A leadership guide for multigenerational law firms


The oldest members of Generation Z are starting to graduate from law school; they are your summer associates and new associates. Like their counterparts in other generations, they are eager to learn and get ahead. But a considerable amount of research and your own experience tell you there are important differences in how these generations view work and what they expect from an employer.

While Gen Z is new to the mix, they aren’t the only population to be mindful of — the global workforce needs participation from people of all generations to sustain itself. Your firm would suffer if all the institutional knowledge walked out the door, just as it would if you couldn’t attract and hire any new associates. Many law firms are reporting a very tight labor market, and the International Bar Association found that one in five lawyers under age 40 is considering leaving the profession.

The challenge for law firm leaders is to shape an environment that honors all generations while meeting client needs and achieving growth goals. This white paper will look at the current generational demographics at work in today’s law firms and the imperative to adapt to the changing workforce. We will cover key differences between the four generations and offer a leadership approach that can help you and your firm build a culture that is inclusive of and accessible to all generations.

Why change? Generational demographics in today’s law firms.

According to the infographic “Generational Differences in the Workplace” by Purdue Global, there are currently five generations in the global workforce, with those born before 1945 making up 2% of the workforce and those born after 2001 making up 5%. The other 93% comes from baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y/millennials. 

  • Traditionalists: Born between 1925 and 1945 (2%)
  • Baby boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964 (25%)
  • Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1980 (33%)
  • Generation Y/millennials: Born between 1981 and 2000 (35%)
  • Generation Z: Born between 2001 and 2020 (5%)

Millennials are the largest cohort currently working and are thought to stay at jobs for shorter periods of time, limit their after-hours work, and have different learning styles than the generations preceding them. Millennial attorneys work for 50% of small law firms, and a full 18% of small law firms employ Generation Z, according to a 2021 study by Thomson Reuters. (See Figure 1)

But if we take our eye off the boomers and Gen Xers when discussing firm culture, retention, and recruiting, we do so at our peril. Even with their healthy numbers, there aren’t enough millennial and Gen Z workers to take on all the world’s work. Baby boomers, who currently make up a quarter of the global workforce, have significant experience and institutional knowledge but are leaving the workforce at a noticeable clip. In 2020, 73% of small law firms reported having baby-boomer lawyers in their firms. That number fell to 66% in 2021, an alarming trend if firms continue to lose their senior attorneys at this pace. Not all of them are in a hurry to retire, though, and many pandemic-era retirements were sparked by poor working conditions and toxic cultures. Leaders have a tremendous amount of influence on these dynamics.

What about Gen X? This generation is leading firms and bringing in business. Gen Xers are also leading in-house legal departments, deciding which law firms to hire, and taking stock of the next phase of their career and life — choosing paths their parents couldn’t have even dreamed of.

Generations within the firm

  • The percent of baby boomers within firms decreased significantly in 2021 as compared to the 2020 results

Law firms must adapt to attract and retain workers of all generations if they want to maintain their capacity and market position. In fact, Harvard Business Review contributors Debra Sabatini Hennelly and Bradley Schurman noted: “With fewer younger workers entering the labor market for at least a generation, employers that don’t think beyond today’s working-age population will likely struggle to build a reliable workforce that can maintain operational efficiency and effectiveness.” 

How different are the four generations?

There are significant differences within generations as well as between them. That is, not all baby boomers want value hierarchy, not all people from Gen X are cynical, and not all millennials are job hoppers. Those stereotypes have developed over time and serve as shorthand when friction or differences arise.

Still, there are characteristics to consider when you build programs to help make your workplace more inclusive, accessible, and welcoming. In its report “Engaging the Workforce Across Generations,” Workday offers the following characteristics of each generation.

Baby boomers

Boomers are “continual learners” and may want to keep working for intellectual stimulation. They don’t want to be called old and may be more tech savvy than the stereotypes suggest. They like in-person contact and are “still eager to change the world and be optimistic.” They fear being displaced by younger managers. As leaders, they may fear a “reduction in productivity if they permit more flexibility and new, as yet unproven to them, methods.” They don’t want to lose their professional identity, their relevance, or their clients.

Many baby-boomer attorneys are leaders in their firms and set the tone regarding culture and expectations. According to Emma Ziercke and Markus Hartung, writing for “Legal Business World”: “In the partner’s world, the more hours you work, the better. The law firm model focuses on input rather than output, rewarding those who work the longest hours. Hard work is a key value in law firm culture, evident from war stories about the number of all-nighters worked and partners bragging about missing family events to clinch the deal for their client.”

Many attorneys in this generation are skeptical about remote work long term. Some were eager to call employees back into the office for traditional work arrangements. To be fair to these leaders, though, a September 2022 ABA report found that 87% of lawyers say their workplaces allow them to work remotely. Indeed, they are working through their discomfort and finding ways to accommodate different work styles. 

