White paper

Becoming the firm where millennials want to work

There has been no time in global industry when there was not some type of change happening. Whether it was new government regulations, new technology or a new competitor, change has really been the only constant. Today, the biggest change comes in the form of a youthful workforce. Millennials constitute a new generation that brings with it a world of talent, promise and sheer will.

If firms are to prosper long term, they need to start grooming the next generation of legal talent now. Attracting top millennial attorneys is no easy task, however, and firms need to be deliberate in their efforts to attract the talent they need to remain relevant. The challenge, in many cases, is creating an environment that appeals to millennials without completely abandoning the culture that has made firms successful. At the same time, there is a need to separate fact from fiction about millennials and to overcome some of the stereotypes that have tended to follow them as a generation.

Why is attracting top millennial attorneys so important?

According to Pew Research Center, millennials became the largest generation in the labor force in 2016. And, with the first millennials being born in the early 1980s, many are beginning to reach senior leadership positions. The millennial culture’s general impact on the American workplace has been well documented. Now, with millennials becoming strong influencers—and even decision-makers—at their companies, many organizations are beginning to look at their own current policies and practices to determine how they will attract top talent.

Nowhere is this truer than in law firms. In an increasingly competitive legal market, more firms are after the same talent as you are. This white paper will examine why attracting top millennial attorneys is so critical for law firms and what firms can do to better retain them.

Uninterrupted superior client service

In a competitive legal market, results at a fair rate are all that matter. If you don’t produce, you will have a hard time keeping current clients or winning new ones. One sure way to ensure superior client service is to have the best attorneys handling your clients’ cases. In many instances, however, firms can find it difficult to attract and retain top talent—especially ones they don’t understand, like millennials.

According to the Thomson Reuters 2019 Law Firm COO and CFO Survey, respondents identified “Lawyer Recruitment and Retention” as the second-largest risk to the firm’s profitability. Thirty-seven percent of law firm leaders cited it as high risk and an additional 52 percent as medium risk.

“Lawyer Recruitment and Retention” was followed closely by “Under-performing Lawyers” as the third-largest risk. Thirty-two percent of law firm leaders cited it as high risk and an additional 47 percent as medium risk. With under-performing lawyers being a known concern, the focus on recruiting top talent becomes that much more prominent.

These risks were surpassed only by “Downward Pressure on Fees from Clients,” which law firm CFOs and COOs ranked as the number one risk to firm profitability. Thirty-seven percent of respondents cited it as high risk and an additional 53 percent as medium risk.

The attorney talent pool is shrinking

Another reason for the urgency surrounding increased millennial attorney recruiting is the decrease in available talent. Data from the Law School Transparency website indicates that law school enrollment had been on the decline since 2010. In fact, the data showed that 2018 marked the first notable uptick in enrollment since that time. In addition, not all students that enroll in law school aspire to a career at a law firm, making the task of securing top millennial attorney talent that much more difficult—and perhaps twice as important.

If the shrinking talent pool weren’t troublesome enough, competition for top attorneys is also heating up. According to 2019 data from Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, law firms are hiring new associates at a rate of approximately 1.5x. This means that for every two associates that leave a firm, the firm hires three new ones. So, for firms hoping to secure top millennial attorneys, the battle doesn’t only exist in the lateral market. It exists in the law school graduate market as well.

Having the right attorneys in place to ensure your firm’s viability

To say that competition is stiff among law firms would be an incredible understatement. Firms are always fighting to win new business, and those wins come at the direct expense of the firms that lost it. Firms that aren’t actively pursuing new business could find it difficult to survive over the long term.

Those in need of proof need to look no further than the most recent law firm merger numbers. In 2016, Altman Weil reported 80 law firm mergers. In 2017, there were 102. 2018 posted an all-time high of 106. Firms hoping to survive and maintain their legacies are taking steps to secure top millennial lawyers and stake their claims as leaders in their areas of expertise.

In addition, many firms are becoming much more aggressive about hiring away top talent from their competitors. In the Law Firm CFO and COO survey, 57 percent of respondents said that “Poaching of Staff” by competitors was a risk to their firms.

