Leadership & Diversity - Bridging Generations of Lawyers

Published on Mar 1, 2021

When World Law Group embarked on a commitment to look at generational trends, a global pandemic certainly wasn’t part of the plan. However, these events led to an acceleration of trends and uncovered a few unexpected silver linings.

Beginning in the fall of 2019, World Law Group, in consultation with Jill Long of Glassman Coaching, began to look at what’s working and what’s not as firms face shifting generations in the workplace through a series of surveys, small group discussions, and panels. We heard from over 200 members.

The workforce today comprises five generations — the largest number of generations in the workforce in history. Millennials make up the greatest percentage and are on track to represent 50% of the workforce soon. From the traditionalists to Generation Z, law firms are already faced with a dynamic and ever-changing landscape, and the steep challenge of creating a workplace where each generation can thrive — then throw in a pandemic.

We heard a resounding confirmation that firms struggle with generational issues with the most challenging topics being: (1) retention of talent, (2) leadership training and opportunities, and (3) strategic planning.


“We struggle with incentivizing talent to commit long-term to the firm” – survey comment

The business cost of lawyer turnover is significant. Firms report that younger generations tend to leave early in their careers. This is disruptive to firm life and has a big impact on profits. That said, we also heard from junior lawyers that they have no problem making long-term commitments when they have ample career growth opportunities.

The takeaway here is to build a deeper understanding of what junior lawyers are looking for and then take a hard look at firm culture and operations. It’s clear that simply money and the promise of partnership are not the keys and instead, junior lawyers want autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Firms that are listening to the next generation and adapting report increased retention. These are some of the programs firms have implemented:

  • increased technology investments to support remote work and flexible work arrangements,
  • work hard, play hard models – allowing mini sabbaticals or extended vacations for young lawyers who go above and beyond, and
  • choose-your-own-adventure career support – firms with internal career coaches that allow young lawyers to explore multiple practice areas before deciding on a final area to build long-term expertise.

“Some prior concerns related to remote working are disappearing with the pandemic but, at the same time, the value of physical presence in the office has increased for a sense of belonging and cohesion, and for onsite training,” shared Spanish member firm Cuatrecasas.

As a result of the pandemic, firms worldwide quickly pivoted to a work-from-home model. While some of the young lawyers who were craving flexibility to work from home now see the other side of a work-from-home model, partners who may have been resistant to the shift now see the perks of flexible work arrangements. Most firms expect to return to the office eventually but agree we will see the home and business offices overlapping going forward.

“The pandemic has generated the need for more flexible and personalized careers, which enable us to provide an appropriate response to the concerns of professionals in a constantly changing environment,” said member firm Cuatrecasas.

Leadership Training & Opportunities

“It can be challenging to have partners adopt a mentality that leads to easier succession and better leadership training of the next generation” – survey commen

Although almost all firms reported how important it is to find ways to successfully elevate the next generation of leaders into firm leadership positions for their long-term success, few firms felt they had it figured out.

Pain points came in two specific areas: first, member firms report a struggle with how to provide adequate leadership training to the next generation of leaders; and second, firms see an increase of senior partners working later into life and holding on to leadership positions and key client relationships.

Here are a few programs we heard about that seem to be helping:

  • routine investment in formal leadership training for senior associates and new partners,
  • guaranteed compensation for senior lawyers to support their decreased billable hours as they invest in transitioning client relationships,
  • professional executive coaching for leaders stepping down to support the transition back to full-time practice, and
  • deputy leadership roles to give junior partners a “chief of staff” style role 1-2 years prior to taking over key firm management – helping both senior lawyers transition out and junior partners prepare for leadership.

The pandemic may have actually exposed opportunities with respect to client exposure and training opportunities for young lawyers. Virtual meetings make it easy for junior lawyers to participate in key client meetings, providing learning opportunities and “face time” with clients. What may have been a barrier, the optics of too many lawyers in the room – and at what cost that was for the client – has been at least partially removed.

“By September 2020 our survey data told us that while our junior lawyers recognized that the firm’s unrelenting focus on our clients had been successful and was key to the sustainability of the organisation, there was now also a clear message that it was time to also focus in a really explicit way on the professional development of our junior lawyers,” said MinterEllison, Australian member firm.

Strategic Planning

“Biggest challenges: Innovation in leadership. Biggest opportunities: Innovation in leadership.” – survey comment

Leadership demands of law firms have changed dramatically over the last two decades. It’s no longer enough to be brilliant practitioners with long-standing client relationships to compete in today’s legal marketplace. Strategic planning lags behind in cultivating innovative ways to compete and deliver client services. Firms identified a challenge in bringing innovation and leadership skills such as servant leadership, vulnerability, and cultural competency into strategic planning efforts. Many firms mentioned that tapping the next generation of leaders would be the key to strategic planning success.

Some initiatives helping bring new voices into strategic planning include:

  • innovation committees that are multi-generational and tied directly to strategic planning activities, and
  • making strategic planning a constantly present and dynamic part of firm life rather than a “check-the-box” activity every 5-7 years.

Firms are grappling with their strategic plans right now from what kind of space will be needed in the future to technology and programs to create integrated culture. It is too soon to say what trends will emerge, but certainly new visions will come from the 2020 experience.

The pandemic has made all of us a bit more human as we have our everyday lives happening in the background of those virtual meetings. Nobody feels that they have generational diversity all figured out. The COVID-19 pandemic brought out many young lawyer voices who report that the shift to work from home had been a welcome change. We heard that individuals felt invigorated by more flexibility and found themselves more engaged and productive. Most reported that they do not plan to return to five-days a week in the office. As working from home continues, some are experiencing feelings of isolation and longing for the office.

“Equally an appreciation of the unprecedented public health challenge unfolding, given our role as advisors to government, meant that very quickly our leaders understood there was in fact “no playbook.” Instead, we had to be guided by our shared purpose and values; we had to ensure that all lines of communication were open; that we made it clear that all ideas were welcomed,” said MinterEllison.

“We needed to set aside traditional assumptions and ways of thinking and instead as leaders be nimble and innovative; transparent and confident that even if we didn’t have all the answers our leaders would bring our organisation, clients and people through the crisis and we’d emerge stronger than when we entered those early days.”

The “silver lining” of the pandemic is innovation at play – taking a challenge and finding a way to inspire and engage employees. As younger lawyers lead the way on permanent work-from-home policies, firms will have a perfect opportunity to practice new ways of engaging today's multi-generational workforce.