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Millennials Will Change Big Law. Hah!

The Careerist

March 20, 2016

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ThMillennial, schmillennial.

That's what I say to all the fuss about those born in the last two decades of the 20th century. You'd think we're on the verge of a crisis, judging from plethora of advice about how employers should handle these young'ns. We're told they are coddled, entitled, narcissistic—unable and unwilling to adapt to current workplace. Big Law, in particular, had better watch out—because millennials will not put up with the culture, business structure and nonsense of the traditional law firm.  

Dear law firm leaders: Relax. Gen Y is not about to upset the file cart, much less start the revolution.

First, about that rumor that millennials won't hard as hard: Ridiculous. This is a generation that's been weened to perform unpleasant task since they were babies. And they have always been superb at following directions. They dutifully crammed for the ERBs to get into nursery school, juggled an array of activities (violin, soccer, ballet and the Singapore math program) by the age of nine and sacrificed vacations during their teens to volunteer in El Salvador (how else to impress college admissions officers?).

This is not a chilled group, particularly those who've made the cut to top law schools. "We are already busting our ass," says a 1-L at NYU School of Law. "It's in our nature to work hard." Adds a 2-L at University of Pennsylvania Law School: "I've mainly been exposed to a limited subset of millennials who are particularly high-achieving," voicing shock that anyone would question their work ethic.

There's also angst about millennials' job loyalty. According to Deloitte Global's 2016 study of millennials (it surveyed 7,700 employees in 29 countries), 44 percent plan to leave their jobs in the next two years, while only 16 percent plan to stay through the next 10 years.

Maybe that suggests that millennials are more fickle generally, but job infidelity is hardly a new phenomenon in law. For as long as anyone can remember, law firms don't encourage associates to linger on, anointing only a tiny fraction of their entering class to partners. And it's no secret that attaining partnership, especially the coveted equity status, is more impossible than ever. So why all this chest-beating about how hard they're trying to retain associates?

Truth is law firm tenure for the vast majority of lawyers has always been brutal, nasty and short. Firms want associates to work hard and stay put as they're useful, with the understanding that at some point their usefulness will expire. So unless you're constantly told that you're the Sure Thing (and firms don't that), most people try to beat the clock and move on.

If millennials seem less enthused about going for the grand prize than their predecessors, they're arguably better informed. "We're more realistic about making partner," says a law student at a top 10 school, adding that most law students "kind of look down at people" who say they want to stay at firms and be partners. "They seem so naïve."

And what about the notion that this is the generation that will make work/life balance a priority and equalize the sexes? Again, realism prevails. "Ideally, I'd like balance in a perfect world and have weekends to myself," says the NYU law student. "But we all have realistic view of law firm hours."

"People don't want to work for sweat shops," admits another student at Penn, adding that female law students, in particular, pay attention to firms with good maternity leave policies and family-friendly reputations. But do male students care about paternity leave? "Uh, that hasn't come up," she says. (Sadly, all this comports to Deloitte's millennial study, which shows that women care more about work/life balance, and that men are more likely to seek senior level and top jobs.)

Those kinds of attitudes are not the stuff of revolutionaries. Millennials that I talked to practically chuckle at the notion that they have been deemed the disrupters that will change Big Law—like dismantle billable hours and make the profession more meaningful and humane. 

"Revolutionize practice?" asks the NYU 1-L. "Our goal isn't so lofty. Honestly, we just want to get a summer job."

vchen@alm.com

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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