The Young and The Restless

by Virginia Grant and Marci M. Krufka

It's a battle to recruit and retain the best and brightest. To win, law firms must understand what motivates a new generation of lawyers who have different definitions of success.

Young lawyers today are very different from their predecessors of the 1970s. Oh, how things have changed in the past 30 years. And how they will continue to change, as law firms come up against increasing numbers of a new brand of associates.

Today's law firms must ask: How do you recruit, retain and satisfy a generation of associates who were born in the fast lane? How do you motivate and reward a generation accustomed to instant access to practically everything? How do you structure compensation for those whose standard of living includes $2 bottles of water and $4 cups of coffee? How do you bridge the generational divide between associates and partners when their values and expectations are poles apart?

The first critical step is to recognize the differences that exist between 21st-century associates and earlier generations of lawyers. You can then take that understanding, apply it to your firm, and rethink your strategies for recruiting, retaining and rewarding associates, today and tomorrow.

Understanding Generational Differences

For the first time, law firms will soon be faced with having as many as four different generations of lawyers under one roof at the same time. Along with the diversity of these generations comes diversity in values, career expectations, motivators and reward mechanisms. Among the special challenges this presents to law firms is understanding the potential problems that can arise as older lawyers strive to teach, mentor and supervise the next generations.

Many partners, for example, are unsure about - even frustrated by - the new brand of associates. After all, associates today are part of a generation that is respectful of authority but not awed or intimidated by it. These children of the baby boomers have been raised to think independently and to express their beliefs openly. To an older generation of partners, this might be perceived as discourteous or disrespectful. Associates, in turn, might see partners as unresponsive or overly critical. Such miscommunications and misinterpretations are likely to lead to further problems and to increases in associate dissatisfaction and turnover.

How can firms get past such difficulties? It is helpful to identify some ways partners are different from the associates of today and tomorrow.

Introducing the Cast of Characters

Law firms today are made up of lawyers who were admitted to the bar sometime between 1960 and 2004. To at least some extent, the characteristics of these lawyers are a reflection of the times in which they were born. The following descriptions are meant to provide insight into the values and motivators of the different generations and are not meant to be stereotypes.

  • Traditionalist Lawyers: Born before 1946, these lawyers are near or over the age of 60. When they were young associates, law firms were run by a clear chain of command. Dedication and loyalty to the firm were words to live by. Secretaries took dictation, and a PC on every desktop had the sound of science fiction. These lawyers are most comfortable with a seniority-based management system and a command-and-control management style.
  • Baby Boomer Lawyers: Born between 1946 and 1964, these lawyers are roughly between the ages of 40 and 58. When they entered law firms, they were driven by the desire to do well and become successful. As their careers progressed, technology became a routine part of the practice of law, although it was still used more by paraprofessionals and support staff than by lawyers. They witnessed advances by women and minorities in the profession and experienced a challenge to command as a result of increased opportunities.
  • Generation X Lawyers: Born between 1965 and 1980, these lawyers are roughly between the ages of 24 and 39. They are comfortable incorporating technology into their practices. As associates, they've entered firms looking for ways to self-command. These lawyers value freedom and versatility in their careers. Balance between career and family life is often included in their definition of success.
  • Generation Y (or Millennial) Lawyers: Born after 1980, these future lawyers are about 24 years old or younger. The first of their numbers are now serving as summer associates. Raised with a cell phone in one hand and a Palm Pilot in the other, they are techno-savvy. Generation Y lawyers are only two years away from a full-scale entry into firms ranks. Women constitute a majority of their law school class. They will expect nothing less than a high level of diversity within the firm's workforce - as measured by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and religious beliefs.

Again, these character sketches are but snapshots of the demographic shifts in play at law firms. The charts on pages 49 and 51 provide some more detail on corresponding changes in the profession and in individual lawyers' career expectations.

Taking Updated Approaches

Firms that fail to recognize these generational differences will stay stuck in old-school, passé management modes and face problems with recruitment, retention and other issues. Firms that properly understand how the values, motivations and expectations of the new generations differ from the old will have an opposite experience: They will realize they must take new, innovative approaches to recruiting, retaining and rewarding associates. Here are a few pointers and recommendations.