These attorneys learned to practice when books were the primary mode of legal research and they have adapted dramatically in their careers as modern technology has emerged. They have embraced online legal research and have been open to practice-management tools that better connect them with their clients and within the firm. As they age, this generation fears being seen as irrelevant, and it will be important to demonstrate that they are valued. Give them a reason to keep working by showing them how much they are needed. 

Gen Xers

These leaders and employees are “self-reliant and want their own piece of the action.” They value their time, often using it like currency, and they prioritize friends and family over excessive work. Their “slacker reputation [has] evolved to hard-working, [and they] don’t trust large institutions.” Like baby boomers, they fear losing clients; they also fear losing younger employees to turnover. As they step into firm leadership, they worry they are not fully prepared for their roles. 

Gen Xers were shaped by the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dot-com boom and bust. They favor diversity and are willing to move on if their employers don’t meet their needs. Notably, Purdue Global reports that Gen Xers make up 55% of start-up founders — the largest of any generational group. As they see the social contract changing between employers and younger employees, they are taking stock of their priorities and looking for shifts. They may be disillusioned with traditional work, but they may also be eager to re-engage. From their leaders, they want immediate feedback, flexible work arrangements, work-life balance, and ample opportunities for work-personal development. 

Gen Xers have a demonstrated ability to adapt, according to Phyllis Weis Haserot, writing for the Thomson Reuters Institute. They are willing to work hard and are skilled at communicating in person, on the phone, and with technology. “In fact, Gen Xers developed most of the tech commonly used now,” Haserot notes.

These are the firm leaders working with younger attorneys now, shaping their approach to legal practice and teaching them to attract and retain clients. Invest in them and their management skills so they understand how to bring people along in a more healthful, sustainable way. They may have experienced a more aggressive law firm culture while learning the ropes, but they likely don’t want to lead that way. Give them the tools to maintain high professional standards while also treating more junior attorneys with respect and compassion. 

Remember, they have busy lives, too. They can benefit from productivity tools that get them home to their families faster, provided there is a firm culture that encourages efficiency and values their personal boundaries.


Millennials tend to demand transparency from employers and other companies. They might be “job-hoppers,” but that is because they move on when they don’t see career opportunities. They are uncomfortable with ambiguity and expect a lot of guidance and clarity. They also see the internet as their primary resource and expect a lot of free information. They fear not understanding what leaders expect from them and getting things wrong. They also fear “not having a voice or restriction of their self-expression.”

According to the Purdue Global infographic, these employees want managers who get to know them personally and manage by results. Define the attributes and requirements of a successful attorney in your firm and then provide regular, immediate feedback on the work they’re delivering. This will help them understand how they are progressing toward the next step in their career. 

Ziercke and Hartung note: “For Millennial Lawyers, hard work (in other words, long hours in the office) does not automatically equate to respect. In fact, Millennials consider those who work long hours to the detriment of their families as bad role models … Millennial Lawyers would rather work smarter and believe that technology holds the key to increasing efficiency. Boring work, such as sifting through documents, should be performed by computer programs. Technology is the necessary key to flexible working conditions, which will improve work-life balance.” 

Millennials carry their attitudes about technology and efficiency into their approach to legal work. They are more likely to adopt and rely on workflow tools than older generations, who may be more comfortable managing their workload in Outlook. They also have a higher level of trust and acceptance in artificial intelligence (AI) systems. (Figure 3) 

A 2023 report from KPMG noted that 42% of Gen Z and millennials trust AI systems, while just 33% of baby boomers feel that same trust. (Figure 2)

Trust and acceptance of AI systems by generation and education

Generation Z

The oldest of this generation were born in 2001, so they are just starting to enter the workforce and law school. According to the Workday report, they are hard-working problem solvers concerned about privacy and cybersecurity. They are devoted to social causes and want prompt and frequent feedback. Their fears are more existential than work related: cyber warfare, loss of privacy, climate change, global economic instability, terror, and safety concerns. 

These workers are just starting to build their careers, and they’re doing so while many of their older colleagues are embracing remote work to handle their personal lives better. So, while firms tackle the question of where Gen Z attorneys want to work, you also must consider whether the senior attorneys they need to learn from are also in the office. Intentional mentoring programs and innovative ways for partners and associates to interact can help newly minted lawyers learn their craft and ensure senior attorneys know their capabilities. 

These employees will want to work with partners who respect them and respect their personal boundaries. Like millennials and many in Gen X, they want to feel their work is meaningful.

Firms must provide effective managers and mentors to help these new attorneys grow. They want to do great work and they need to know that they are valued for what they bring to the firm. Train your managers and partners to create a respectful, growth-oriented relationship with associates so these people want to stay. It doesn’t have to mean relaxing your standards for client work, but it may require shifting some of the stereotypical behaviors associated with stressed-out partners who need a draft of that brief yesterday.

Evaluate your professional development offerings as well. These attorneys are used to online learning. Modern training systems can help you meet them where they are with on-demand video learning content that helps them complete specific tasks or learn new areas of the law.

