The More Things Change for Law Firms, the More Important Values Become

Friday, September 7, 2018 - 11:58

 

As work-life balance gives way to work-life flexibility, painting with broad strokes is a losing management strategy, says Bob Grand, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg.

Understanding diverse perspectives, motivations and behaviors has always been an essential part of managing a law firm. For the first time in modern history, we have four generations working side by side in the workplace – traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials, with Generation Z soon to arrive.

Compounding the situation, law firms are caught between a wave of standout partners set to retire and a shrinking pipeline of incoming talent, as law school enrollment dwindles and new J.D.s gravitate toward alternatives to the big-law-firm partner-track route. And evolving workforce dynamics present a particular challenge in the venerable legal industry, where old ways die hard.

Faced with this new reality, many law firms have endeavored to improve engagement and satisfaction among young lawyers by tweaking their approaches to recruiting, employee benefits and work-life balance. These adjustments are incredibly important, but they are really just table stakes.

In my experience, the best way to navigate these dynamics is to simply have frank, open conversations with the people you’re trying to understand and serve. I recently spoke with a few of our associates to get their take on the legal workplace. Their insights affirmed for me that, ultimately, there are two fundamental steps that will separate the leaders from the laggards in the race to gain and retain talent and market share.

Matching Work Experience With Motivations

We’ve all heard about how younger generations value work-life balance and job satisfaction over financial rewards and climbing the corporate ladder. And about the many traits of millennials, both positive (tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, creative, collaborative) and otherwise (entitled, disloyal).

But law firms and other companies shouldn’t paint with such broad strokes. Instead, law firm leaders need to consider the most appropriate ways to accommodate individual work styles and how best to manage and develop those individuals based on their own abilities, lifestyles and motivators. Young lawyers I talked to seem to agree.

“Lawyers who join big law firms know to expect a demanding work environment – this is a service industry, and that won’t change,” Lauren Box, an associate in Indianapolis tells me. “What is changing isn’t the need for work-life balance but, rather, the need for work-life flexibility. We’re increasingly working under conditions suited to our strengths and schedules, which still take each of us to the same destination, just with different paths.”

Contrary to media reports and studies, I’ve found the motivations across generations are more similar than different. Younger lawyers want interesting, challenging work. They want to win, and they want financial success – just like my generation. So it’s really a matter of building on that common ground while integrating contemporary skills and interests.

“We’re working alongside partners in the truest sense, and they’re grinding in the same ways we are – it’s really energizing,” says David Frazee, an associate at Barnes & Thornburg in Washington, D.C. “That mentality is part of our firm’s DNA – everyone is working like a partner to serve clients and thinking about how their contributions are affecting the business of the firm.”

Box adds: “One thing I enjoy most about working at a big law firm is the opportunity to work on challenging, sophisticated matters that satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Obviously, getting recognized for my performance and compensated at a higher level are perks of the job as well.”

Succession Planning as a Strategic Imperative

Baby boomers make up the majority in the equity and management ranks at law firms. Senior partners are staying in the workforce longer, so transitioning lawyers and client relationships to the next generation is becoming a real challenge. Succession planning is essential to avoiding leadership vacuums and losing the institutional knowledge and experience of retiring partners.

Many law firms have reached a critical turning point for their business models. Talent pools must be evaluated, transition plans and mentoring programs implemented, and young lawyers afforded opportunities to accumulate influence and express their ideas in strategic planning.

“One way to accumulate influence is to demonstrate a commitment to the firm very early in your career – the ability to build your own practice and to develop meaningful relationships with clients and potential clients alike,” says Rubin Pusha, an associate at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. “That will give you the autonomy to build your own book and can help your peers do the same thing, as we ascend the ranks together and these shifts in leadership and culture take place.”

These measures should be seen as natural extensions of what’s already happening and not as obstacles to the stability and staying power of law firms. Leadership must make clear the opportunities for advancement in accordance with the firm’s core values.

“We trust that the firm is making sound business decisions and taking the long view relative to market trends,” Frazee says. “In the meantime, we’re focused on client service, growth and retention. That’s where we’ll make our mark.”

That sounds familiar. And it leads me to believe that, even as law firms change, the values that built our profession will remain.


Bob Grand is managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis and a member of the Government Services and Finance department. Reach him at bob.grand@btlaw.com.