There was a time when a lawyer’s working life was planned from the start – he (and it was almost invariably a “he”) did his articles, worked his way up to partner and retired at 55 with a gold watch and a pat on the back.
Today, however, the dynamics have shifted. Experienced lawyers are practising for longer and young upstarts are bypassing the corporate ladder.
While long-term data is hard to come by, the Law Society of New South Wales tracks the age of New South Wales solicitors from 2001 to 2013 (see sidebar on page 20). The most dramatic change has been in the oldest age bracket – the percentage of lawyers aged 60-plus more than doubled over the 12 years.
Lawyers aged 30 to 49 have also lost their dominance in firms. In 2011 they made up more than 60 per cent of the profession, but by 2013, the proportion eased to just over 50 per cent as older and younger lawyers gained a growing prominence.
For the first time, law firms comprise substantial numbers from four different age groups: Generation Y, Generation X, the baby boomers and the upper end of the boomers’ age bracket, known as the traditionalists. Firms that can capitalise on this trend have a chance to tap into the wisdom of the ages.
Young and hungry
While the number of lawyers under 30 has held fairly steady over the years, young people today have brought a new attitude to firms, according to legal consultant Stephen Moss of Eaton Capital Partners. He sees today’s new wave of lawyers as hugely ambitious – just not necessarily for money.
“What I see is that they are so much more selfish for what they want in their own careers – and I don’t mean selfish in a bad way,” Mr Moss says.
“It’s ambition for much more than just a pay cheque. I think they’re much more about wanting to have an impact on the world.”
In his experience, Gen Ys seek a sense of purpose and meaning in their work, prizing projects that could “change the world”.
“You have people who are not going to be so seduced by the dollar, they’re going to be more interested in social and environmental issues,” he says.
John Poulsen, managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs, believes Gen Ys get a bad rap because firms don’t always understand what motivates them.
“Some people say Gen Y is lazy, but they’re not,” Mr Poulsen says.” If they buy into what your organisation is about and they believe in it, you’ve got no one who are harder workers.”
For baby boomers trained to value earnings, loyalty and a steady job, these attitudes can be difficult to recognise. While the boomers also valued social change, many saw it as a priority separate from work, Mr Moss suggests.
“You make the money then you choose to do something appropriate with it. You can be philanthropic,” he says.
His age group learned that working was a virtue. As the children of parents who had survived the Great Depression and World War II, boomers focused on succeeding in a career that would provide them with long-term financial comfort.
“[The boomers] were motivated by hard work and money, but also the expectation that it was a job for life,” Mr Poulsen says. “I’m an old baby boomer, I was trained to get a good job and stick with it.
By contrast, Gen Y is much more likely to chop and change, chasing opportunities as they arise. According to a report by McCrindle Research, Australians aged 20-24 are three times more likely to change jobs in a given year than those aged 45-54.
To keep this generation’s attention, Mr Poulsen suggests organisations need to have a clear mission statement. However, he warns the young ones will baulk at insincerity.
“You have to be values-based and the Gen Ys will see that and put their all into it,” he says. “But the moment you don’t act in accordance with your values, they’ll spy it out very quickly.”
Mr Moss, meanwhile, suggests employers need to create opportunities for Generation Y to give back, whether through pro bono programs, social initiatives or meaningful cases.
He also recommends firms giving their youngest employees a seat at the table for decision-making. In his own experience, bringing under 30s onto one of his charitable boards has been a breath of fresh air.
“They’re just looking at things entirely differently,” he says.
Feeling the squeeze
It seems to be the baby boomers – often the parents of Gen Ys themselves – who do the most head shaking over the ‘youth of today’. However, Mr Moss warns their closest peers might actually have more to fear.
“I think in some ways Gen Ys are going to overtake the Gen Xs, almost leapfrog them,” he says.
Gen Ys can seem like attractive candidates for promotion, with their tech-savviness and minimal commitments. Meanwhile, the baby boomers and traditionalists are holding onto power for longer and longer.
“Gen X is the poor little generation stuck in the middle,” Mr Poulsen says.
“I think they’ve been caught by circumstance. They’re not the sexy Gen Ys, they’re not the lucky baby boomers.”
