Millennials Share of the Workforce is Growing
Current estimates indicate that about one third of the US workforce is already comprised of millennials, and in response many industries including law firms should rethink traditional approaches to management and retention strategies. In the past, many attorneys who joined firms early in their career would stay for decades before moving to another firm. However, millennial attorneys are much more likely to switch jobs shortly after joining a firm, and have earned a reputation as "job-hoppers."
Millennials, formally defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s, are often derided for negative characteristics like being disloyal, averse to criticism, and possessing a sense of entitlement. As law students born in the early 1990s begin to graduate from law school, the new attorneys are also criticized for being too enthralled with social media, having unrealistic life expectations, and lacking work ethic. Despite these criticisms, millennials are often incredibly tech-savvy, creative, entrepreneurial, and value diversity. Young attorneys can contribute to a firm's success in substantial ways, and it is worthwhile for firms to invest in their future by making necessary changes to retain top-tier talent.
Attracting and Training Young Lawyers Can be an Expensive Investment
Young lawyers are often a costly venture for their employers, as it takes an average of three-and-a-half years for an associate to earn enough revenue to offset the costs of his or her employment, according to Larry Richard, founder and principal consultant of LawyerBrain. Despite the expense of training new lawyers, many fledgling attorneys only stay at their first firm for two years. Thomson Reuters recently argued that many in-house legal departments are also late to the party. Their study noted that the smaller number of millennial employees in legal departments (due to a career path that usually involves time at a law firm first) may have allowed general counsel to avoid these issues in the past, but that the change in the status quo can no longer be ignored.
Just as important as retaining young attorneys is attracting them to a firm in the first place. With the slow resurgence of the legal market since 2008, potential associates scrutinize potential employers more than ever. Presenting a professional and modern firm is an important aspect of recruitment, so having a modern website, updated LinkedIn page, and good reviews on websites like Glassdoor and Google are crucial to making a good impression. Allowing prospective associates access to current associates can also be a great way to give law students insight into a firm's culture and structure, while giving the firm an edge in recruiting.
Approaches to Retaining Young Lawyers: Money or Management?
The amount of suggestions for retaining younger lawyers is colossal; with recommendations ranging from providing an Uber allowance to encourage after-work networking to allowing young attorneys to be more quickly engaged in important work that has significant impact on clients and results in more prompt recognition. There is generally a debate between two approaches illustrated by the previous examples: whether to focus on financial incentives and other benefits, or to make changes to firm culture and management approaches. However, the best tactic to retaining young attorneys is a hybrid of the two approaches, providing greater financial incentives for a generation with massive student debt and better culture and involvement for an age group that thrives on flexible work environments and places a value on work/life balance.
The most obvious way to provide financial incentive to new lawyers is to increase starting salaries. Many larger firms in 2016 raised first year pay by around 12.5% in an effort to further incentivize highly qualified law students to join and stay at their firms. As cost of living increases, and as more law school graduates carry immense student loan debt, increased salary may help retain millennial employees. Thomas Reuters reported in a recent survey that 94% of millennials "identified an increase in salary as the main reason for changing jobs or organizations." Some firms have even created a "vacation credits" program, which allows lawyers to get billable hours credit just for taking time off. Financial incentives can play a big part in retaining young attorneys, but money alone won't solve retention issues.
Many firms have made adjustments to management approaches, mentorship programs, and other aspects of law firm work to better appeal to millennial employees. A number of firms have moved offices or overhauled workspaces to favor common areas over spacious corner offices. Other firms have allowed associates to pitch business ideas through a firm-wide contest, and some have created a young attorneys' liaison position on the management committee. Other lifestyle approaches include increasing opportunities to learn from senior partners, creating projects for young attorneys to chair, and providing more insight about the business of running a law firm. Lastly, creating more opportunities for recognition and emphasizing relationship building will help satisfy millennials desire for inclusiveness, feedback, and connection.
Making Changes to Attract and Retain Younger Attorneys is Worth the Cost
While these solutions may not address every single reason why associates decide to switch law firms, a combination of financial incentives and lifestyle changes helps law firms appeal better to young lawyers. At the end of the day, associate retention, associate loyalty, growth are how firms will make money in the long run. Having happier associates results in more money for the firm and more-satisfied clients, and is a worthwhile investment for any law firm or legal department.