Tag Archives: Millennials

On organizing law firms around professional values

pellicansCompetence, autonomy and connectedness.

These factors were recently correlated with a sense of well-being and life satisfaction among lawyers. They far exceed money, status or prestige.

In plain terms, lawyers who feel a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connection with others are the contented ones. These factors, the study also found, are less often experienced in large law firms than they are in public service jobs. But note well: the satisfaction achieved in public service is not said to come from the greater nobility of the work, or from reflection on a life well spent. Rather, it’s because public service lawyers are more likely than big firm lawyers to experience a sense of personal competence and autonomy and meaningful connections with others.

Surely, achieving those modest conditions are within the grasp of virtually anyone with a law license – big firm or small, private or public. It’s not about the job; it’s a matter of how the practice environment is structured.

In fact, it might be argued that law practice, certainly “classical law practice,” is the natural home of competence, autonomy and connectedness. Those factors align remarkably closely with the traditional culture of the legal profession. And, now-days the emerging culture of all knowledge work, not just legal work, (think Google) seems to be aspiring to the same principles.

Traditional legal ethics. The heart of legal ethics has always been in the lawyer’s duties of competence, independence and loyalty. It’s not much of a stretch to see competence-autonomy-connectedness as equivalent to those ancient ethical precepts. This is where lawyers began.

Maybe in some ways, large, leveraged and departmentalized law firms have moved away from this core. Large organizations inevitably limit autonomy and may dilute personal connections with clients and colleagues, and they concentrate individuals on narrower and narrower circles of competence. Even so, few law firms, large or small, do not claim competence (they call it excellence), some form of autonomy, and professional connections (collegiality) among the foundations of their culture.

birds-group-photography-cropKnowledge workers.  Even as lawyers may have moved away some from this original core, organizations of knowledge workers are moving rapidly toward cultures that prize flat or non-hierarchical structures,  a sense of community and, of course, excellence.

My best guess is that business organizations of the future will look more and more like what law practice might have looked like in the 19th Century. (OK. Please allow a bit of latitude here, but you get the point.)

Technology. Technology is abetting this. The thrust of 21st Century technology is to “commoditize” knowledge, to equalize the capabilities of small organizations with larger ones, and to create new capabilities for networking and for social connections – in every instance promoting individual competence, autonomy and community.

Millennials. Is it a cause or is it an effect? In 2013, Millennials made up a third of the population of the United States. They constitute a majority of the work force.  And, they are often characterized by attributes that line up with these same factors. Legal employers are commonly admonished to provide work cultures that meet Millennials’ expectations of professional development and recognition of individual achievements, while anticipating their independence from institutions coupled nonetheless with a desire to work as part of a community or team broader than themselves.

So, it’s simple enough. The pillars of professional satisfaction are competence, autonomy, and connectedness. Traditionally, these values have been at the exact center of the professional lives of American lawyers. And now American business culture generally is creating new forms of organizations founded on these same things.

So – as law firms find themselves being reshaped by technology, by non-lawyer service providers, by the expanding role of legal departments, and by limited-service law firms, a key to recruiting and retaining talent will be to create future firms in which professionals can build their careers around competence (professional development centered in meaningful experience), autonomy (participation in a non-hierarchical business organization) and connectedness (collegiality, shared values, and close connections to clients).

Achieving this in law firms that handle larger, complex matters is harder than it looks, but it is imminently doable.

Advertisements

Millennials as lawyers, a delicate and touchy topic

The Millennials, we are told, move frequently from job to job, seemingly at a pace that, for lawyers, would obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of legal employers seeking to recover investments in professional development. This is a challenge.Baby-Owls-l (1)

And then there are the Millennials themselves. Yes, Millennials as a group can be characterized along various dimensions. They are said to optimistic, team-oriented, and tech savvy. And, they are achievement-driven, pressured to succeed and distrusting of organizations. The lists go on.

But for all the things that can be said about Millennials as a group, what is true of the group may tell you nothing about any individual member of the crowd.

In the weeks since Brooks Pierce’s terrific discussion of generational differences, led by Wake Forest University’s Rogan Kersh, I have sat with Millennials who affirmed the broad characterizations of their kind and urged that our law firm structure itself to manage them accordingly – and I have sat with others who, even as they accept the general insights about their generation, at the same time vigorously (and very credibly) deny that the same conclusions apply to themselves as individuals. They even resent the assumption that they can be lumped in that way.

This learning about generations, and Millennials in particular, must be applied with caution and a delicate touch.

 

Millennials as lawyers and their professional development – can the center hold?

These peripatetic Millennials, slated as they are to move from job to job. Seemingly, there’s no economical way to train and develop Millennial lawyers. No way to foster the development of seasoned legal judgment – what with Millenials moving as often as we are told they will do, from employment to employment. Acquiring professional judgment takes time and experience. For my money, it also takes models.baby owls

Hard as they are trying, law schools simply cannot turn out practice-ready lawyers. There will ALWAYS  be a gap between school and the moment of taking responsibility for real-life clients and their problems. And it takes experience to develop the judgment that’s required to handle what’s new, uncertain, ambiguous.

My theory has been that, in the 19th Century, practicing bars provided the needed bridge for new lawyers from school to practice – as a matter of shared culture at a local bar. Later, in the 20th Century, the bridge was provided in large degree by law firms as a matter of firm culture.

Today, increasingly, the center does not hold. The fabric of shared legal culture is very thin. Law schools seek to provide clinical programs. Law firms sometimes hire and sometimes don’t; and firms may emphasize productivity over professional development. Alternative service providers displace young-lawyer functions altogether. And the profession is splintering into an ever widening array of limited-purpose and specialized practices.

Into this soup come the Millennials. They move from job to job at a pace that would seem to obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of employers seeking to recover the costs of their training.

This is a system yet to find its equilibrium.

But, I come to it with a bias: There was never a time or a place where valuing learning for itself did not pay off. That must be the response.

Learning is a universal value. A learning culture must be at the center. It must always hold.

A law firm must be a learning organization.