In his view, this age group has had a difficult run. Although Generation Y suffered the effects of the GFC when graduating university, Generation X was hit in the peak of their career-building years.
“They’re hard-working, 35 to 40 plus people who have been through times when they have had to work really, really hard in law firms,” Mr Poulsen says.
“The path to partnership is longer than it was for the baby boomers and they’ve been squeezed in the housing cycle. Probably the squeakiest of the wheels would be the Generation Xs.”
Mr Poulsen agrees there is a real possibility Gen Ys may overtake their older peers, but warns firms not to undervalue this group’s “hard, long and loyal work”. Creating opportunities for Generation X to move forward in their careers is likely to keep them happier and more engaged.
“It’s about recognising their abilities and not being overexcited about the shiny new Ys,” he said.
This generation initiated the push for greater work-life balance, Mr Moss said, and is likely to value initiatives that help it juggle work with family commitments.
Women, in particular, begin to drop away from the profession in this age group. Recent statistics from Victorian Women Lawyers show that while women form the majority of lawyers entering the profession, the number of female lawyers falls by 75 per cent between the ages of 35 and 55.
Programs targeted at retaining women after maternity leave can therefore help firms keep talented lawyers within their ranks.
A combination of longer life spans, improved health care and financial pressures have many lawyers working well into their 60s and beyond.
In particular, some firms are beginning to see the value of retaining members of the traditionalists group, those aged over 65. While classified as baby boomers, these older lawyers tend to have distinctive needs at work, Mr Poulsen says.
Often, their interests are tied less to money and more to satisfaction.
“Some of the traditionalists don’t want to be paid very much,” he says. “What they want is to have an office, somewhere they can go to, and a sense of responsibility.
“You can harness their wisdom by recognising their needs are different to Xs or Ys or baby boomers.”
Firm veterans have a wealth of life experiences and institutional knowledge to draw upon. While young lawyers may be fully qualified, the day-to-day practice of law also requires skills that cannot be learnt in the classroom.
To tap into this know-how, Mr Poulsen’s firm encourages old-timers to pass on their experiences to junior lawyers.
“We have fireside chats where older people sit down with our younger people and go through things they have learned in their life - how to sniff out a sham client, how to know if things aren’t kosher, what do you do in a difficult situation where your values are being compromised?” he says.
The bonds formed by this initiative often defy the age gap, Mr Poulsen has found.
“I’d put it a bit like a grandfather- or grandmother-type relationship, where you can pass on wisdom and have fun with the younger generation but they’re not your responsibility.”
To keep the traditionalists on board, Mr Poulsen believes flexible working arrangements are the key. In fact, he suggests flexibility is the solution to keeping all generations satisfied at a firm.
“People think flexible work arrangements are just for women who have kids, but they’re not. Flexible work arrangements can be for all work.”
Mr Poulsen cites the example of a 70-plus partner who works two days a week; Gen X fathers who leave early to care for school-age children; and a Gen Y who works three days as a lawyer, two as a dental nurse.
“It’s about different flexible things for different people and different generations.”
Mr Moss agrees, encouraging firms to rethink what they are offering employees of all ages.
“Our cry is ‘breathing new life into work’,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a time sheet, it’s all fixed-price billing. We pay people according to the work they do, not making a profit on individuals.”
All generations are expecting change, Mr Poulsen believes, and firms are already beginning to adapt.
“Lots of people think law firms are like great big supertankers that can’t change course readily, but I think the law firms are changing already.”
Talkin ’bout Generation Y
lawyer at Talbot Sayers Lawyers
Q. What do you value most in your working life?
The prestige and remuneration are all relevant, but for me it comes down to wanting to do interesting and intellectually challenging work.
Of course, law is an area where work-life balance tends to be pretty low in the list of priorities, but this is made clear to us early on and it’s not exactly a secret. My main driver has always been: do I get to do something interesting with my time and do I get to work with interesting people?
Q. Have you noticed differences in how older lawyers work compared with your generation?
The biggest and most obvious distinction is on the technological side. Older lawyers have been brought up reading everything in hardbound leather books: such was the law to them.
Even now some prefer to work off hard-copy documents, marking things up by hand. Some older lawyers are definitely more reluctant to adopt new technology.