Ensuring that the future of your firm is in good hands

With many baby boomer-managing partners and firm owners beginning to eye retirement, it is necessary to begin the conversation about who will care for the firms’ clients going forward. This is especially true for law firms that want to remain competitive.

According to the 2019 Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Midyear Report, midsize firms are replacing equity partners at a rate of 0.45—or for every 100 equity partners that retire, there are only 45 new ones named. This rate falls far below that of their larger counterparts that are averaging a rate of 0.85. With the decreased number of equity partners being added in midsize firms, many are taking additional steps to get more work to younger attorneys.

While your firm’s millennial lawyers might be a few years from taking over an entire practice area or serving your firm’s largest or most prestigious clients, they are undeniably the future of the profession. Now is the time to start grooming them for more substantial work in the future.

According to the Law Firm COO and CFO Survey, 85 percent of law firm leaders said they would “put more work through more junior staff” in order to improve their firm’s performance. In addition to the anticipated performance improvements, attracting top millennial attorneys now and giving them more responsibility early on can help midsize firms with the long-term nurturing and transition of key client relationships when senior lawyers decide to retire.

What is important to millennials?

As a generation, millennials have a strong identity and an equally strong culture. Their preferences, lifestyles, and opinions have helped to bring about more change in the American workplace than perhaps any generation before them. For law firms, millennials can help to usher in new ways of thinking and working that ultimately put you ahead of the competition and position you as an industry leader.

If you want to attract top millennial attorneys, you need to create an environment that is appealing to them. But where do you start? A good first step is to gain a fundamental understanding of how they are wired. There are several things that seem to matter to most millennial attorneys that firms should consider as they ramp up their recruitment efforts.

Using the most current technology

Millennials are used to having nearly unlimited access to information and receiving immediate answers to their questions. They are accustomed to using the most up-to-date technology, and some make a firm’s use of technology a primary consideration in their selection of an employer.

The origins of this expectation can be traced back to law school. In a modern legal education setting, students are being fully ensconced in an environment that capitalizes on the synergy between technology and the law. From legal research tools to video conference software and school-funded iPads, they are being primed to practice a version of the law that is fully digital and more in line with today’s more discerning client expectations.

It’s why institutions like the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law are going so far as to create programs like TEaCH LAW Hub that integrate technology into legal education. When students graduate today, they are armed with a much more dynamic toolbox to practice law, communicate with clients, and collaborate with their fellow associates. As one first-year student told the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, “Right now, technology is something that sets people apart, but soon it will be the status quo within the industry.”

Collaborating and doing meaningful work

Millennials are collaborative by nature, and they like to work in a team environment. They also like to feel the work they are doing makes a difference in the world. Firms that succeed at attracting and retaining top millennial attorneys include them on key case or client teams from the start. Not only does it help to build the feeling of collaboration millennials want, but it also gives them insight into the impact of the firm’s work.

Creating career goals

As a group, millennials are extremely driven individuals, and career advancement is a key focus for them. While some reports tend to paint a picture of millennials as job-hoppers, they are simply making what they see as the next natural steps in their careers. In law firms, their goal is almost always to make partner. It is important for millennial lawyers to feel as though they are on a path toward their goals from the earliest stages. If they don’t see the path, it is at that time we see millennial attorneys looking for new positions they feel get them back on track.

Seeking mentorship

Mentorship may be one of the most important things young millennial lawyers look for when considering a new employer. Having a senior attorney that has been in the job to answer questions and show them the processes is an essential component.

Travis Adams is an associate attorney who works in the personal injury group at the Minnesota law firm of Melchert Hubert Sjodin. As he explains, “Being mentored by the managing partner has been a huge benefit. Learning the practice from someone that knows the clients, the cases, and the courts was really helpful to me. I might not have taken the position if the mentorship aspect hadn’t been there.”

For many respondents, however, the type of mentorship they receive is of equal importance. The 2019 Above the Law/Major, Lindsey & Africa survey (MLA survey) gathered responses from more than 1,200 Above the Law millennial readers about their goals, priorities, and thoughts on generational differences and cultural shifts within law firms.

The majority of respondents to the MLA survey reported that an informal mentor had either a significant (40 percent) or crucial (21 percent) role in their career.

