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DTCI: Bridging the generational gap

March 9, 2016

 

Virjee By Nabeela Virjee

It was a sunny fall day in Bloomington, Indiana, my head only slightly aching following the inaugural DTCI Pub Crawl hosted by the Young Lawyers Section. After a few cups of coffee and a greasy, Village Deli breakfast, I was ready to moderate a panel presentation for the last plenary session of the conference, “Bridging the Generational Gap: How to Maximize Your Millennials.” I was excited to have a platform to discuss how millennial attorneys perceive themselves, their workplace and their supervisors.

I recruited three brave millennial – a.k.a “Millie” – souls to serve on the panel. The concept of hearing from real, live millennials was revolutionary in my mind, particularly so when all the millennial presentations I’ve attend were given by baby boomers. Judging by the sizable number of attendees at the Friday lunchtime panel, it seemed our multi-generational audience of lawyers was just as interested to hear from us. Or, maybe they were just pumped to be getting CLE credit while eating.

 As the food was being served, I opened with a little self-deprecating humor, acknowledging the stereotypes out there about my generation: entitled, self-absorbed and addicted to our phones. A non-millennial yelled out from the crowd, “Lazy!” Big gulps. This was going to be a L-O-N-G hour. Instead of painstakingly giving you the play-by-play of our presentation, let me just say this, I felt like it was an #epicfail. Tensions ran high across generations and there were more than a handful of uncomfortable (and awkward) moments.

After the presentation, I packed my bags, got in the car, and cried the entire way home. A little dramatic? Sure. But, Millies have a tendency of being that way from time to time. I was upset not because I didn’t get a trophy at the end, but rather because I didn’t “build any bridges” as I had promised to do. Instead, all I had done was identify the generational gaps in our profession, and they seemed huge. I didn’t feel like my panelists, who I admire for their courage to speak openly and honestly about work-related challenges, especially those related to their relationships with their supervisors, were understood. And, I didn’t get the impression from the comments and questions from the non-millennial audience that they felt any differently about us when it was all said and done. In some of their eyes, we were still a whiny, soft, entitled group of young attorneys.

In hindsight, I would have done the whole thing differently. At the outset, I would have explained why it is important for the different generations to understand each other. I would have started by saying that understating each generation, and what motivates its constituents, is key to any organization’s retention rates and succession planning. Economists conservatively estimate that the loss of just one attorney has a negative financial impact on a firm’s profits equal to said attorney’s annual salary, certainly nothing to scoff at. I would have explained that understanding millennials is particularly important because today, we make up 30 percent of the workforce; but, by 2020, we will make up 50 percent.

The issue of “dealing with millennials” isn’t just a hot topic; it is a real issue facing the legal industry that not only warrants our collective attention, regardless of our age group, but also deserves an honest conversation. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that dealing with generational differences in the workforce must start with a dialogue, and it can start here. 

Identifying the gap

The age demographics of today’s attorneys are significantly more diverse than years past. For the first time, there are four, soon to be five, generations in our profession. Historically, there have been three. This translates to a wider age-range among attorneys than ever before, which undoubtedly means we have the most varied workforce in terms of behaviors and attitudes. How one generation communicates is different from the next.

Right now, you may work with members of the Greatest Generation, those born from 1922-1945. They are broken down into three sub-generations: veterans, Silent Generation, and traditionalists. The Greatest Generation values those who respect authority. To most of them, getting a higher education was a dream. They save their money, and usually pay for things in cash.

You probably work with baby boomer attorneys, too, who were born from 1946-1964. This generation was shaped by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Liberation. They have a tendency to question rules and authority, but also believe they have the power to change the world. Then, we have Generation X, born from 1965-1980, who were shaped by high divorce rates and working parents, which fostered their independent mindsets. They place more value in leadership than seniority and were the first generation to actively strive for work/life balance.

Finally, we have my generation, Generation Y, whose members are known as millennials. We were born from 1980-1995, most of us growing up with computers, the Internet and cellphones, which created a strong desire for immediate information, but also fostered a desire for flexibility, because we can work from anywhere. We were raised to believe that competition is not always about winning; sometimes it is really about being an integral part of a team.

Before you know it, some of the New Silent Generation, born from 1995-2012, will soon start law school and eventually join our professional ranks. This group is known for having worse interpersonal skills than their millennial predecessors because they were practically born with an iPad in their hands. They are inherently more comfortable with digital communication.

These generational labels help us identify with others. People like to feel a sense of belonging and commonality. In a way, these labels create a sense of community. For that, I don’t think they are bad. But, not everyone within a generational group shares all the same traits, which arguably makes the very exercise of labeling completely immaterial. At the end of the day, aren’t we all just people, dare I say … individuals? Perhaps we are all much more alike than we are led to believe and just struggle to communicate effectively with one another, irrespective of our age group.