Q. What could older generations learn from your age group?
To be honest, I think for now Gen Y has more to learn than to teach.
Q. What could older lawyers teach Gen Y?
Definitely the softer skills: the people skills, the client management, the commercial understanding. The grey-hairs of the profession understand it’s not so much about learning the law, but about using it to reach the best outcomes with your clients, as opposed to giving them technically correct but ultimately irrelevant advice.
That is not something that gets taught at law school. It comes down to experience.
Talkin ’bout Generation X
partner at Hall & Wilcox Lawyers
Q. How has the legal profession changed since you started your career?
I qualified as a German lawyer almost 20 years ago before I switched to common law and came to Australia in 2002. But generally, I think the legal profession is a whole lot better than when I started.
If we ignore technological advances, commercial lawyers are now much more attuned to their clients’ needs. Sending the client a 20-page memo when she wanted just a yes or no just doesn’t work any longer. The discussion among commercial lawyers over the past decade of being “commercial” has rubbed off.
Q. Have you noticed differences in how younger or older lawyers approach their work?
I’ve read about the differences between the generations for a generation now. I’m not sure I really agree that the younger or older generation is more or less realistic, or has vastly different expectations.
I see a lot of ambitious and bright individuals who differ little to those of my generation. And when I started there were quite a few of my very talented peers who chose different careers to get a work-life balance. They just called it something different then.
Q. Is there anything your generation could learn from younger or older lawyers?
We always need to listen. And try to understand. Although I’m nearly 50 I continue to learn every day from younger lawyers, from my peers and from older lawyers. But I’m not sure that the things I learn can be put in a generation basket. It’s just life learning from all those around us.
Talkin ’bout Baby Boomers
partner at Clayton Utz
Q. How has the legal professionchanged since you started your career?
Generally speaking, jobs seemed a little easier to come by - although it was still much harder for a women to get a job in a big firm in 1976.
Technology has also had an enormous impact. It was only in the late 70s that computers were being rolled out! There was some merit, I think, in having more time to reflect on a communication and consider a response. Now, in the era of email, people expect an immediate response and it is not always a change for the better.
Q. Have you noticed differences in how other generations approach work?
Younger lawyers are much more mobile. When I started my career, the expectation was that you joined a law firm and, if you became a partner, that is where you stayed unless perhaps, you went to the Bar or became a general counsel.
Q. What was your generation’s greatest contribution to the legal profession?
I think one of the most important contributions was the rise, particularly in large law firms, of formal pro bono practices. This reflected an acceptance that we, as legal professionals, have an obligation to contribute to society beyond servicing corporate or individual clients. We’ve also played a part in the profession’s accepting that women should be partners in law firms - that women can have families and still have very satisfying and successful careers.
At the firm where I began my career, the first female partner was appointed in the early 1980s. Now, the average percentage of female partners in firms is 15-20 per cent. It’s still not nearly high enough, but it’s a vast improvement on 30 years ago.
Talkin ’bout Traditionalists
consultant and former partner, DLA Piper
Q. Have you noticed differences in how younger lawyers work compared to your generation?
Younger lawyers seem to specialise more quickly and more narrowly. That may be a response to how the firms are structured, beliefs about successful careers, the needs and demands of clients and the increase in the sheer volume of the law. Generally, lawyers are working longer hours and are very much prepared to do so, which creates a challenge for life outside work.
To a greater degree than my generation, they are comfortable in themselves about changing careers and less focused on the security of having the one position for a long time. They also want to be appropriately rewarded and recognised for what they do.
Q. What could younger generations learn from your age group?
I hope they can take something from both what we got right and what we got wrong. What they take really depends on the individual needs. One point I frequently speak about is: never think of the law as your life; the law is only ever a part of your life. You should see it as an enabler of what you want to do. I would encourage all young lawyers, on a regular basis, to seriously question whether they are enjoying what they are doing.
Q. Is there anything your generation could learn from younger lawyers?
Working in the presence of young people challenges your traditional way of thinking, gets you out of your comfort zone and contributes to a youthful spirit as the body drags you in a different direction. For me, doing pro bono teaching with young law lecturers and students in Southeast Asia is absolutely energising.
consultant and former partner, DLA Piper
Like this story? Read more: