Learn more about these top management strategies for law firm owners
Seminal moments in history define the times and change the landscape permanently. Before and after. Before 9/11 and after. Before Pearl Harbor and after. Before and after Hurricane Katrina. Before the Nixon tapes and after. And for those of us living in 2023, it will be before and after the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Much has been written about how the pandemic changed our world, starting with the horrific loss of human lives. But the calamity also brought profound changes to the workplace and to our daily lives as well.
At the start, the world suddenly turned inward. Stores closed. Businesses shut down, many never to reopen. Law firms were forced into remote operations. Zoom meetings became the order of the day, and businesses not rendered essential went remote or bust. Long after the shutdowns were over, many businesses continued to operate remotely.
Even after the pandemic began to subside, the world did not return to “normal.” Many workers did not return to their old jobs. While some in the workforce were eager to return to the brick-and-mortar office, many were not, particularly Gen Z’s and Millennials. The pandemic may well have served as a great awakening for many people in the job market.
Not surprisingly, a significant number of people found that they preferred their workday to be built around their kitchen table or home office. They wanted to have their pets as companions throughout their workday. They wanted to avoid the long hours they’d previously spent in commutes to and from the office. And they decided that leisure wear trumped business suits permanently.
This shift in mindset is consistent with an underlying current that has been making itself felt even before the pandemic, the Millennials, and Gen Z value system. They regard work in a different light. They operate from a different mindset.
These generations of lawyers and staff want “work-life balance.” And they will avoid applying for positions that won’t afford them this balance. Similarly, they won’t stay in positions that aren’t conducive to this lifestyle.
Old schoolers like myself, who came of age in the 1980’s era of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, were willing to pay our dues, work the long hours, generate the billables, in the pursuit of our version of the American dream.
The term “work-life balance” wasn’t in our vocabulary. We considered such a notion untenable as young professionals. We didn’t even consider it a legitimate concern. However, those days and those attitudes are over.
Subsequent generations see the world quite differently. Understanding and then leveraging this distinction to your law firm’s advantage is essential if you want to hire and retain talented lawyers and staff. Because here’s the bottom line: The old pre-pandemic normal hasn’t returned and isn’t likely to do so anytime soon, if at all.
Being able to work remotely allowed Millennials and Gen Zs to have the work-life balance they craved. They suddenly had the freedom to work from their home, travel trailer, the local coffee shop, or even a log cabin in the Adirondacks. Remote work positions gave them time to spend with friends and family and freed up more time to pursue their passions and hobbies, as well as any side-hustle online businesses.
In addition, these younger generations in today’s workforce don’t want to be defined by their jobs.
They want to work with and for companies that share their core values, are environmentally conscious, and are committed to giving back to the community and the world at large.
They want employers whose core values align with their own.
This large segment of our society refuses to make the tradeoffs that prior generations may have done or that pre-pandemic traditional brick and mortar jobs required. They are even willing to make less money or accept less upward mobility rather than compromise on their needs and expectations.
Consequently, many of these young workers refused to return to their old brick-and-mortar law firm positions after the pandemic subsided. And if they aren’t able to secure a suitable position, young lawyers have opted to start their own digital law firms instead. Buoyed by their innate knowledge of the digital world, they are much more likely to strike out on their own.
Millennials and Gen Zs have grown up in the Internet age where selfies are second nature. They understand and can navigate the social media platforms with ease. They can become or cater to social media influencers. They can turn out cool videos for TikTok on the fly. They excel in the hashtag world. Thus, hanging their digital shingle isn’t nearly as daunting as it once was for prior generations fresh out of law school. And with today’s ever-evolving technology at their fingertips, they can operate a virtual law firm and leave the traditional brick and mortar law firm behind.
It’s no wonder that law firms all across the country are asking a resounding question: Why is it so hard to hire good lawyers these days?
But there’s no use bemoaning the state of things.
Instead, why not set about leveraging the Millennial and Gen Z mindset and this new world order to your law firm’s advantage?
While many law firm owners will remain unmovable, locked into yesterday’s image of a law practice, you have the opportunity to make a pivot: You can capitalize on this changing dynamic by creating a workplace and positions that accommodate the Millennial and Gen Z mindsets.
