United States: Your Cheat Sheet For The Generational Divide

If I could be you
And you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way
To get inside
Each other's mind . . . 

-Joe South, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes"

If I were to guess, your legal department is managed by Boomers and Gen-Xers, but many of the lawyers in your group are millennials. The law firm world is no different, although I believe we are mostly boomer-led. Have you caught yourself telling your millennial direct reports, "When I was your age, we never (or always) . . . "? (P.S. Are you sounding more and more like your parents every day?) Or maybe you love working with millennials, but there are moments when you clearly have trouble seeing the world from their perspective.

Millennials, do you feel that your boss places too much importance on face-time in the office? Are you having trouble getting regular feedback on your performance? 

On the surface, these may seem like first-world problems. Don't marketing people invent these generational labels anyway? Isn't it all just a matter of people doing good work and trying to get along with one another? Well, yes . . . and no. No one wants to work on a dysfunctional team or even an unhappy one. Also, retention is important because recruiting and training good people is very expensive. As we've written here before, our feelings about our work and the people we work with impact our productivity, and negative interactions can sap our sense of mission and motivation. Perhaps above all else, we all learn a great deal from people with different perspectives.

We have all experienced profound changes in our working lives in the past 20 years, primarily due to technology and globalization, but I would wager that the legal profession is one of the more extreme examples of change. Take, for instance, the change in the sheer number of lawyers in the country in 1980, which was 500,000, and compare that to today's number: 1,000,000. Another powerful work trend is our 21st century 24/7, always connected mentality. Lawyers have always worked long hours, and technology has exacerbated this tendancy. Many lawyers expect their teams to be connected to their email and cell phones even on vacation. Add to that, the millennial perspective that maybe work isn't everything, and you have a recipe for conflict within inter-generational teams of lawyers. There are so many other differences between 1980 lawyering and today: the high cost of law school, the vastly different set of job options after law school, diminishing law firm partnership possibilities. This is a long, long list, but it wouldn't hurt for us to try on those other shoes for size.

Here at S&W, we've developed a cheat sheet for dealing with these issues. It's really more of a list of contrasting perspectives between boomers and millennials. We realize that we've left Gen-Xers out of the mix, and we will address that in a later post. Here some key differences that we've noticed in the law firm:

Boomers

Millennials

One lawyer for every 400 people in US One lawyer for every 200 people in US
Secretary took dictation Voice recognition software; lawyers do own typing, email
Business, social activities were in local community Sphere of business and social interaction is global
Little or no technology training/experience Grew up with computers; expect/welcome latest technology and instant information
Little or no debt at law school graduation Student loan debt is $60,000-$120,000 or more
Lawyers lived to work Lawyers work to live a balanced life

Get the full list of differing perspectives below. The chart was adapted by our own Ojen Sirin from an Altman Weil publication.

Get the Generational Cheat Sheet

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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