By Mark A. Cohen.
Generational divides are common intra-familiarly as well as in the workplace. That is nothing new, but never in modern history has the workforce comprised five generations as it does now. Longer life expectancies, the high cost of living, and technological advances that have morphed offices into laptops and smartphones have extended the work lives of many seniors. “Retirement” is more than Barcaloungers and bingo; the Boomer and silent generations are still well represented in the workforce.
The convergence of changing demographics, declining birthrates, The Pandemic,The Great Resignation (a/k/a Great Reshuffling), talent wars, digital transformation, geopolitical instability, climate change, mass migration, and other socio-economic forces have changed workforce dynamics. The rapid, widespread shift to remote work in response to COVID-19 and the sociological, psychological, and ideological changes it has produced are profound. Paradoxically, the workforce is perpetually connected even as many feel more detached and isolated because of the shift from the physical to virtual workplace.
Technology has elevated -not minimized- the importance of humanizing the workplace, human contact, and empathy.
For millions, “jobs” have become “gigs,” “side hustles,” and a fluid view of where, when, how, and why they work. “Careers” are no longer linear paths to retirement. Most in the workforce—legal professionals included—can expect to have multiple jobs/gigs and, perhaps, transition to another sector. These and other dynamics have altered the meaning of work and how it is balanced with other facets of life.
Millennials, middle-management, and those in the midstream of their work lives are particularly struggling. They had anticipated a smooth glide path to advancement, then retirement. That is no longer the norm. Instead, they are caught in the shorthairs of automation,generative AI, data platforms, blockchain, quantum computing, and other technological advances that threaten to marginalize or make them redundant. Most lack the context to see the opportunity that these changes can provide—the creation of new jobs for those “skating to where the puck will be.” They are too stressed to look beyond the day-to-day grind to up-skill, and open their minds to new ways to do things that better serve the end-users of their services. They tend to resist change even as their recalcitrance casts the redundancy die.
The challenges of managing a five generation workforce are legion but so too are the opportunities. Spoiler alert: culture, human behavior, and adaptation—even more than technology, data, and process— are the keys to intergenerational collaboration, cross-functionality, and enterprise-wide resources and tools necessary to solve complex challenges as well as to seize opportunities. An organizational culture that respects individuality while aligning a holistically diverse workforce has created a solid foundation for a successful, sustainable digital enterprise.
Digital transformation is about people and their ability to embrace a common purpose, collaborate to advance it, and utilize new tools in a fit-for-purpose way that benefits the enterprise, customers, and society. Intergenerational collaboration is an important element of this process.
A Spectrum Of Generational Talent But Scant Collaboration
Multigenerational workforces may be commonplace, but collaboration among them is scarcer. A 2020 Study by The World Economic Forum found that employing multigenerational workforces can create a significant competitive advantage by generating a stronger pipeline of talent, improving workforce continuity and stability, and assisting the retention of knowledge. It also found that mining the potential of a multigenerational workforce is a challenging process that few enterprises have mastered.
A Deloitte study on Global Human Capital Trends found that corporate leadership ascribed a high level of importance to multigenerational workforces but only 6% of companies are equipped to lead them effectively. The Living, Learning, and Earning Longer Collaborative Initiative survey found more than 80% of corporate leaders said multigenerational workforces are key to growth, yet 53% did not include age diversity in their DEI initiatives.
“Multigenerational” and “intergenerational” are not synonymous; the distinction goes well beyond semantics. A multigenerational workforce is one that spans different generations. (i.e., Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, baby boomers and the silent generation). Multigenerational refers to generational characteristics that too often become stereotypes (e.g., “Gen Z’ers are ‘difficult.’).
Generational differences are forged by social, technological, geopolitical, climatic, and other changes confronting those coming of age and entering the workforce. Stereotyping individuals of a particular generation is a societal and workplace challenge. The individual’s character, ability to collaborate, curiosity, empathy, and ability to earn and extend trust are core qualities whose importance far eclipses generational categorizations.
“Intergenerational” describes the impact of the interaction between/among different generations. Intergenerational collaboration, like other forms of diversity, has intrinsic and extrinsic value. It promotes an agile, cross-functional, team-oriented approach to problem solving. It is conducive to forging important human connections that promote physical and emotional well-being. This is especially important in remote workforces that are geographically dispersed, culturally diverse, segmented by business line and/or function, and rarely convene in-person.
Intergenerational workforces are fostered by organizational cultures that value humanity, promote common purpose and teamwork, invest in the health, well-being, up-skilling, and career progression of its workforce. Senior leadership are, ideally, the talismans of enterprise culture. Good leaders insure that they are not the sole champions of organizational culture. They recognize multiple leaders within the organization and task them with ensuring its values are well understood, practiced, and reinforced across the enterprise. Trust, respect, shared purpose, customer-centricity and social responsibility are among those core values.
Not only is this an ideal environment for intergenerational collaboration, but it is also one that attracts, advances, and retains holistically diverse talent. It is also good for business. A Gartner study revealed that a highly inclusive environment can improve team performance by up to 30%. Another by McKinsey & Company suggested that companies with the most diversity outperform those with the least by 36% in profitability.
