Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1997) comprise the largest working group in the country. They are tech-savvy, having come of age in the era of smartphones and cloud technology. As a result, most millennials can artfully multi-task. While working or studying they listen to music with earphones, respond to texts, and connect on Instagram, Snapchat and other social media using acronyms, and hashtags.
By contrast, law firms are led by Gen Xers (people born between 1965 and 1980) and Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964), who may consider this type of multi-tasking as lacking in engagement. Although law firm leaders increasingly recognize the need to understand and improve the work experience for millennials, the youngest legal talents should understand and adjust to workplace etiquette.
Last month, I joined Dina Billian, deputy director of career development at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Matthew A. Haven, a litigation attorney at Gallagher, Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore, to speak with a group of Maryland law students about navigating the workplace and understanding how best to communicate and integrate in a law firm or other legal work environment.
Below are some of the key communication tips for young lawyers we discussed:
- As a general rule, keep your door open and establish in-person relationships.
- Record a professional voicemail on your cellphone but as a general rule, refrain from texting or using your phone at work.
- Answer your cellphone, check your email often and respond ASAP to colleagues and clients even when you are not at work.
- Don’t listen to music with earphones while you are working because it gives the impression you are not focusing on your work.
- When in doubt, “dress up” and always keep a full suit/dress in the office so you are able to go to court or attend a client meeting on a minute’s notice.
Email best practices
- Err on the side of formality because writing an email is more akin to writing a letter than to sending a text.
- Proofread your email like you would a brief, a memorandum or a letter.
- Address recipients with the greetings of “Dear,” “Hello,” or “Hi” rather than “Hey.”
- Use full sentences and proper grammar. No hash tags. No emojis.
Mentors and sponsors
- Many Gen-Xers and Boomers value mentorship and they are ready to pay it forward. Rely on mentors, sponsors and other colleagues to help you navigate your first few years as a lawyer.
- Mentors are other lawyers who will provide guidance on office politics, substantive work, communication and work styles of colleagues, and more.
- Sponsors are people who will promote you and you may or may not know who they are.
Communicating about a project
- Start with refining your listening skills with eye-to-eye contact, taking copious notes and avoiding your computer and your cellphone during a conversation.
- Schedule an in-person meeting where possible to discuss an initial assignment. If the assigning lawyer is not physically in your office, then schedule a call.
- Keep lawyers informed of your progress by an in-person meeting or phone call and use email only to exchange brief information. More often than not, you will be talking about weighty issues that cannot effectively be analyzed in an email exchange.
- Ask questions and communicate confidently, particularly if you don’t understand an assignment need clarification or need to discuss roadblocks or timing issues.
- Submit your completed project error-free and on time. It’s not OK to let a project sit on your desk until the lawyer asks for it.
- Ask for and be open to feedback.
- Where possible, say “yes” to a new project. But do not take on too many projects that you will not be able to complete timely and thoroughly. Ask your mentors for the best way to manage expectation and, if necessary, how to decline a project.
- Choose to complete a deadline-driven project over a work social event, but let the organizer know you won’t be there before the event.
Randi Lewis is a Maryland-based managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa, the largest attorney search firm in the world. She also is owner of Resume Boutique LLC. She can be reached at [email protected].