Generation Y values supervision, feedback and the experience of their elders, more so than previous generations.
Speaking at The College of Law's Australasian Lecturers' Conference in Sydney last week, Professor Neil Gold highlighted clear variances in the approach to learning by different generations.
"Gen Y has a huge number of strengths...For law firms it's a matter of taking advantage of these qualities," said Gold, adding that Gen Y's interest in "working together to learn" and its appreciation of supervision and feedback is not nearly as prevalent in the Baby Boomer generation.
"When Gen Y goes to inspect a university for example, they go with their parents. Whereas Baby Boomers wouldn't have wanted to be with their parents, they wanted to be more independent. In a sense, they 'knew better'," said Gold.
"It's not that Gen Y isn't independent, but it values the input of people with more experience too, and that's a positive thing."
Gold's opening presentation was based upon "writings over a period of time" rather than any empirically-based evidence of Gold's own. Throughout his nearly 40 years in university teaching and management, he has held a host of senior positions in law faculties around the world, established the first skills-based Practical Legal Training (PLT) program in British Columbia, Canada, wrote the report on which the New Zealand PLT system is based, and led the set-up of new curriculum concepts and new programs in a number of places, notably Hong Kong.
The most prevalent concern for law firms today, Gold said, is the influx of Gen Y who will "soon take over the workplace in numbers, if not in authority".
"Baby Boomers are going to soon retire from senior roles and firms will be taken up by the Generation X group, which is smaller and will be impacted significantly by Gen Y," said Gold, adding that Australian materials refer to Gen Y as between 17 and 23 year olds, while in the US the consensus is closer to between 14 and 29 years.
"If you use something in the middle, you realise that it's only a small group of people who are now Gen Y, in the early stages of their legal career. Suddenly, they will flood in over the next several years so the changes are going to be very dramatic."
Gold argued that Gen Y has, in the past, been forced into "some kind of conformity" in the workplace, and that law firms are just becoming aware of its true presence.
For law firms it is a matter of harnessing the qualities of Gen Y, according to Gold, including an experimental, innovative, willing and enthusiastic attitude: "Fame for multitasking and embracing of new technologies and approaches to doing things without fear."
"When Gen Y say, 'I don't have time for this', they're not being disrespectful. They're just trying not to overload themselves. They want to balance all their work and do a good job. They also want more in their life beyond work. All the previous generations were very work orientated, especially the Baby Boomers," he said.
But for all their strengths, Gold noted that Gen Y is very "loose" with its socialising and communication.
According to Gold, while Gen Y's familiarity with technology can be used to help enhance law firm communication, if left undisciplined within the practice of law, it presents potential concerns for particular legal matters.
"Gen Y, in that sense, needs guidance on how to better communicate in instances where informal and casual communication may affect the legal result," he said.