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In defense of Millennials (or, what do young lawyers want?)

I’ve been a part of this conversation way too often, and the Question never has a satisfactory Answer.

Older lawyers (no disparagement intended — to a young lawyer, you’re all older. Also, I hope to be “older” someday, both in terms of age, experience and true wisdom), thinking that I have some insight, ask me how to inspire members of my generation, why they are not involved, and why they are so indifferent.

I have a good Answer, but there is no easy solution. If you bear with me, I’ll give you The Answer. First, the back story.

Colorado’s U.S. District Judge John Kane gave his 50th Class Reunion speech at the University of Denver College of Law in May. You should read it. It is thought-provoking.

The focus of the speech is on the new generation of lawyers rising up — “Millennials,” we are called. Some use the term Generation Y — born roughly between 1980 and the early 2000s.

(Sidenote: I have no idea if I am Gen-X or Gen-Y: a 1978 birth date leaves me in the middle. Truthfully, all of these classifications seem overly simplistic, and I don’t feel a part of any such grouping. Did the baby boomers have this problem?)

As an indirect way to get to the relevance of Millennials to the retiring generation, Judge Kane said to his fellow near-retiring classmates that they are all at the age where they are asking three primary questions:

  1. When do I get out of here?
  2. How do I get out of here?
  3. What do I want to leave behind when I go?

You know what? We Millennials have three questions, too.

  1. How do I provide for myself and my family?
  2. How can I be fulfilled and happy?
  3. What do I want to create and leave behind when I go?

Assuming these questions are true, then we really are not that different. Judge Kane says that we spend more time texting, tweeting and Facebooking than actually talking on the phone. True. Judge Kane says that most of our messages have no substance, like “I’m going to Starbucks.” True, but most phone conversations have the same non-substantive qualities.

And you know what? I have witnessed incredibly profound and thought-provoking Facebook status posts that have the capacity to start a deep conversation, to reveal something unknown about a friend, and to create a true understanding between people. Maybe our communication methods are weird and alien to older lawyers, but that doesn’t make it superficial. Someone probably once said of the telephone that it would prevent people from really talking to each other. It has not.

The truth is, we want the same things. Judge Kane and his colleagues have had their time and are looking forward to some “time in the sun.” My generation wants to get to that point. We want what Judge Kane has had — a prosperous and successful career, and the chance to make a difference. The only difference is that we do not have it yet. We have a lot of work to do. They have already done their work.

Maybe I cannot speak for my generation, whatever generation that is. But the young lawyers I know work really hard. I know lawyers at big firms who put in 12-hour days and weekends to impress the boss and get the work done, to the detriment of their families. I know lawyers fresh out of law school who struggle to make ends meet in a solo practice, but who still take on those unbelievably difficult cases that seasoned attorneys would not take, all because they believe in the client.

I know lawyers at small law firms who took the first job they could get, ended up loving it, and remain loyal to bosses and colleagues, even if they end up somewhere else. Loyalty should not be measured by a dogged decision to remain in one place when it is not the right decision.

As young lawyers, we cannot really get to our second and third questions without resolving the first one. I’m lucky. My first question is answered, and I’m still struggling with No. 2 and No. 3. I hope I am the type of person who continues to struggle with those questions.

My definitional problem cannot be unique. I am not sure what generation I embody. Like most people, I tend to socialize and interact with people like me and who I want to be like. That means I spend my days at a law firm with other hard-working lawyers for whom I have great respect. That means I spend some nights at a second job with people working hard to support their families, real people who have the same problem as many new lawyers — making ends meet. That means I spend my weekends with my wife, a true thinker who has more emotional intelligence than any other person I’ve ever known.

I bet Judge Kane spends time with people like him. I bet his 50th class reunion includes mostly people who have been successful, who are proud enough of their careers to show up to the reunion. I bet Judge Kane’s generation (whatever generation that is), also has those people who just did not bring their A-game, who decided not to show up at all, or who did not care about leaving a legacy. Just like my generation.

I promised The Answer, and here it is: Judge Kane and I agree that the way to help young lawyers to care is to take them under your wing. I’m talking to you, Older Lawyer. Take them to seminars. Introduce them to other lawyers. Teach by example. Share your values.

I can credit my entire approach to the law, and much of my approach to life, to my mentor who helped to mold me from an undifferentiated mass of clay. He taught me. He supported me. He encouraged me. And I hope he feels like Judge Kane does:

“That is a legacy worth leaving.”

2 comments

  1. Lila Shapiro-Cyr

    Incredibly thought-provoking John. I think that this “communication” gap is akin to the music-gap that pervades every generational split — just because you don’t like “that kind of music” doesn’t mean it isn’t music. . . I mean, that’s how rock-and-roll started, isn’t it?

  2. Unfortunately my experience of newer lawyers has not been the same. I’ve had associates return files to me, stating that they cannot complete discovery responses because the client’s phone number is not in the file. I’ve worked with an associate who turned in a draft of a motion – poorly done and in need of extraordinary revision – on the night before the motion was due, at 5 p.m., with a friendly wave as they headed out the door. I spent time mentoring and guiding and sharing war stores with these same associates until I realized that the transaction was entirely one sided. The Young who wonder why they aren’t getting the attention they believe they deserve should ask themselves whether they are providing anything of value to the Older Lawyers they work for.