Bridging the generation gap

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Melissa Ford, a partner at Bingham McHale in Indianapolis, considers herself a liaison between her mentee, 29-year-old Kevin Dawson, and the more-senior members of the profession. Ford, who is 46, remembers the challenges of being a new lawyer, and in the past two years as Dawson’s mentor, she’s helped him learn the real-life skills he needs to succeed as a lawyer.

il-bingham-mchale05-15col.jpg Bingham McHale attorneys Melissa Ford and Kevin Dawson cite their laid-back personalities as one reason why they work well together as mentor and mentee. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Today’s youngest lawyers – members of what has been called the “millennial” generation – have a different approach to work than generations before them. And relationships like the one Ford and Dawson share may be the key to helping attorneys of all ages appreciate and respect each other’s differences.

“Hearing older attorneys talk about the practice of law, it’s very different now than from when they first started,” Dawson said. “So if you can have someone who’s close enough in age to you that has heard those stories before and knows from those people what the practice of law used to be like – the differences between that and the way that it is now – it’s a great bridge to be able to understand and be able to bring those two perspectives together.”

Work-life balance

Ford recalled that when she was a young lawyer, her mentor was significantly older than she was. At the time, the term “work-life balance” wasn’t a part of the legal lexicon.

“When I started practicing as a lawyer, there didn’t seem to be much emphasis on the balance issue,” Ford said. You were expected to work. Where’s the balance there?”

Ford said that she thinks older generations had traditionally functioned with one breadwinner in the family, and whoever that was, was expected to support the family.

“That was the center of their day-to-day activity, and that was it,” she said. “And so if you were the person that was working, you were expected to be there and you were expected to be all-in.”

Attorneys who experienced that lifestyle firsthand – the long hours spent hovering over a desk full of work – may not easily relate to the modern-day working style of many younger lawyers.

“They’re very adept at maintaining communication wherever they are on the planet,” Ford said of young lawyers. “I think sometimes there are misconceptions, for instance, about the commitment and motivation of younger attorneys. That may have something to do with them not necessarily being physically located in an office at a time when somebody expects them to be, but they may very well be working.”

Dawson said he had mulled over the idea that the way he views a workday might not be the way a senior attorney thinks of a workday.

“If I’m awake, I’m working, or thinking about work,” he said. “So I might not be at my desk, I might not be physically in this chair working here, but I might be checking my email, or at night – I like to work late into the night a lot of times – so if I’m not in my office at 5:15, that just means I stopped to eat dinner, and work from 7 to 10, or 7 to 11.”

Dawson, who is not married and doesn’t have children, said that being accessible at all times doesn’t present any problems for him, yet.

“I think at some point I will probably have to carve out a balance. So it’s fine for me today – as I said, if I’m awake, I’m available, and that’s fine for now – but there may come a time where that might not be the case,” he said.

While technology enables Dawson to work remotely, he knows that it must have its limits.

“I hear of people who’ve been told that their Blackberry has to be off during dinner,” he said.

Jennifer Elston, a 34-year-old partner at Evansville’s Ziemer Stayman Weitzel & Shoulders, has to work hard at maintaining a work-life balance as the mother of a 3-year-old boy and 10-month-old girl.

“It’s difficult and it’s stressful, because you’re constantly pulled in both directions and you don’t want to let anybody down,” she said.

Elston said that if she has to work late, she worries that she’s letting down her family. But if she has to leave early to take care of a sick child, she worries that she’ll let down her colleagues. She recognizes that she puts that pressure on herself.

“I have never had anyone here critical of that – everyone here embraces your family,” she said. “We have partners here who work part-time because of their children. It’s only my own inner guilt – no one has ever made me feel guilty.”


Dawson was 4 years old when he first used a personal computer. Ford didn’t encounter a computer until she was 19.

“It seems that today’s incoming associates are much more computer-savvy, and because of that, there are just some small things that happen that can cause a little bit of stress or tension.” Ford said. “For instance, today’s associates come in drafting their own documents. They’re very comfortable on the computer. And in my day, when I came on, we did not draft our own documents. We handwrote, we marked up documents, and we gave them to our assistants.”

But if seasoned lawyers expect new associates to work on documents by hand and give them to assistants for revisions, Ford said, they may not understand why a young associate hasn’t finished that task and moved on to something else.

“Ultimately, it is not necessarily a bad thing, because there’s much less turnaround time in getting the document out,” she said. “But it’s a different way of working. And ultimately, I think it’s probably better because the client gets the document sooner, but it’s just certainly different than what I grew up with.”

Dawson said he thinks that generally, most attorneys have now caught up with the latest technological trends. But people still have different opinions about how technology should be used in the workplace.

“For example, I’m very used to: you work on a document, and then you email it to someone, and that’s that,” he said. “Well, a lot of people, either because they’re busy or they don’t necessarily care for working with computers, don’t like to go through the process of opening up an attachment and printing it out. They want to review a hard copy. So, that’s made me think, OK, does this person want me to email this document? Do they want me to bring them a printed copy? Do I email it and print it out? So it’s a lot of little things like that – intergenerational work style, I would say, that’s the main difference.”

Dawson used to consult with Ford to figure out the best way to approach each lawyer in the firm, and he said he kept a cheat sheet on his desk to remind him who would prefer a hard copy and who would be content with an email. Over time, he learned to tailor his communication to each individual.

“Because people communicate differently, I think you have to know when a telephone call is appropriate, when an email is appropriate, when it’s time to go to someone’s office and just sit across from them and talk some things out,” he said. “I tend to like to do everything by email, and that doesn’t always work. It just doesn’t. So I would say that email has probably caused a few miscommunications – you’ve got to just pick up the phone sometimes.”

Tools for success

Elston’s first law job was at a satellite office for Bamberger Foreman Oswald and Hahn, working alongside Jerry Stilwell.

“When I started out at Bamberger, I started at the Princeton office, and it was just me and one other attorney. It was like legal boot camp, and I just learned so much from him. He told me from the get-go … you treat clients and adversaries with respect at all times. Don’t be condescending to people.”

Elston said she’s surprised at the number of young lawyers who come into the profession with the wrong attitude.

“We don’t run into it a lot, but there are quite a few people who think when they come out of law school that they have to have that claws-out attitude, and it doesn’t take them very far,” she said. But those are the kinds of lessons mentors can help mentees learn.

Dawson knows that a lot of the practice of law is learned on the job. “You don’t necessarily learn some of these skills in school, so I think it’s good to get some on-the-job training. Because I think it’s that, or you learn by making a lot of mistakes, which isn’t very efficient,” he said.

Ford recognizes that the transition from law school to law firm life can be quite a shock, especially not knowing the intricacies of how law firms function.

“I think the practice of law is more art than science, so I think the subtleties of having productive client relationships and productive relationships with other attorneys requires some finesse and some know-how and somebody to help a person make that leap into the law as a profession and into a law firm,” she said.

New attorneys should never underestimate the importance of forging relationships, she added.

“Be brave, reach beyond your peer group. I know I learn a lot from new lawyers, I learn a lot from more-senior lawyers, and I learn from my peers as well, but lawyers and people in general at different stages of their lives and in different situations bring valuable perspectives,” she said. “The more that you isolate yourself in one group, the less benefit you’ll have from all those perspectives.”•


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