fivehundred magazine > Recruitment > The millennial bug

The millennial bug

With today’s associates more likely than ever to switch
jobs – and willing to question the benefits of the partnership track – Definitive Consulting’s Craig Hoyland explores how law firms can retain the next generation of leaders.

A millennial (or generation Y) is typically classed as anyone born between 1980 and 1994. Therefore, in the legal profession this group includes both the junior partners and senior associates who are now close to or about to make the step up to partner, which is easier said than done in the current climate. More alarmingly however is the number of millennials who are increasingly questioning whether it’s worth them going down the partnership track at all.

For most lawyers in practice, making partner was, and for some still is, the ultimate goal, but the path is longer than it used to be, as much as ten or 11-plus years post qualification in some cases, when the norm used to be around five or six years.

From the outside, it might look like some firms will lose this talent to in-house roles and thus create a long-term issue with succession planning and to some extent that’s true, but most associates would still prefer partnership, it’s just a question of at what cost.

Those who cite an interest in being an in-house lawyer are too often focused on what they want to move away from, rather than what they trying to work toward. Too many assumptions are often made about how different life is outside of private practice when sometimes the answer is just that they’re simply working at the wrong law firm.

There are a lot of well-known generalisations made about millennials and for the most part they’re true. The differences are notably centred on culture and environment above all else – around the need for flexible working and a work-life balance; to be treated as an individual yet be part of a collaborative team; to be offered continued learning and career advancement; to be able to make a meaningful difference. Millennials will always prefer to be part of a meritocracy and so their progression should not have anything to do with rank, age, or length of service.

Take flexible working, for example. We’re often approached by associates citing that they don’t live to work and want their weekends and the occasional evening back, and no amount of money will change that.

There’s no doubt the attitude to flexible working has vastly improved and the majority, but not all firms offer it to varying degrees. However, who wants to be the associate who is deemed to not be spending enough time in the office? Some associates are concerned that this will affect their prospects versus someone who is more visible, yet millennials want to be judged on results, not just time spent in the office.

It’s often said millennials are not as loyal as previous generations, but loyalty goes both ways, and when there are environmental or career advancement concerns then it’s understandable that they have no problem jumping from one organisation to another.

Upon making partner, or for those that are already in the partnership, what comes next? That ongoing need to continue to progress doesn’t just go away upon promotion and the biggest proportion of junior partners we represent are often motivated to move because they can’t see the scope for career advancement and, despite desiring equity, are often stuck in the fixed share/salaried partnership ranks.

This motivation for equity isn’t primarily driven by earnings alone, but by the recognition, ownership, and the ability to have a voice and make a difference. However, with PEP being an increased focused for firms that feel pressure to pay their top partners competitively, as well as the rate pressures coming from clients, equity is being protected and the bar for entry is getting higher all the time.

It’s also apparent that many of those who have trained with their firm and remained loyal are finding their progression is slower than lateral hires who were able to negotiate a better deal.

Remuneration should be relative to a partner’s overall contribution to a firm and millennials are on board with that meritocratic concept, but resentment is often created when non-equity partners compare themselves to lateral hires who have not ported across the clients and revenue is expected of them. The same goes for current equity partners who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as not working as hard or contributing as much. Fundamentally, whenever we’re told by a lawyer that they’re underpaid, what they’re really saying is that they feel undervalued relative to the contribution they’re making, or in comparison to those around them who aren’t pulling their weight.

Despite what we read in the press about headline grabbing partner moves to elite US law firms paying huge sums, most individuals move for modest increases in pay or a comparable salary so long as they are genuinely offered an opportunity to be in a more favourable environment which enables them to progress, develop and reap the rewards in the medium to long term.

Overall most partners, while not actively looking for a move, are open to hearing about the right opportunity, ever mindful of the fact they need to re-evaluate whether they’re at the right firm, and if a move will better help them achieve personal goals.

There is of course no straightforward answer to addressing all the needs of an entire multi-generational workforce, but there’s a clear need for all firms to make a concerted effort to engage at every level (associate, senior associate, and partner) with what matters to individuals, to be transparent, develop effective mentoring/development programmes, and reward the
right behaviours.

Many firms are working to create the right balance but there is no perfect system and suffice to say, less of today’s associates and those to come are as committed to the partnership track. This coupled with the fact that millennial partners are more receptive than ever to move means firms must constantly look after their own if their succession plans are to be realised.

Definitive Consulting is a leading executive search firm focused solely on partner level appointments for law, accountancy, and consulting firms with offices in London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne, and Sydney.

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