One of the most common complaints I hear from partners – especially those in the boomer generation – is that younger associates today are not willing to work as hard as partners. This leaves many partners frustrated at not getting the support they need and working even longer hours to ensure that the client’s work is completed on time.
When I talk to younger lawyers about this, they are equally frustrated by what they see as unreasonable demands from senior lawyers and a lack of acknowledgement about how hard they are working. So what is contributing to this generation gap?
I believe that many younger associates are willing and do work hard but often it doesn’t look that way to older lawyers. Here are some of the challenges that younger lawyers face that the boomer partners did not when they started practicing.
Women lawyers: Now that women make up one third of the profession, they bring different challenges from maternity leave to greater domestic responsibilities while still meeting client demands. With parents living longer, elder care often means that family responsibilities extend well beyond the children leaving home.
Married men: Many younger male lawyers are married to women in equally demanding jobs such as law, medicine or business. The days of the at-home wife handling all the domestic and childcare responsibilities so her lawyer husband can work 60 hours a week, are fast disappearing. Most men must take a much larger role in picking up children from daycare, helping with homework, taking on more domestic responsibilities etc. Both parents are working late into the night even when there is a nanny or other help in the home.
More hands-on fathers: Many younger men want to have a much bigger role in their children’s lives than the fathers of the boomer generation did. Young fathers today want to coach the soccer team after work; attend the afternoon parent teacher meetings and read to their children at night – all things that my father left to my mother to handle so that he could relax in the evening after a hard day at work. I applaud this change as it means we are raising healthier children and both families and society will benefit. However, it is a challenge for law firms who need associates available at times when family responsibilities clash.
Less extended family support: It is more common today for younger lawyers to move to where the jobs are. This often means living far from the support of grandparents and other family members who can help with childcare. Parental leave for fathers is often a necessity if there are no grandmothers nearby to help a new mother get settled at home.
Business at the speed of light: Technology as we know, has speeded up business and the practice of law. We draft on line with little thinking time, as the contract must be completed immediately. If you are a senior lawyer, you can do this with much less stress. Junior lawyers now practice at a speed that was unthinkable even 10 years ago. This puts enormous stress on younger associates who must make decisions often without the benefit of research, consultation or experience. Is it any wonder that burnout is high amongst younger lawyers?
Less mentoring: Most senior partners received much more informal mentoring when they were starting out in law. They were taken to court more frequently; partners debriefed a big transaction upon completion; colleagues had more time to teach younger lawyers because business moved at a slower pace. Younger lawyers receive much less mentoring today. This means more stress and longer hours as they struggle to teach themselves the law without the benefit of senior lawyer guidance.
Higher billable targets: A partner recently told me that the minimum hours in her law firm have increased by 200 hours a year since she started working there as a newly called lawyer. That is an extra 4 to 6 weeks of work that must be squeezed into the year by partners and associates alike. While this increase has come gradually over the years for some partners, younger lawyers start out with this increased expectation and pressure.
Global competition: With global law firms and clients; contracts being drafted in India overnight; clients in different time zones wanting to speak on the phone during the night – all this puts younger, less experienced lawyers under more stress.
Client expectations: Many associates tell me that partners will promise work to a client in a very short time frame when the client doesn’t need it done that quickly. Partners argue that the faster they can turn around the work, the better chance they have of keeping that client from taking their work elsewhere. Associates say that the cost of unreasonable turn-around times is burned out associates who leave rather than be under such extreme stress.
No more weekends: We must now be available to our clients 24 / 7. There is no longer a distinction between weekdays and weekends, workdays and vacations. Clients (and partners) expect us to be available every day of the year and it is difficult to feel that we are ever away from the office.
While senior lawyers will argue that they have always worked weekends even in pre-blackberry days – the difference is that a lawyer could choose to go on vacation or spend Sunday with his family without the client expectation that the lawyer be available. Most lawyers did not list their home phones in the directory so clients could not reach them outside business hours. Today, this continuous availability is an added stress that all lawyers must handle.
Face time: Many law firms still believe that all lawyers must be in their offices from 8am to 8pm (or at least 6pm) 5 days a week and some part of Saturday. Younger lawyers see this as the advantage of technology – they can be working hard from home or a coffee shop getting more accomplished and saving time on commuting while looking after a sick child or working in a less stressful environment. The client cannot tell where the lawyer is working and doesn’t care.
Partners insist that they need to be able to speak to the associate face to face to hand out work or give instructions. Associates say this can be accomplished just as easily over the phone or email. Obviously some time must be spent in the office meeting with clients and partners. But the virtual law office is becoming more and more common where lawyers meet only by phone or over the Internet and rarely come together in person.
Associates seen leaving at 5pm: Many associates are seen “waltzing out the door” at 5 o’clock often to pick up a child from daycare or because the associate would rather work from home. Partners are appalled. However, those same associates may be working at home from 9 to midnight. Flexible work times are the only way that working parents especially and all lawyers can juggle the many demands on their time.
Commuting: Housing prices in most Canadian cities have forced many younger associates (and partners) to move further away from downtown offices. This plus increased traffic means associates are likely spending much more time commuting than we did 20 years ago. This is another reason that younger lawyers want to work from home so that they can get more done. They are working hard – it’s just not in the office.
Boomer parents: Many younger lawyers grew up watching their boomer parents – both their mothers and their fathers – knock themselves out at work and come home too exhausted to have much energy left over for the kids or themselves. Not surprisingly, today’s 25 year olds are saying – is this the life I want?
I believe that younger lawyers are working hard – it’s simply that they are working in a much faster, more competitive world with higher targets and much greater personal demands. For many of these lawyers, they are giving all that they have to give.
Associates know that client work is urgent and must get done. But they need support by way of flexible work times, working from home, part time or shared work and offices, more innovative use of technology, better mentoring – whatever it takes to support all lawyers in this fast paced world.
Law firms who want to keep their best talent – both male and female – associates and partners – will need to figure out how to support all their lawyers who work in a world with increasing personal, social and business pressures. The world has changed. We need to find ways to change with it.