Are We Listening to Millennials?

By Michael Houghton, Esquire

On August 1, 2017, the Millennial Summit or the "MillSummit" was held at the Chase Center in downtown Wilmington. The description of the event revealed a collaborative networking forum geared toward younger professionals that many of us have defined as "Millennials" or "Generation Y" (those 80 million people born between 1982 and 1997 who now make up the largest population of American workers). The MillSummit, which was planned by, among others, representatives of the State of Delaware, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, New Castle County and City of Wilmington government, the Delaware Community Foundation, and both the Delaware Barristers Association and the Young Lawyers Section of the Delaware State Bar Association, boasted an attendance of 300 professionals under the age of 40 who listened to the Governor speak on issues directly affecting them in their work and home lives. 

One of the organizers of the event, Charlie Vincent of the consulting firm Innovincent and a lawyer by training, identified as motivation for the summit several "Millennial" issues that are directly relevant to the Delaware legal community — recruitment and retention of good talent, bridging the generational divide in the workplace, and making the arts and the social life of the State relevant to economic development and job growth. These are some of the same issues I addressed as incoming President at last June's Bench and Bar Conference and in my President's Corner piece in the July/August edition of the Bar Journal

I recognize that there are many skeptics within law firms about examining Millennial issues. In fact, for some time, I was one myself. Some say that Millennial "issues" are simply the latest fad topic of discussion, put together by consultants who are collecting millions of dollars a year in consulting fees advising U.S. companies on how to deal with this "selfish" generation of workers. I have come to realize, however, that we need to be thoughtful about inter-generational differences in the legal profession and willing to discuss those differences, if for no other reason, that it is bad business to ignore them. We will not be able to recruit and retain the best of Generation Y if we are not attentive to their concerns.

For my generation of lawyers — the Baby Boomers — the recipe for success was working long hours and being prepared to spend a lot more time in the office and a lot less time with family and friends in order to achieve professional and economic success. That may well not be the recipe for our younger colleagues. The criticism of the Gen Y/Millennial professionals as entitled, spoiled, needy job-hoppers is no more accurate than viewing all Baby Boomer lawyers as self-centered, money-hungry, unsocial despots, not concerned about the quality of life of their younger colleagues. However, as the now largest segment of the American work force meets the impending retirement over the next decade of at least 38% of all law firm partners (according to reports concerning a Major, Lindsey & Africa survey), the success of our profession nationally — and in Delaware specifically — requires collaboration between the generations and a recognition of the goals, interests and needs of younger colleagues balanced by an appreciation for the values, achievements, and professional foundations laid by more senior colleagues. 

It can be a challenge for businesses and law firms to strike the right balance, and there is certainly no one particular formula for balancing these issues that will work for each firm or practice. But, we need to talk about these issues; we need to provide forums for discussion; we need to encourage our larger and smaller firms to examine inter-generational communication and the education and empowerment of young professionals to facilitate the flow of information and the exchange of experiences. 

The growth of our profession and the economy in Delaware is inextricably tied to this younger generation and our keeping them in, and attracting them to, Delaware. What I have learned in following these issues may seem obvious, but it bears noting here. Many younger colleagues are asking for:

  • More frequent and useful feedback. This is a long-standing issue in our profession. Now, more than ever, younger lawyers demand regular interaction regarding performance.
  • More transparency and more information about how the firm or business they work at functions and what they have to do to succeed. Millennials want to see the path. They demand to know what is behind the curtain. Doing so requires discussions within your own firm or business, the developing of a consensus as to how and when and what sort of information should be provided. Training in workplace behavior and culture should be part of the processes.
  • More "balance" in their life and a greater understanding of the purpose of their work (and that does not just mean getting a paycheck). I resist calling it work/life balance because younger colleagues are not reluctant to work hard, but they are committed to family and friends and not prepared to let work threaten these important relationships. Millennials want their work to have significant impact. They want to know it is meaningful. They need to see the forest for the trees. If work is interesting and meaningful, if they are made part of a team, part of a collaborative effort, they will engage as much as any other generation of lawyers. It may be a different way of working, and could impact the type of work some of them get. But, if young professionals feel unfulfilled there is a greater willingness to change jobs. The loss of many of their young colleagues will have cultural and financial consequences for our firms.
  • Stronger connections with more senior colleagues. Young colleagues may be interested in knowing more about senior attorneys, having a rapport and engaging in more frequent communications with them. There is no "one size fits all" about this, but we should assist in helping senior lawyers make the time and have opportunities to open dialogues with younger colleagues.
  • Mentoring, coaching, and an environment of continuous learning. Younger colleagues understand more senior colleagues have useful experiences and information to share, and they want more coaching and less mandating. Senior lawyers serving as mentors not only teach, but often learn from younger colleagues, whether it is being coached on the use of technology or a different take on developing trends in business or law. More structured, regular, ongoing associate training on substantive, procedural, and social aspects of the practice of law are well-received.

The MillSummit demonstrates that the Delaware business and professional community is already examining a topic important to the Delaware legal community. I hope this year the DSBA can develop a useful forum for a candid exchange and cross-generational discussion and education about these issues.  

Michael Houghton is the current President of the Delaware State Bar Association and is also Chair of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council ("DEFAC"), served as President of the Uniform Law Commission, serves as a member of the Boards of the Delaware Bar Foundation, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, the Delaware Public Policy Institute and the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation.  Mike is a partner with the law firm of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP. He can be reached at mhoughton@mnat.com.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The Journal of the Delaware State Bar Association, a publication of the Delaware State Bar Association.  Copyright © Delaware State Bar Association 2017.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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