If you want to attract and retain young lawyers and staff, you need to offer them the lifestyle they want- with built-in flexibility. If you want to move your law firm forward, you must embrace this new generation’s value system, even if it cuts against your personal work ethic principles. You don’t have to agree with it, but you must accept it and use it to your firm’s advantage. This is a time when the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer works well – God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
You can’t change the value systems many Gen Zs and Millennials have.
You can’t go back to a time when employees didn’t know what remote work looked or felt like. The new normal is the real normal. Savvy law firm owners must embrace the change rather than trying to fight against it.
With this new reality in mind, here are some suggestions to help you attract, hire, and retain young lawyers and staff.
1. Create fully remote or hybrid remote positions in your firm, for both staff and lawyers.
This feels counterintuitive. Old school thought is that I need to see my employees at their desks to know they are working. Not so. The Pandemic shutdowns showed us that remote work is possible, and many employees are even MORE productive when they can work alone, rather than immersed in the drama and water cooler chit-chat that is an inevitable byproduct of brick-and-mortar offices. Be willing to hire employees and attorneys and trust them to get their work done. Of course, for this to work well, you must establish some built-in systems that provide needed oversight, management, and accountability. You must be willing to run reports that let you or your upper management know the hours staff are actually spending at their computers. You need to know when/if deadlines and benchmarks are being met, and quickly step in when they are not.
If you feel employees need to spend some time in the office, then create hybrid positions that require them to work in the office 3 days per week but allow them to work from home the other 2 days. Or visa versa. Hybrid positions, when feasible, give you and your staff the best of both worlds.
Give your young lawyers the freedom to work whenever and wherever they choose, as long as they are always in court on time and producing the results you expect. Hold them accountable and call them on the carpet if they fail to meet or exceed your expectations. They will likely respect you for the oversight. But remember to give them praise and affirmation, as well, when it is warranted.
2. Consider hiring part-time employees and lawyers.
Rather than having one full-time case manager managing 100 cases, consider hiring 2 part-time staff and divide the cases between them. The same goes for your attorney positions. You may be surprised how many young professionals are looking for part-time gigs that allow them to produce quality legal work, but also affords them the opportunity to pursue their other interests, or responsibilities. This is especially true for young women who are juggling career responsibilities with child-rearing. Don’t assume that because they are working part-time, that their work will be subpar.
For years I home-schooled my children and maintained a part-time adoption law practice from home. I certainly took my law practice responsibilities seriously and made it to court on time and prepared. My clients were more than satisfied with my work and I had the ability to spend more time with my children during their critical early years. Back then, I would have never found an employer willing to give me the flexibility I needed, so I started my own home-based law practice instead.
3. Display your firm’s community involvement prominently on your website and find ways to mention this in your job descriptions.
Millennials and Gen Zs want to work for companies that are committed to making the world a better place and that are willing to put their time and money where their mouth is. Law Firms are typically involved in community-sponsored projects, so make sure that you maintain this commitment and communicate it in places that prospective candidates can see it, including in job descriptions and on your firm’s website.
4. Maintain a commitment to and culture of work-life balance for all staff and attorneys. Communicate this commitment to them and to prospective hires in job descriptions and interviews.
Create a culture that values work-life balance. Encourage them to take time for community involvement and family events and responsibilities. Give them the flexibility to work alternative hours when necessary. They may want to come in early, stay late, or work on the weekends so that they can take time off during the work week. Trust them to meet or exceed your expectations. Many companies are now taking a tip from our European counterparts and using a 4-day work week model. You may find that your employees are even more productive in those 4 days than they ever were in the 5-day week. This is attracting and retaining this younger segment of the workforce.
Consider making work-life balance and commitment to being a vital part of your community as part of your law firm’s core values. Add specific language about your firm’s commitment to staff work-life balance in your job descriptions to attract prospective hires. Reiterate this commitment in interviews with prospective candidates. Make it an avid part of your law firm’s culture. Your firm’s clear commitment to creating and maintaining a culture that embraces work-life balance will resonate with talented Millennials and Gen Zs and increase your likelihood of retaining these employees and attorneys for the long haul.
We aren’t likely to return to a pre-pandemic era. Remote work and hybrid remote work is here to stay. Many of your hiring prospects expect this option and they will not settle for less. If you are serious about hiring talented Millennials and Gen Zs, the times should dictate the means. Be willing to shift your mindset, embrace the realities of this new world order and leverage it to your firm’s advantage.
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