Lead from behind: Adapting your leadership style for a more resilient firm

Building an environment that fits the needs of all generations seems daunting, especially when you consider how each generation perceives each other. When asked what the differences were among generations, small law firm attorneys consistently note “technology skills and knowledge” and “desire for work-life balance” as the top two differences, followed by “preference of electronic vs. face-to-face communication.” (Figure 3) 

Interestingly, this last perception didn’t shift after two years of pandemic working.

Differences among generations

  • Respondents rated tech savviness as a big difference among lawyers of different generations

What did shift was the perception that the desire for work-life balance was different between generations: this metric took a 12-point jump from 2020 to 2021. 

Will there be conflict when more senior generations feel like the younger attorneys aren’t “stepping up,” or will the younger attorneys leave for firms where they feel like the leadership “gets it” and treats them respectfully?

How do law firm leaders navigate this? Consider a “lead from behind” approach to firm leadership; people management; and program, policy, and benefits development.

Nelson Mandela coined the phrase “leading from behind.” To him, that meant leading like a shepherd, as he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” 

In a professional setting, leading from behind is a mindset shift that can enable innovation and a more inclusive workplace. Linda Hill notes in her article “Leading from Behind” in the Harvard Business Review: “Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate.” She says leaders should be direction-setters and vision-makers, but they should also foster independent thinking and take ideas and cues from the front lines. “If you want your team to produce something truly original, you don’t know where you’re going, almost by definition. The traditional leadership model just doesn’t work … Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities ... For leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius.”

Consider what beliefs you can let go of to help create an environment that works for your entire workforce. The article “Bridging Generational Divides in Your Workplace” in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes that “Retention rates can be improved when inclusive design practices are levied across three dimensions: compensation and benefits strategies, working arrangements, and workplace design. The practice of inclusive design considers the full range of human diversity, including age and ability.” 

Thinking flexibly about compensation and benefits might mean providing caregiving leave, reskilling, menopause, grandparents’ leave, or sabbaticals. 

Regarding working arrangements, the authors note that “Flexible work is one way to help employees of all ages.” This might include remote or hybrid work, a shortened work week, phased retirement, or job-sharing programs. 

Inclusive workplace design can be a major capital investment — or it can involve small changes guided by conversations with employees about how they feel in the physical space of your office. 

All of these approaches require active listening, openness to let the team lead, and willingness to look at some of your traditional methods and question, “What would happen if we changed this?” As a leader, you can’t transform the firm on your own, but you can create space for multigenerational collaboration and communication so that the right approaches emerge for you. The HBR authors recommend the following initiatives to foster that collaboration:

  • Encourage nontraditional mentoring so that people at all levels and ages can learn from each other.
  • Focus on common ground to build trust.
  • Build bridges across communication divides — start by being open and vulnerable about where you personally get tripped up with communication methods.
  • Promote managers who engage multigenerational teams.
  • Extend respect and appreciation for the contributions of older employees.
  • Create psychological safety and encourage candor; according to Google’s research on successful teams, “team members [need to] feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.”
  • Think outside the box to engage long-tenured employees. This might mean rethinking partner track models or considering factors beyond business development in promotion decisions.


Generational differences are essential guides for leaders to identify their blind spots and make sure policies, programs, and culture are inclusive and accessible to everyone. If firms neglect the needs of baby boomers, they risk losing their institutional knowledge and devoted workers prematurely. If they expect Gen Z to “get with the program” and fit into what may feel like an outdated environment, they lose out on new talent. 

While Gen X watches the two ends of the spectrum duel it out in a mini culture war, they’re trying to raise and launch their children, care for their aging parents, and lean into the time in their career when they have the most power and influence. Neglecting these points of view can lead to a talent shortage or reputational damage as emerging general counsel sees you as an old-fashioned brand. 

Take heart; there are commonalities to guide you. The ABA report identified several priorities that cross generational boundaries: “Sixty-eight percent of female lawyers and 44% of male lawyers believe better work/life balance is important. Similarly, 68% of lawyers of color and 51% of white lawyers find this factor important. A more welcoming and collaborative culture, increased compensation, ability to work remotely, and better quality of work also rank high on the list for most lawyers.”

Protect your firm’s ability to recruit and retain a vibrant workforce by listening to the people in your firm. Recognize they have options: baby boomers can retire, Gen Z is very comfortable changing companies, and people in the middle might consider the gig economy or another non-traditional work arrangement. But you can give them a reason to stay. Lead from behind — be the firm that connects meaning to their work, listens to staff, and adapts to bring a more collaborative approach to work where everyone prospers. 

Are you interested in reading more? Explore Thomson Reuters resources on the multigenerational workforce

Stay up to date on the legal issues and trends that matter most. For insights delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for our legal newsletter.

Thomson Reuters legal newsletter

Stay up to date on topics that matter most by getting monthly insights delivered directly