So, if you decide to implement a mentorship program at your firm, you would likely do best to provide broad parameters rather than rigid curricula. Allow space for a less formal learning structure and a more open conversation between colleagues. Assigning a senior associate to assist with onboarding might be a good starting point. “It was good to know the firm had a structure in place that was designed to support me. And that they had already thought that through with associates was great to see,” Adams concludes.

Building flexibility

In general, millennials are known to be highly adaptable. They are innovative and solutions-oriented, and they have an innate skill for getting things done via nontraditional methods. Their work methods don’t always equate to a traditional workplace setting or work hours. Millennials often appreciate working in a less structured environment—one that allows them the freedom to do their work outside standard business hours and sometimes outside of the office.

Firms that want to attract millennial attorneys might consider implementing more flexible work arrangements. These might include less stringent beginning and ending times and more open work-from-home policies. Doing so will show that the firm recognizes the need to accommodate attorneys at all stages of their lives and that it is willing to make accommodations that allow them to do their best work.

Achieving work/life balance

On a related topic to flexibility, work/life balance ranks high for millennial attorneys. As Adams puts it, “You’ve got to prioritize your life. Your work will take over as much of your life as you’ll let it.”

According to the MLA survey, nearly 75 percent of millennial lawyers said they would trade a portion of their compensation for either more time off, a flexible work schedule or a cut in billable hours—all of which point in one way or another to work/life balance.

In that same survey, 34 percent of respondents said that better work/life balance would make a move from a law firm to an in-house counsel role attractive to them. And 20 percent of respondents to the MLA survey said it was the single most important reason for considering a new opportunity. Finally, a firm’s commitment to fostering work/life balance for employees edged out its compensation package as the most important consideration in a millennial attorney’s evaluation of a prospective employer.

Especially considering the last point about work/life balance being more important than compensation, firms that want to attract millennial attorneys need to be proactive about making it a reality across the firm. Gone is the time when attorneys worked 18-hour days without hesitation. They care about their personal lives, and so should their firms. Not only will it make you a more attractive employer, but it will also reduce the potential for attorney burnout and all the issues that typically accompany it.

Making sustainability a priority

Another issue that is extremely important to younger generations is the environment. Perhaps more than any other generation in the last 40 years, millennials seem to have a real commitment to changing the world—literally. Research has shown repeatedly that millennials are steadfast in their commitment and that they gravitate toward companies and brands that share their views.

According to a May 2019 Gallup article, their concern about global warming is at a high point. A climate-focused corporate social responsibility may be meaningful to younger generations, including millennials. If the company’s effort is false or half-hearted, it may drive them away. As the article explains, “So, if millennials or Gen Z are a significant part of a business’ employee or market base, a corporate social responsibility program of environmental sustainability might do more than combat climate change—it could ally your company with a very demanding generation as well.”

According to the Law Firm Sustainability Network 2018 Sustainability Survey, some responding firms mentioned that they were pursuing their sustainability efforts, at least in part, because they knew it was important to millennials and new recruits. If budget were not an issue, the top initiatives respondents said they would like to pursue included commuting, energy efficiency, and reducing paper usage. These results show that many firms’ views about the environment align well with those of the millennial attorneys they want to attract.

Researching your firm online

Millennials are a resourceful group that finds most of the information they want online. If your firm wants to attract the best millennial attorney talent, that means the importance of your digital presence just went to a new level.

When most firms think about their online presence, the first—and sometimes only—thing to come to mind is its website. In reality, a firm’s online presence really consists of anything that might turn up in a Google search. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts are a few examples; online directories and news articles are as well. Perhaps even more important are online review sites. The important thing to remember is that if there’s something online about your firm, positive or negative, savvy young attorneys that know their way around the web will find it.

How can your firm attract top millenial attorneys?

If firms want to attract top millennial talent, what can they do to place themselves at the top of the list? While there isn’t a need to make wholesale changes to your firm’s operations tomorrow, there are some areas you can look at for consideration over the near term. Here are a few things to consider:

Embrace and invest in technology

Millennials gravitate toward the most recent technology, and not having access to it could be seen as a negative. In fact, many millennials have said the absence of the latest legal tech could cause them to choose a different firm. On the other hand, firms that make a commitment to continually implement the most recent technology can claim a differentiator with millennial attorneys that not all firms have.

