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Sybil Procedure: Regarding law firms, millennials have a point

Sybil Dunlop//May 24, 2019//

Sybil Procedure: Regarding law firms, millennials have a point

Sybil Dunlop//May 24, 2019//

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Sybil Dunlop
Sybil Dunlop

Word on the street is that millennials are ruining everything. They don’t buy houses. They don’t buy cars. They don’t buy groceries, diamonds, or gym memberships. They don’t go on dates. They don’t join bar organizations. And now we can add one more item to the list—they don’t want to make partner.

A new study conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa, in conjunction with Above the Law, suggests that millennials view partnership as less desirable now than a generation ago and view the law firm model as fundamentally broken.

I think they’re right.

The traditional law firm model encourages junior attorneys to bill lots of hours. Traditional firms reward the originators of business, not those doing the work (a method that mathematically favors older partners — who are statistically more likely to be male and white too). And law firm success is often determined by subjective criteria — how a partner feels about you and your writing, your oral advocacy skills, and your interactions with clients (perceptions that are usually impacted by biases, with most people favoring those who look like them). In other words, at their worst, law firms can be sweatshops that are set up to favor those who most resemble the current partnership.

Millennials are particularly depressed about sexism in the workplace and the gender pay gap. But there is a gender gap even in how the gender gap is viewed — 45% of millennial women strongly agreed that law firm culture is sexist, compared with just 14% of millennial men. Fifty-six percent of women (and only 18% of men) strongly agreed that there is a gender pay gap. Perhaps because of these differences in perception, millennial women were also more likely to prioritize diversity and inclusion: 63% of millennial women strongly agree that a diverse and inclusive workforce should be a priority compared with 37% of millennial men.

But here’s the inspiring news. Millennials don’t want to scrap the whole system, they want to make it better. They overwhelmingly report that they aiming to transform law firm policies and culture for the better.

So what should these ambitious millennials be doing to change law firms? Some humble advice from me (a Gen-Xer) to the millennials who hope to make us better:

First, the bad news. I don’t think anyone can learn to do this profession well without putting in the time. And the more time you put in, the better you will be. This doesn’t mean that we should reject part-time partnership tracks. It just means that we all need to admit that the person who is billing 10,000 hours in their first five years in practice will likely become a better attorney faster than the person who bills 10,000 hours in their first eight years of practice. This conclusion should be intuitive — the more cases you work on, the more strategies you see implemented, and the more ideas bring to your next case. So while millennials rightly emphasize that work-life balance is an important factor (and 75% would trade compensation for more time off, a flexible work schedule, or a cut in billable hours) it is impossible to get good at something without doing it. And the more you do it, the better you will be. Let’s acknowledge this reality as a foundational principle.  This can’t be changed.

But there remains lots of room for institutional change:

  • Outdated origination practices need to stop. We can’t reward partners who brought in a client 30 years ago at the expense of the folks who are keeping clients happy and doing good legal work. Ideally, firms will figure out ways to identify who is key to client relationships — regardless as to whether that “key” is maintaining a relationship with the client or doing the work that makes the client happy. But no one should be getting credit for anything that isn’t happening today. In other words, no credit for landing the client 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.
  • Law firms (and clients) should move away from the billable hour. A 2015 study titled “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” found that predictors of well-being decreased when firms required lawyers to bill more hours. And lawyers with higher billable requirements cited less internal motivation and satisfaction as well as increased levels of alcohol abuse. But clients are also happier without billable hours—the rigid structure doesn’t provide certainty of cost to clients. And it prevents law firms from being aligned to client interests. Let’s bill for value, not hours. Everyone will be better off.
  • Law firms need to double down on diversity and inclusion. Currently, law is the least diverse profession in the nation. Yet we know that diverse teams make better decisions. We know that clients are demanding diversity. And we know that the top talent is diverse. We also know that inclusive teams generate better outcomes than teams where only the senior-most partner is free to speak or offer strategy advice. How do firms double down on diversity and inclusion? This is a much longer topic, but, in brief, they can recruit diverse attorneys and ensure that they are given interesting work, helpful feedback, and mentorship. This requires real effort—if law firms keep doing what they are doing right now, nothing will change.

I don’t mean to bash law firms. As an institution, they have a lot to offer both attorneys and clients. I love working in a law firm because I am surrounded by smart colleagues with whom I can share ideas, strategize, and think about how to best serve our clients. Clients can benefit from being able to engage larger teams than they can find in-house; folks with specialized knowledge who can partner with them to solve hard problems.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Firms can be great. But firms will have to change. If millennials remain disenchanted, fewer talented people will attend law school (this is already happening), fewer talented people will choose firms over other legal jobs, and clients will have no reasons to turn to firms for top talent. These market realities should logically cause firms to change their ways. But the question always is whether firms will respond to market pressures or dig their white-shoes in and die a slow death.

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