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  • By Leo Staub

The major trends in the legal market – are the millennials fit for the law business?

Updated: Aug 14


Let me take up a last important trend in our business before we deal with the question as to how to build a law firm strategy! This is about the millennials, also called Generation Y, i.e. the young people who were born in the second half of the 1980s and in the 1990s.

To say it in advance: today’s young people work hard, very hard. When I look at the students in my courses at the Master’s Level, which are about law firm management, legal risk or corporate legal and compliance, they work even harder than when we were students. My fellow professors, most of them baby boomers like me, confirm this observation. Our young people can really knuckle down!

And yet: the colleagues who knock on the door to partnership in law firms these days are not always easy to assess. Recently, the managing partner of a leading German law firm told me an interesting story. A young man, obviously brilliant and equipped with everything that makes a good partner was supposed to be offered the partnership three years before the time that had originally been scheduled by the law firm. When he was told that the firm wanted to make him a partner ahead of the scheduled time, he replied that he had been thinking rather in terms of working only 80% because he was the drummer in a rock band and needed time for rehearsals.

You can imagine that the conclusion of this conversation caused some puzzlement among the partners of that law firm. Sociologists such as Peter Gross explain the peculiarities of Generation Y on the basis of three attributes: according to Gross, millennials are more individualistic in comparison with baby boomers, they think in terms of options and are subject to a phenomenon which in sociologist jargon is called detraditionalization.

Young people are individualistic to the extent to which they place self-realisation above everything else. This also includes a portfolio of activities that covers more than “mere” satisfaction in a demanding profession. In addition, millennials pursue the meaning of their work and of their way of living in general. All of us are aware, however, that meaning is not easily communicable in all mandates and across all the constituents of work on mandates.

Optionality means that members of Generation Y do not conceive of a lawyer’s career as a one-way street from internship to equity partnership. Rather, in contrast to just a few years ago, millennials frequently regard an in-house career or a position in the law firm without partnership status as an equivalent option. Thus even excellently qualified colleagues no longer succumb to the temptation of becoming a partner virtually automatically.

Finally, it is a consequence of detraditionalization that tradition is not an obvious reference value for young people’s decisions any longer. Much more important are values and status references which result from individuals’ membership of so-called peer groups. This, however, makes millennials’ decisions unpredictable for established partners. What has “always” been applicable may be called into question today.

We only need to put two and two together: associates who are uniform up to a certain extent and who – provided they have the necessary talent and there is a good business case – will simply accept promotion to partner with pleasure, may well not be the standard case in the near future. What does this mean for the business model of many law firms who have prospered brilliantly according to the principle of up-or-out so far? Will the rug be pulled from under this business model if some of the best lawyers do not want to become partners automatically any longer? How can we accommodate talents who rate their work/life balance higher than a career at the price of family life in remote mode? Can the contradiction between diversity in the partners’ life plans and the strategic imperative of a set of values and attitudes that is as homogeneous as possible in the partnership be resolved? We shall see!

This blog was originally published on 5 July 2018 in Vista, the online magazine of the Executive School, University of St.Gallen, Switzerland.

About the Author Prof. Dr. Leo Staub is a Titular Professor of Business Law and Legal Management at the University of St. Gallen. He also is one of the Directors of the Executive School of Management, Technology and Law of St. Gallen University where he chairs the division “Law & Management”. Leo can be reached at leo.staub@unisg.ch

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