What if there is no generational gap, and instead just a problem with how attorneys of all ages now communicate and subsequently perceive one another? Maybe the “gap” is in the mode of our communication? If I’m right, I propose we get back to basics. I propose we talk, literally, and decrease our use of email. (And, yes, I’m using “literally” in the formal sense to describe “in a literal manner or sense”; not “to add emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true,” which we Millies are annoyingly guilty of doing, literally.)

Perhaps you remember the good ole’ days when lawyers talked to each other, often in person over a meal or drinks. They talked about strategy and settled cases, while also sharing war stories. You would call co-defense counsel on one issue and through happenstance you’d learn a key nugget of information that ended up being vital to your case. Sometimes you’d call the clerk to check on the status of something and sadly found out the judge’s husband had surgery, which is why the court was delayed in issuing its orders. If you remember these days, I’m jealous of you. Now, for most of us, these interactive tasks where we used to truly connect with each other are reduced to the coldness of email. As a result, email is disconnecting us from each other and creating a communication gap, not a generational one.

We are lawyers. Across the board, our job is to gather as much information as possible about a situation, develop a plan that meets the needs of our clients, and effectively communicate that plan and why it should carry the day. We must communicate this plan not just to our clients, but to their adversaries, and the court. I’ve always heard that most of communication is non-verbal. If that is true, the most effective communication cannot happen over email. When we email each other, we lose the precision of communication that comes through varied cadence and tones, body language and facial expressions.

Moreover, our questions over email are narrow ones: “Counsel, may I have an additional 30 days to respond to your client’s discovery requests?” We know that the “E” in email stands for potential exhibit, so we keep our messages short and to the point. This causes us to miss out on absorbing important pieces of tangential information that are only gleaned from spoken communication. Worse, over email, we often forgo exchanging pleasantries with one another; these pleasantries are a must in spoken communication.

Obviously, we are not getting rid of email, nor do I think we should. But, when communicating with your multi-generational colleagues, really think about whether the email you are about to send would be better suited for a conversation. It may take more time, but I think it may best serve everyone’s interests, including the client.

To illustrate, take this example from my life as an associate. I often get instruction from my supervisors in an email or paper memo. I read it, understanding what’s been asked of me and I get to work. I proudly deliver my work product, but become frustrated when I at times miss the mark. Through email, I receive honest and constructive criticism, but still find myself feeling irritated that I didn’t get it quite right the first go around.

Why didn’t I get it right the first time? I’m willing to bet that some of it was because we didn’t talk about the project in person. The outcome may have been different had I walked into my partner’s office and actually talked about the assignment. This is my mistake, not that of my partner. Had I walked into his office, perhaps neither one of us would have made as many assumptions about what was asked and what was expected. Instead, I think we would have picked up on the non-verbal signals that were otherwise missing from our written communication. I suspect that a little face time on the front end would also save the client some money on the back end. And, as an added benefit worthy of mention, I’ll probably feel more connected with my non-millennial colleague and feel like I belong to a team because we surely would have engaged in all that pleasantry “How was your weekend” stuff I mentioned earlier. That’s got to be good for retention rates.

Bridging the gap

This “initiating spoken dialogue thing” doesn’t just apply to me as a millennial associate; it applies to all of us, regardless of our generation. As lawyers, getting as much information as possible is a must. Think of how much information we could be leaving on the table because we are avoiding this fundamental and basic human interaction?

So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, I suggest we start by picking up the phone and talking to each other. Call opposing counsel to ask for that discovery extension, and don’t forget to ask how his family is doing. You can always confirm in writing with a follow-up email. Within your offices, talk to your millennial associate about the substantive grounds you want her to argue in the summary judgment motion she’s writing; you may accidentally learn that she went to law school with opposing counsel. Go into your Greatest Generation supervisor’s office and ask exactly what he meant by the handwritten feedback he gave you on that memo, and ask him how you could do a better job next time. He’s been around awhile, so he’ll have plenty of sage advice.

Better yet, grab lunch or even dinner together with your attorney colleagues. You may find that as you get to know each other, you’ll begin to communicate more effectively. Maybe you’ll find that your age difference isn’t that big of a deal after all. For me, talking while breaking bread (and drinking wine) with my non-millennial lawyer colleagues, especially one in particular from the Silent Generation, have been some of the most fulfilling times in my professional career.

As I mentioned at the outset, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And after really thinking about it, I’m not entirely convinced that there is some great generational divide between us all that can’t be overcome by emailing less and talking more. Is there more we could do to limit the so-called generation gap? I’m sure there is, but I think making the conscious decision to speak more frequently with our colleagues is a great first step. But hey, I’m just one Millie associate. To know what your colleagues think, you’ll need to ask them. So, I challenge you to take this article to a lawyer in your office who isn’t in your generation. Then, ask them, in person, “What do you think?” For extra credit, ask this question while out for lunch or a beer. I look forward to hearing about it and continuing the conversation.•

Ms. Virjee is an associate in the Indianapolis office of Lewis Wagner and is the 2015-2016 chair of the DTCI Young Lawyers Section. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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