Creating an intergenerational workforce is neither a simple nor quick process. Its success is grounded in humanity, collectivity, and agility that enables adaptation. Agility applies not only internally, but also with customers as well as society. This is a fluid, ongoing process, one designed to adapt to change in real time. It benefits from the collective skills, expertise, cultural awareness, and mutual trust of a diverse workforce.
Organizations that create a culture built on diversity and collaboration across functions, generations, supply chains, and other facets of business have laid a solid digital foundation. That includes employees of different ages, backgrounds, skillsets, and mindsets learning from each other (a/k/a “reverse mentoring”. The organization cannot mandate this; teamwork must be a core element of its culture—in hiring, indoctrination, evaluation, and advancement. Organizations must hone their ability to identify the skills and strengths of each individual in the workforce and identify how best to engage with them as well as identify strengths that can be leveraged to advance team goals.
The Challenges Of Legal Culture
Legal culture derives from the myth of legal exceptionalism manifest in its worldview of “lawyers and ‘non-lawyers.’” The industry operates on the premise that “lawyers know best.” It is self-regulated, self-selective, (read: homogeneous), and self-contained. Its legacy stakeholders—law schools, legal providers, regulators, and the judiciary—continue to operate as a guild. They cling to stasis in a world where change has become one of its few constants.
Law’s hierarchical structure impedes collaboration in a variety of ways. The workforce is segmented by rank—usually conferred by seniority. Expertise is, likewise, often associated with years of practice, not aptitude, experience, results, professional judgment, or leadership skills. Performance, especially in law firms, is measured by input, not output. The larger the law firm, the farther removed most attorneys and legal professionals—especially younger ones— tend to be from the client. This affords them little context for what the overriding strategy is, how their work fits into it, and what the client’s objectives are and the process of meeting them. This piecemeal approach to tasks virtually eliminates the opportunity to collaborate with those that fashion the strategy or to learn by observing them. Conversely, seniors tend to pursue approaches that may have worked in the past but may not be so effective now. They can learn from younger generations that are often in the vanguard of change.
Remote working, high turnover (especially among firm associates), limited mentoring opportunity, and a tactical, short-term approach to systemic challenges are hardly fertile ground for harvesting intergenerational knowledge sharing. That’s why valuable “reverse-mentorship” programs created by a handful of corporate legal teams and law firms are a rarity. Those that exist—Reed Smith is an example— provide an opportunity to exchange perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and no-how. Equally important is that these programs build trust, shatter stereotypes, promote team building, bridge generational language barriers, and advance mutual respect, understanding, and empathy. Humanizing the legal sector would help address its health, well-being, performance, and sense of purpose.
What can the legal industry do to cure its legacy cultural hangover? How can it create an environment that is more attractive and welcoming to the multidisciplinary, holistically diverse, collaborative, curious, agile, emotionally intelligent, learners-for-life, customer-centric, socially aware, and compassionate workforce required to meet the changing needs of business and society-at-large? Is this a mirage?
Here are several recommendations for fostering a culture that defines itself by those cpre values and qualities. The points below apply not only to intergenerational collaboration but also to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the enterprise-wide digital journey.
1. Andrew Carnegie defined teamwork as “the ability to work together toward a common vision…(and) to direct individual accomplishments toward a common vision. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain common results. The legal function must jettison its zero-sum mindset in favor of collaboration, teamwork, and holistic diversity in pursuit of common goals and a shared purpose.”
Nota Bene: legal stakeholders.
2. The generations have a great deal to learn from and teach each other. This is emblematic of the value of diversity more broadly. Law’s lack of diversity, knowledge-sharing, and misalignment with its clients and the wider society have contributed to an erosion of public trust in lawyers, the legal system, and the rule of law. Without it, democracy as we know it will be in the rearview mirror.
It’s past time to reverse that trend and to create a more humane, diverse, customer-centric, socially responsible, efficient, transparent, accessible, affordable, scalable legal function that is far less lawyer-centric and far more multidisciplinary. All five generations of legal professions, together with legal consumers and those with unmet need for legal products and services should have a voice in this process.
3. The legal industry must focus more on the health and well-being of its workforce. Humanity is a good place to start; the legal industry undervalues it presently. Intergeneration collaboration will help. It provides intrinsic and extrinsic value to individuals, the wider workforce, enterprise, and its customers.
4. In September 2021, Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey reported that nearly half of all lawyers surveyed said they were actively looking for new jobs or open to offers. This suggests that money alone cannot solve the profession’s well-being, health, and lack-of-purpose issues.
5. While there are no panaceas for these interrelated challenges, they clearly emanate from a common source: an industry culture whose values no longer resonate with many in its workforce, business, and society. This is both a long and short-term issue for the legal industry. The can cannot be kicked down the road much longer.