From accommodating millennials’ preference for immediate access to information through streamlined legal research tools, to getting them up to speed with industry-leading legal know-how solutions, your firm can upgrade its tech stack to become more appealing to millennial attorneys.

Westlaw Edge instantly gives your millennial attorneys the most current and accurate information in the industry. Practical Law provides them with the guidance and know-how they need to learn how to handle new matters quickly. Investing in these and other Thomson Reuters solutions will not only position your firm as an innovative leader with prospective millennial recruits, it can also have far-reaching impacts in efficiency and productivity across the business.

Evolve the firm’s culture and values

While the rise of millennials may be having an impact on the values and social responsibilities of today’s businesses, don’t interpret this as a call-to-action for your firm to radically adopt a fully altruistic mission. To attract this level of associates, a compromise can be found in two key areas.

The first is taking steps toward becoming a more sustainable and environmentally friendly organization. Becoming a “sustainable law firm” can seem like an insurmountable task. But taking incremental steps that show a commitment to it can make the needed impression on millennial job seekers. Paperless initiatives and recycling programs can be solid first steps. Even if these programs are in their infancy at your firm, letting a millennial attorney take them over can be a win on both sides.

Second is your firm’s choice business partners. Choose vendors whose corporate philosophies align with millennials’ values. Millennials frequently look beyond your firm’s own practices to those of your firm’s business partners. Make a point of vetting service and materials providers to ensure they operate ethically and that their corporate values align as much as possible with those of the millennials you want to recruit.

Create an engaging online presence

A web presence that includes a website, social media presence, and blogs can provide an immediate and positive connection between you and millennial attorneys. Make sure the content speaks to them and includes information about how the work your firm does makes a difference in the world.

You should also monitor all your online directory listings to be sure they are consistent with regard to spelling, punctuation, and layout. Not only will doing so help with your search engine rankings, it looks much more professional when prospective employees are researching your firm.

Be aware of client feedback appearing on online review sites. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, respond to all of it in a professional manner. It will show that you take client feedback seriously and that you care enough to engage in client conversations.

One other area that many firms don’t consider as a potential source of information is prospective employees’ personal and social networks. As lawyers well know, the legal community is a tightly-knit one, and word of mouth carries a lot of weight. Attorneys frequently look to their personal networks for information about individual firms. Research indicates that they regularly ask peers and mentors for input when considering different firms. Being aware of and actively managing your firm’s reputation can be key in your efforts to recruit top millennial talent.

Adopt a new mindset

It is probably unrealistic to try to develop and implement a “millennials plan”—if there even is such a thing. Likely, a better approach is to look at all of the information you have about millennials, along with your firm’s current practices. See where you can make adjustments that will better position your firm as a place where they want to work.

Millennials’ way of thinking on many things can only lead to positive outcomes. Initiatives like flexible work arrangements and sustainability not only make you more attractive as an employer for millennial attorneys, you will also be doing something worthwhile as a business.

Where can you make simple changes that appeal to millennial attorneys? Your ability to answer that question and—more importantly—your ability to act on those answers will put your firm on a path to becoming an employer where top millennial attorneys want to work.

A look toward the future: Gen Z lawyers are coming

The change initiated by lawyers from younger generations is not through. Generation Z (defined as those born between 1997 and 2012) is next. The first Gen Z lawyers are just getting ready to graduate from law school, and Gen Z support staff have already been in the workforce for a couple of years.

Members of Gen Z are sometimes referred to as being born with a smartphone in their hands, and that may not be too far from the truth. They bring with them a much stronger connection to technology, making law firms’ commitment to tech investment and implementation that much more essential.

Though the industry still focuses most of its attention on the impact of millennials, Gen Z is coming with its own culture and set of values. Stay tuned for more on this next generation of attorneys and how they will continue to shape the future of the legal profession.

Thomson Reuters Practical Law

Provide new associates with the tools they need to become productive contributors at your firm.