  • A recruiting committee consisting of only your senior-most partners is unlikely to understand all the issues necessary to ensure that the firm attracts the best pool of candidates. Be sure that your firm's recruiting committee includes lawyers from different generations.
  • For a generation raised on sound bites and instant access to information, your firm's Web site can be your most important recruiting tool. Offer as much information as possible on the site. Include less about history and tradition, and focus more on firm innovations and what it is like to work there. Include specifics on associate programs, career paths, training, mentoring, rewards, work-life balance and diversity within the firm.
  • One-size recruiting messages rarely fit all and, in fact, may prevent you from attracting the best and brightest. Be sure that your recruiting materials, electronic and written, include information that is relevant to a diverse candidate base.
  • Candidates need to understand that the legal profession is not easy. Be upfront and honest about the lifestyle and work-life balance issues involved in practicing at your firm.


  • Associates want timely performance feedback. Provide project-specific feedback throughout the year, in addition to at least one formal performance evaluation per year. The better the evaluation and feedback process, the greater the likelihood of associate satisfaction and retention.
  • New lawyers require training in a variety of areas, such as client relationship skills. They also need to learn some management techniques, such as how to give and receive feedback. Make these topics part of your professional development program.
  • Professional development and advancement opportunities are critical issues for associates. Show that you are serious about helping associates design career paths that provide challenging work and increased visibility, within both the firm and the legal community. Hire a professional development administrator to work with associates to develop their careers. Or, if your firm is not large enough to justify a full-time professional, appoint a partner to be in charge of professional development.
  • Most associates say they would benefit from a more formal mentor program, with an abundance of communication and clearly articulated expectations for the mentor-mentee relationship. If you do not already have one, establish a formal mentoring program. Set it up so that mentors maintain an ongoing dialogue with associates regarding their goals, what it will take to achieve those goals, and how the firm can support them.
  • Regularly being passed over for significant assignments may be interpreted by associates as a sign that they are not on the right track for advancement. That, in turn, may lead them to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Expose all associates to meaningful and challenging assignments early on.
  • At the same, time, you should provide career opportunities that move in a number of directions, not just upward to partnership. Offer and support the option of moving laterally within the firm (for example, to a different practice group) or even moving downward. Be willing to support the decisions of lawyers who choose to be more flexible in their careers.


  • Associates are looking for flexible schedules and telecommuting options. Be aware, however, that firms have been criticized for advertising these options in recruiting materials, then failing to make them realistic choices for firm lawyers. If you plan to offer flexible, reduced-hour or part-time schedules, be sure your firm understands the financial implications and whether such schedules are, in fact, viable. Develop a formal, written policy on all schedule options and communicate the policy throughout the firm.
  • Mobile technologies increase telecommuting opportunities, allow lawyers to remain connected to the office and clients, and help lawyers better address work-life balance issues. Consider supplying cellular phones, BlackBerrys, laptop computers and high-speed Internet access from home.
  • Offering timesaving perks like laundry service, car maintenance service and home-meal replacements can prove valuable to busy lawyers. One firm even bought a vacation home for the exclusive use of its associates, as a tangible symbol of the firm's appreciation of their efforts. Not only did associate satisfaction and productivity skyrocket, associates became the firm's best recruiters.
  • Many Generation X and Generation Y lawyers are looking to buy their first home or pay off law school debt. Firms that offer assistance with mortgage financing or setting up bank relationships are one step ahead in gaining lawyer loyalty.

Getting Beyond the Old Brass Ring
Research by the National Association for Law Placement Foundation found that for the past five years, 19.3 percent of lateral associates departed their law firms on an annual basis. In other words, many associates aren't staying around long enough to even be considered for partnership. Today's associates are less included to view partnership as an opportunity to grab the "brass ring." Instead, they are more apt to follow the next, bigger and better opportunity, whether because they want a less-competitive, less-stressful work environment or because the economics of partnership are less appealing than they were 30 years ago.

This shift in attitudes presents a challenge to firm management-but challenge presents opportunities.

Your firm now has the opportunity to develop a clear understanding of the generational differences among your lawyers and to take bold new approaches to recruiting, retaining and rewarding the lawyers who constitute the firm's future.

