"A Millennial's Perspective on how law firms can retain Millennials" or talent ...?
WhatsApp notification. Respond to email. iPhone rings. FaceTime Mum. Post photo of brunch on Instagram. Update status: “En route to law exam, wish me luck!”
Life moves fast, and millennials manage their lives on the move.
But what do millennial lawyers really want and how do law firms need to adapt to attract and retain the millennial generation? What will the future look like for an undergraduate student entering the legal profession in 2020?
Before we can answer this, we need to look what motivates a millennial and what differentiates this generation. Well that part is easy, it’s me! Millennials are defined as the generation born between 1980 and 2000, which incorporates several sub-categories often dubbed as ‘Generation Y’ and Generation ‘Z’, amongst others.
I was born in 1987, so you might say I’m the ultimate millennial. Growing up in an increasingly technological era, millennials are characterized by our ability to multi-task and desire to be connected. We want responsibility and autonomy. We like being involved and playing a key part of a team. There are some commonly held (mis?)conceptions of the generation, that we are lazy and fickle, glued to technology to the detriment of all else. I would argue that this characterisation is unfair, but it is true to say we work differently and are incentivised by different factors than previous generations, for example: achieving a desirable work-life balance, flexible working, collaboration, transparency and varied career opportunities.
Professionally, I rely on millennials to drive the business I started just over two years ago. F-LEX is a platform, which connects pre-vetted law students to law firms and general counsel, for a flexible, on demand service (https://flex.legal). As a result, I have spent the past two years interviewing and onboarding millennials all over the UK and placing them into short-term paralegal roles. Through this I have been able to understand what the next generation of lawyers are looking for and what has motivated them to enter the legal profession.
So, why is important that we start listening to the future generation of lawyers now?
By 2025, 75% of the workforce will be made up of millennials , but in all likelihood, led by Managing and Senior Partners from a different generation. Unless firms adapt to embrace the changing character of their predominant work force, they will not motivate or retain
their most valuable asset.
In August 2018, F-LEX carried out a survey of the 2,000+ law students on our platform (897 replied within 3 hours of sending it out, showing how responsive a millennial can be), providing some extremely interesting insights.
It’s all about the money, money, money…or is it?
67.7% of those surveyed said they chose to enter the profession because of the intellectually stimulating work. This is good news! As technology develops, I imagine lawyers will be using a higher proportion of their time to carry out challenging legal work.
Whilst 16.8% said they wanted to enter because of the prestige of the profession, only 4.2% said money was the most important thing they looked for in their career. This was revealing because many law firms seem to put money ahead of every other incentive to attract and retain employees. Indeed, this year alone, many of the top Magic and Silver Circle Law Firms announced pay increases for their Newly Qualified lawyers and Trainees of up to £100k.
This was also borne out in a recent PWC report  which showed that 85% of female millennials look at a firm’s ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ policy when deciding which firm to apply for. This is an extraordinary figure and something that only recently law firms have begun to really focus on, with diversity becoming an important part of winning work. It is also, however, a key factor of why a Millennial might apply for a particular firm.
It’s all about balance.
In the F-LEX survey, when asked “how long do you see yourself staying at a law firm”, a staggering 75.1% said less than three years. Why is this? Do law firms have a bad perception of working their staff too hard and
throwing money at the problem?
The answers lie in the next question we asked; “What is the most important thing that you look for in your career as a lawyer?” 36% said “work/life balance” with only 22% saying they wanted to progress to become a Partner.
Offering an environment which fosters a healthy work/life balance (or a blend - I recently read in article which argued that millennials try to do both at the same time rather than putting life before work) is going to be an absolute necessity for attracting the future generation of lawyers.
An interesting observation though is that the desire for flexibility isn’t actually as restricted to millennials as we might think. Allen & Overy’s Peerpoint recently produced a report which found that achieving a fulfilling work/life balance was the single most important criterion by which lawyers identify career success , so perhaps this change has been longer-in-the-making than it appears?
Change is as good as a rest.
Another trait of the millennial is the ability to multi-task. We like to do more than one thing at once and move between tasks frictionlessly.
When asked “Which of the following would entice you to stay at your firm for longer”, 30.1% of F-LEX’s respondents said the ability to try out different areas during their qualified years, however, in the current system, whichever seat you qualify in, is, in most cases the practice area you stay in for life. This rigidity does not sit well with the millennial who wants to constantly be learning and developing their career opportunities.
So, how should law firms embrace this? Could law firms start offering secondments to different teams further down the PQE road? This may help retain talent and allow individuals to continue to learn and grow.
The influence of technology means that different roles will be created, and more opportunity will arise for lawyers (and non-lawyers) to become legal analysts, legal engineers or legal designers, for example. Will this will nurture the development of different skillsets, potentially producing more ‘client-centric’ lawyers as a result? Opening up of these opportunities is already happening, as we see some major firms offer their trainees seats in these new areas as they are established. I see this as a great first step, but I would love to see a firm offer these opportunities to their lawyers who are above 3 years PQE rather than just restrict the opportunity to trainees.
What would a millennial law firm look like?
The strict hierarchy would be a thing of the past.
Time would not be recorded, rather outcomes and qualitative feedback would measure success, and a lawyer’s PQE level wouldn’t singularly dictate their perceived abilities.
Collaboration would be the norm within a linear structure with more focus on multidisciplinary teams working together.
Bonuses would be awarded, not on the billable hour, but by client satisfaction.
Business and commercial decisions would be driven by client data.
Firms would genuinely reflect their corporate diversity and inclusion values and each person at the firm would be required to regularly offer their skills pro-bono.
Technology would be used for most of the more menial work and there would be many non-legal roles such as data analysts, legal engineers and legal designers, all focusing on resolving the clients’ problems in a commercially focused and cost-effective manner.
All employees would have the opportunity for some equity stake in the business to ensure retention rates and innovation would be driven at all ends of the spectrum.
Flexible and agile working would not simply be ‘put up with’ but rather an integral part of the culture, seamlessly supported by a firm’s internal technology systems which support communication and administration.
Practically, we may be a long way off this utopian view and I’m sure there are questions over how feasible this is in reality. However, firms are going to have to think carefully about how they are going to adapt to ensure that they attract and retain the best millennial talent in 2020 and beyond.
About the Author Mary Bonsor was a property litigator in a top city firm before starting F-LEX in August 2016. F-LEX is an online platform which connects pre-vetted law students to law firms and general counsel for a flexible, on demand service. F-LEX has over 2,000 law students on it's platform and over 120 clients including magic circle firms, FTSE250 companies and SMEs. F-LEX won Legal Supplier of the Year 2018 in the Legal Business Awards.”