a potential clash in its tracks.

One thing all generations have in common: a desire for respect. Senior attorneys want an appreciation of the traditions of the workplace, while younger attorneys want recognition that new technologies can make legal work more efficient, Marston says. "That's not unique to our time. That's just people. Regardless of the generation, respect and acknowledgment go a long way."

Because Morelli respects Gen Y's desire for flexibility day to day, he says his younger attorneys come through when it's time to handle a major project.

"They know when they have to stay late, and they know when they have to come in on weekends," he says. "They're not going to give you a hard time about that--and you won't have to ask them to do it."

Some of the more outlandish expectations Gen Y attorneys expressed when they first entered the workplace a few years ago have been tempered not only by maturity but also the struggling economy, Vidal says. Just two years ago, the No. 1 concern of law firms, if not in-house legal departments, was associate attrition. Firms were bending over backwards to keep young attorneys by instituting policies that accommodated their desire for greater work-life balance. Not so anymore.

"Today we have an employer's market," Vidal says. "The power has shifted and with it, so have behaviors in the workplace."

Whether that shift will stay remains to be seen. But what is likely to persist is Gen Y's enthusiasm for performing richly rewarding work.

"Company culture is geared toward one goal: enabling internal clients to further the business," JetBlue's Rossi says. "I see something come up, I address it, I implement the solution and I see the problem fixed. It's very satisfying work."

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