6. Younger generations need hands-on exposure to those that have “been there and done that.” They have much to teach their elders, too. Seniors benefit from collaboration with younger generations in a legion of ways—not least of which is remaining relevant and continuing their own evolution as professionals and human beings. Those in mid-career can benefit from exposure to the generations they sandwich. They are the bridge between what was and what will be; that is valuable context for the need to adapt and forge a mindset and professional course correction.
7. Intergenerational collaboration addresses one of the legal sector’s long-term challenges: how will the next generation(s) obtain the hands-on experience to lead the organization in the future and earn the trust of colleagues and clients? Intergenerational initiatives will enable current leadership to mentor and vet leaders of the future. Conversely, younger generations will have a “safe place” to offer their elders counsel designed to make them better leaders and communicators, especially with younger workforce members.
8. Intergenerational collaboration should not only be fostered between/among licensed attorneys; it should also be multidisciplinary and cross-function as well. This derives from an enterprise culture that values a holistic, agile approach to problem solving unconstrained by rank, seniority, or the politics of internal fiefdoms.
A digitally mature enterprise is one that breaks down traditional barriers to collaboration and recognizes that complex challenges require a multiplicity of skillsets, perspectives, and experiences to solve. Legal delivery, for example, requires the collaboration of legal, data, IT, HR, design, operations, customer relations, and other disciplines to be effective. Likewise, the legal function is not self-contained; to proactively identify and defend against risk, it must collaborate with other functions within the enterprise. This is the application of Carnegie’s definition of teamwork.
9. The legal industry should embrace more flexible work arrangements to leverage its knowledge-based workforce. Presently, most firms, corporate legal teams, and other providers take an “all in or out” approach to more flexible working arrangements. They are losing valuable talent at a time when it is desperately needed. Professionals understand that flexibility does not relieve them of the obligation to meet deadlines and do what they commit to.
The industry should invest in multidisciplinary and intergenerational programs designed to promote personal engagement, shared learning, and other collaborative activities.
10. Investment in the workforce should be a cultural cornerstone, not a tag line. It is part of a long-term strategy designed to adapt and respond to the rapidly changing needs and expectations of business and the wider society. It involves its entire multigenerational workforce, not just a designated few. It is essential to organizational sustainability.
11. Many large corporations have established close ties with universities and colleges to “custom design” curricula and experiential learning programs that better prepare students for the marketplace and, for some, employment in the sponsoring company. This is a “win-win” process that the legal function should adopt. It should go beyond collaboration with law schools and also include: business, computer and data science, engineering, and other areas that intersect with legal delivery.
12. Legal providers and others in the sector should include intergenerational collaboration as part of their DEI strategic plan. It should also be a part of succession planning as well as overall strategic planning.
13. Culture is a reflection of group self-identification and its core values. Intergenerational collaboration helps bridge the generational divide by expanding learning while finding common ground. A cohesive multigenerational workforce is better equipped to meet current challenges and to anticipate new ones. In the longer term, it promotes corporate sustainability by advancing succession planning and identifying young leaders across the organization.
14. Culture may emanate from senior leadership, but it requires leaders throughout the organization. Legal culture has frowned upon mercurial rises and bold, young leaders. It would be prudent to reconsider its hardline stance. For example, senior management should consider having one or more “young leaders” (e.g. under 30) to serve in leadership, perhaps on a rotating basis. This will send out a signal that the organizational elders do not have a monopoly on good ideas or a stranglehold on leadership. While experience is certainly an element of leadership, lack of it should not hold back those who have demonstrated “the right stuff” to solve problems, inspire others, lead by example, and show compassion while being passionate.
Creating an organizational culture that is holistically diverse in its composition, unified in its purpose, and team-oriented, customer-centric, and socially committed in its orientation is a recipe for digital success. This blend is ideal for tapping into the latent potential of a multigenerational workforce to drive positive impact to individuals, the enterprise, its customers, and society.
Generations reflect the societal shifts that helped to shape them. Empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, intellectual agility, curiosity, grit and teamwork are among a short list of character traits that transcend generational, cultural, socio-economic, and other differences. When these traits are leveraged, everyone benefits.
All articles by thought leader Mark A. Cohen are also published at Forbes.
About the Author
Mark A. Cohen is the CEO of Legal Mosaic, a legal business consultancy. He serves as Executive Chairman of the Digital Legal Exchange, a global not-for-profit organization created to teach, apply, and scale digital principles to the legal function. He also served as the Singapore Academy of Law LIFTED Catalyst-in-Residence, held Distinguished Fellow and Distinguished Lecturer appointments at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and Georgetown Law as well as at numerous foreign law schools including IE (Spain), Bucerius (Germany), and the College of Law (Australia).
The first thirty years of his professional career were spent as a "bet the company" civil trial lawyer--decorated Assistant U.S. Attorney, BigLaw partner, founder/managing partner of a multi-city litigation boutique, outside General Counsel, and federally-appointed Receiver of an international company conducting business across four continents. Mark pivoted from the representation of clients to 'the business of law' approximately fifteen years ago.
He cofounded and managed Clearspire, a groundbreaking 'two-company model' law firm and service company. The Clearspire model and lessons learned from it are the foundation upon which his current activities are fused with the practice portion of his career.