Learning From Millennials
By Liza Vasquez ICF CMC and Jeffrey F. Silber CPA MBA CMC
Certified Master Business and Life Coaches
In John Grisham’s 2012 novel, The Litigators, the book’s main character, David Zinc, is a 31-year old Harvard Law School Graduate. He becomes fed up with his $300,000 a year job with the fictional Chicago-based law firm of Rogan Rothberg where he finds working 14 hours a day in a windowless room on bond transactions for third-world countries as a totally dehumanizing experience. He has no quality of life and he doesn’t even have time to spend the money he earns.
The book is definitely a good read, so without giving away too much of the plot, let us just say that one day David can’t take it any more and he suddenly breaks away, goes on a drinking binge and absolutely by chance turns up at the doorstep of Finley & Figg, a very questionable law firm of ambulance-chasers in a very marginal part of the city. David is off on the adventures that make up the rest of this exciting novel.
David Zinc is the perfect Millennial. First, a Millennial (sometimes called Generation Y) is the phrase used to describe a person who reached adulthood in the early 21st century and covers the generation of people born generally between 1984 and 2000.
Stereotypes are never 100% true for any group of people. However, the reason that stereotypes arise is because more people in a particular category exhibit certain trait than not. With that in mind, let’s proceed with our discussion of Millennials.
To many lawyers over age 40, the term “Millennials” makes their blood boil and the little hairs on the back of their necks tingle with a mix of frustration and anger because of the traits that characterize Millennials as they enter the work force.
Many (not all) Millennials, the children of Baby Boomers, were raised with an abundance of material comforts. They were told they are special just for being who they are; and have come to believe that not only are they special but also that they are worthy or praise and reward almost without regard to the effort they have expended or the level of success they achieve. They are concerned about such global matters as sustainability, save the planet and go green.
When you combine these attitudes with the easy material world in which they were raised, the idea of working long hours doing boring legal work which does not interest them, has made these millennials asking Why do I want to do this work? Why do I want to be a lawyer? Why does the work you are giving me to do make any difference at all? How is my work having any impact at all?
The world is changing, and the new reality is already here. Frustrated with Generation Y which is no longer satisfied to work long hours on work that they perceive as meaningless, the over 40 lawyers wish they was a way to make the legal profession great again and have the up and coming lawyers willing to do what the current partners did to get to the top 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
But are the Millennials wrong?
Before you become David Zinc from Grisham’s book, and abandon a promising, interesting and lucrative profession, what can you learn from the Millennials? Or, what can you, as a partner or senior associate, do before your highly trained, experienced best associate lawyers become their own versions of David Zinc, and run out of your office screaming one day, never to return, fed up with the long hours and the work they were given?
Millennials think they are special. On a planet of 7 billion people, no one is special. Who is a live today whose name will be remembered in 500 years? Not many. On the other hand, everyone is special to him or herself because they are the center of their own universe. So why shouldn’t all of us, not just Millennials “look out for number one” as we used to say in the 1970’s.
How can we do this?
If you plan better, there is no reason for long hours dragging late into the night. If you end up with that kind of crises on your hands, please examine what gave rise to crises. Was it the client’s fault for not giving you enough advance notice? If so, educate the client that when he/she knows something with require your involvement, that they notify you immediately and not let the work rise to crisis level at the last minute.
If the crisis arose because you kept putting off doing the work in favor of what you perceived were higher priorities, we ask you to examine the entire way you organize your work. Why create a crisis that does not need to exist?
Furthermore, most legal work done after 8:00 pm, is full of errors with lots of important issues omitted. Go home or send your lawyers home at 8:00 pm to have a nice dinner and a decent night’s sleep. They will do better work when they come back fresh the next morning.
Let us illustrate this with an ancient Chinese fable that in modern society we call, the “Habit of Sharpening Your Saw.”
A man was hiking in the forest and when he encountered a woodsman who was cutting down trees. The woodsman was working very hard and sweating profusely. The hiker could see that the saw the woodsman was using was not sharp. He said to the woodsman,
“Excuse me, but I notice your saw is not sharp. Why don’t you take a short break to rest and sharpen your saw? I think your work will go more quickly if you do that.” The woodsman replied, “Are you crazy? Don’t you see how many trees I still have to cut down? I have too much work to take a break now. After I finish cutting down all these trees, then I will have time to take a break. I will sharpen my then, not now.” And he went back to his arduous work.
The point is that taking a break is exactly what a person should do when they are extremely busy. It helps them get organized and they will do a better job than if they are workaholics not raising their heads from their work to see if what they are doing makes sense. Sometimes people race down the highway at 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) only to discover that they are going in the wrong direction.
Also, there is a paradigm about working long hours that needs to be broken. Nothing frustrates Millennial lawyers more than having to stay late in the office for the sake of appearances, when they do not have any work to do. “It is not well seen” if a lawyer is not at her/his desk until late into the evening.
What really matters is the result of the work of the young lawyers that should be the judged not how many meaningless hours their behinds were in their chair at the office. If there is no work for them, send them home!
The other point we can learn from Millennials is the importance of the work they do and the impact it will have on the world. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the contracts, documents, injunctions, agreements and so on will have a real work consequence – an impact. You are not doing all that paperwork as an academic exercise. Things will happen as a result of your work - factories will open; products will be imported/exported. Jobs will be created, new medicines will come to market, etc.
When you give work to your Millennial associates, explain to them how their work will help people and what impact it will have on society. It will make a big change in how they view their work.
What we mean is this, returning to David Zinc: if he had be able to go home early enough to have dinner with his wife two or three times a week; and if it had been explained to him that this third-world bond transactions were going to change the lives of millions of people by creating infrastructure, roads, hydro-electric plants, factories, ports, hospitals etc to improve their quality of life and create hundreds of thousands of job – David Zinc might still be working at Rogan Rothberg well on a career path to becoming a partner.
Conclusion: Millennials are not wrong for wanting changes in the workplace. We should learn from them instead of waging a war to get them to conform to the way things used to be in law firms. That ship has sailed. That is a war that cannot be won.
A) If you do not burn out the Millennials; and
B) You let them understand the value of their work; you can create the next generation of dedicated lawyers – on their terms in the new reality of the profession.
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