Creating a Workplace for the Next Generation

Very few lawyers in modern law firms devote much attention to whether their firm will still be around a generation from now. They’re far more focused on the next hour to be billed, the next call from the client, and the next round of draws and bonuses. They’re immersed in today, and as far as they’re concerned, tomorrow — and the law firm — can take care of itself.

But if you’re taking the time to read this column, then you’re different. You’re one of the few people giving serious thought to whether the firm will still be around in 10, 20, or 50 years’ time, and what it might look like if it is. Maybe you’re a formal leader like a managing partner or practice group chair, or maybe you’re simply someone who gives some big-picture attention to the future of their workplace.

That’s admirable: It shows that you value stewardship, the concept that you should leave a place better than how you found it. And it shows you believe your firm has a distinct identity, delivering real professional value and positive community impact, that’s worth preserving and continuing in the future.

But your exceptionalism is also a problem, because the success (or even the existence) of your firm a generation from now is simply not a priority issue for most of your colleagues. You’re a long-term thinker in a short-term environment, and as you probably have already learned, that’s not always a lot of fun.

But since you’re here and you’re willing, let’s start charting a course towards achieving that goal. Here are four recommendations for creating that future workplace.

1. Make the Case for Sustaining This Firm

The foundation of any effort to maintain and grow your firm for the future is your ability to articulate why your firm is worth the effort. Why should anyone care if your firm sees another decade? If your firm disappeared, what would be lost? People can always get new jobs, clients can find new firms, capital and labor can be redistributed. What’s so special, if not irreplaceable, about your law firm that justifies working hard to save it?

Like I said at the start, you clearly think there’s something here worth preserving and continuing. But it has to be more than just “hard work and collegiality,” “a commitment to clients” or, worst of all, ”a culture of excellence.” Forget your branding buzzwords: What’s truly exceptional about your firm? Distinctive (if not unique) and praiseworthy? What draws people (clients and colleagues both) and keeps them here? What is your firm’s identity?

Hopefully, your firm’s leadership team, along with its business development and talent acquisition professionals, have gone some distance towards defining and articulating your firm’s positive differentiators. Build on their work: Discover what your people really like about being here, and what your clients experience here that they can’t get elsewhere. The first step towards sustaining your firm is making sure your firm is worth sustaining.

2. Identify and Acknowledge the Next Set of Values

The thing about building a law firm for the next generation is that the firm is for the next generation — it’s not for you. Your values (and those of your predecessors) shaped this firm, and hopefully, some of those values will be shared by your successors. But many of the firm’s current values will be foreign to your newer colleagues, as will many of theirs seem to you.

So ask your future leaders what they actually care greatly about. Be prepared if they tell you that their law firm should be:

  • Ecologically Responsible, investing serious money into shrinking the firm’s carbon footprint and mitigating some of the climate disasters they’ll have to live with;
  • Flexibly Humane, allowing everyone (lawyers and others) to work however their circumstances and well-being dictate, rather than placing client demands above all;
  • Technologically Adequate, bringing the firm’s systems, operations, and processes into line with every other type of professional business in the world;
  • Equitably Respectful, requiring more women and minority-status people be brought into leadership positions and instituting zero tolerance for toxic behavior; and
  • Ethically Ambiguous, obeying only those rules of professional conduct that seem fair, sensible, and productive to them, at whatever regulatory cost to the firm.

Some of their value choices are going to leave you aghast. Others will unquestionably reduce the firm’s profitability, and might even threaten its viability. The next generation won’t care that much. This will be their legal profession and their legal services business, not yours. Which brings me to the next point:

3. Let the “Next Generation” Plan Their Own Future

I have to confess: It’s kind of funny to watch a small group of partners in their 50s and 60s come together to chart “the future of the firm.” Even when they bring a token number of younger colleagues into the discussion, the older ones still set the priorities. The agenda invariably includes topics like growth and expansion, revenue and profitability, brand and prestige: the Boomer Trifecta.

Less funny — more poignant, really — is when the current generation asks the next generation what they care about. The next generation tells them — see above — and the current generation responds, approximately: “Well, those things aren’t important. You’re missing the point. Sit quietly as we explain to you how we’ve always succeeded in the past.” And the whole effort slides right off the rails.

If you want to build a firm for the next generation, here’s a suggestion: Let the next generation build it. Let your younger colleagues decide what matters most to them, which of their personal and professional values they wish to invest in the firm’s foundation. Will those values be different from yours? Of course they will. That’s the point.

4. Start Building That Next Firm Today

This is going to be a long-term project, and there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be around to see its fulfillment years or decades from now. But whenever the end point of this effort might be, the starting point is right now. Don’t imagine that this is something you can gently ease into over a five-year introductory period. The clock is already ticking.

A good illustration of what I mean is the process of hiring new people. Chances are, the people who are making the final decisions about which candidates should be invited to join the firm from outside (or join the partnership from inside) are senior leaders well into their careers. They know the kind of characteristics and features they like, and they’ll choose only those people who fit those criteria.

That’s the wrong approach. When you let senior people make junior hiring decisions, you’re preserving all the built-in cultural baggage that these senior people have instituted and cemented. They’re going to hire for “fit” — and you know exactly what that means. So do all your candidates who are women, members of visible minorities, or otherwise not part of the dominant culture of the last 50 years.

Let “the next generation” decide who should join the firm — or at least, give them significant power over admitting the people who will be the owners, directors, and partners long after you and your cohort have retired. This is how you start building a next-generation firm — you allow them to build it themselves.


Today’s new associates will not wait patiently for ten years before their voices are allowed to enter important conversations. They’re not going to work thousands of hours year after year, as you did, in order to earn the “inheritance” of this firm when you’re finally ready to ride off into the sunset. If you keep them outside the room where it happens, they will leave the building before you open the door to them.

How do you create a sustainable workplace for the next generation? You start by realizing that just by virtue of asking the question, you have already begun the process of passing the reins of power to that generation. Whether your firm will be around 10, 20, or 50 years from now is already their call. The sooner you and your colleagues recognize that, the sooner the transition can successfully begin.

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