Virginia Grant ( is a consultant with Altman Weil, Inc. She works out of the Midwest office, in Milwaukee, WI, and can be reached at (414) 427-5400.

Marci M. Krufka ( is a consultant with Altman Weil, Inc. She works out of the Newtown Square, PA office, and can be reached at (610) 886-2000.

Adapted from an earlier version with permission from Altman Weil, Inc., Newtown Square, PA.

Comparing Then & Now: 30 years of change

Legal Profession



Fewer than 750,000 lawyers in the U.S.

More than 1 million lawyers in the U.S.

Less than one lawyer for every 400 people in the U.S.

At least one lawyer for every 200 people in the U.S.

Lawyers viewed as well-respected members of the community.

Lawyers viewed with mistrust by the general public.

Practice of law is the exclusive domain of independent law firms.

Law firms feel the incursion of accounting firms, financial planners, HR consultants and others.

Clients are relatively unsophisticated and willing to accept lawyer advice at face value.

Clients are more sophisticated and less hesitant to question their options.

Sphere of business and social interaction is the local community.

Sphere of business and social interaction is global in reach.

Lawyers have carte blanche to litigate cases.

Budget squeeze in corporations results in profit squeeze in law firms.

Invoices to clients read "$XX,000 for services rendered."

Invoices are subject to voluminous billing guidelines, detailed descriptions of billing activities, limitations on billable events and more.

Secretaries take dictation.

Word processing is ubiquitous and voice recognition software is on the rise.

Lawyer to secretary ratio is 1:1.

Lawyer to secretary ratio is 3:1.

Lawyers have little or no technology training or experience.

Lawyers use computers regularly and expect firms to provide the latest technology tools and gadgets.

Legal research tools consist of paper libraries with hardback legal digests, Shepard's and the like.

Legal research tools include Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, the Internet and other electronic resources.

Formal dress code is the standard, with Sunday considered the only casual day.

Casual dress code is preferred, with business casual acceptable Monday through Friday.

Lawyers work primarily from firm offices and are accessible to clients via telephone and mail.

Lawyers are mobile and constantly accessible to clients through the advent of e-mail, laptops, PDAs, BlackBerrys, cell phones and remote office systems.

Profession is dominated by white males.

Profession is more inclusive of women and people of color.




Legal Career



Jobs for decent students are plentiful at good law firms.

Job market is extremely competitive, with top-school degree or top-of-class standing required for large firms and best-paying jobs.

Associates invited into firm partnership after 5 to 7 years of good work.

Associates possibly invited into partnership after 8 to 10 years of high productivity, development of a book of business and some participation in firm management or administration.

Lawyers look for rewards in terms of financial success and elevation to partnership.

Lawyers look for rewards in terms of financial success, flexibility, freedom, autonomy and increase in opportunities.

Lawyers look to build lifetime careers in one firm.

Lawyers look to leverage their credentials by moving from one firm to the next.

Billable-hour requirements are moderate.

Billable-hour requirements are high.

Lawyers wait for opportunities for career progression.

Lawyers are more impatient in terms of career progression.

Discussions of the business case for diversity are limited or nonexistent.

Diversity is expected as an inherent part of doing business.

Definition of diversity means more women in the workplace.

Definition of diversity includes race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, thinking style, geographic location, lifestyle and more.

Formal feedback is given once a year, if at all.

Constant feedback is expected, and often given informally after each project.




Financial Factors



Little or no debt at law school graduation

Student loan debt at law school graduation is often $60,000 to $120,000 or more.

National average associate starting salary is less than $25,000.

National average associate starting salary is more than $70,000.

Young lawyers expect to pay dues, then achieve financial payoff.

Young lawyers expect quicker financial payoff.

Single-income family is the norm.

Dual-income family is common.

Little or now childcare outside the home.

High-cost childcare outside the home.

Lawyers work full-time.

Firms have part-time and contract lawyers.

Lawyers live to work.

Lawyers want to lead balanced lives.

Stay-at-home spouse handles household and childcare duties and working spouse devotes evenings to client development, bar and community activities.

Both spouses have responsibility for household and childcare duties throughout the week.

"The Young & the Restless" by Virginia Grant and Marci M. Krufka, published in Law Practice, Volume 30, No. 5. July/August 2004, © 2004 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted by Permission.