How to work with Boomer lawyers

Dan Hull at What About Clients? has apparently had it with the ruckus over Generation Y. In a post yesterday (HT to Legal Blog Watch), Dan responded to a seminar pitch on “learning to work with Millennials” with this riposte:

It’s your problem, Gen-X and Gen-Y. Not ours. Work, figure it out, ask questions, and we’ll help you–but it’s your job to adjust to “us” and the often hard adventure of learning to solve problems for your employer and its clients.

This is a great distillation of the frustration and resentment many Boomers feel about all the fuss being made about Millennials, whom many Boomers widely perceive as complacent and arrogant beyond their years. As a Gen-Xer, I don’t share that sentiment myself, and I don’t really care one way or another which generation is friendly with whom. But I do think there are a couple of useful points to be made here.

The first is about market inefficiencies. Like them or not, Millennials are entering the legal workplace, and they represent the thin edge of the talent wedge for which employers will be competing very hard in years to come. If you have problems with Millennials — with what you perceive as their attitude, ambition, enormous self-regard and “sense of entitlement” — that’s your right. But it puts you at risk of a competitive disadvantage with your rivals who are unburdened by these difficulties. Disliking Millennials is a market inefficiency, and employers who can approach Gen Y with a clean slate will accordingly be ahead of the game. That might not matter much right now, with Millennials still in the first few and least useful years of practice. But soon enough, it will matter a lot.

The second is the fact that Dan is right, on a couple of points: the amount of attention paid to Gen-Yers is disproportionate to their current presence in the legal profession, and Boomers still hold the reins of power in almost every legal institution (law firm, legal department, government office) you care to name. Understanding Millennials enough to get the most out of them is becoming an important advantage in the talent wars, but at least right now, it’s not as important as figuring out the ambivalent Gen-Xers overrepresented in the non-equity partners ranks or, especially, the aging Boomers hanging onto their files and practices with tight fists.

So the balance of this post is for Generation Y lawyers, and aims to answer the question: how can you adjust to Boomers and, to a lesser extent, Gen-Xers in the legal workplace? Here are four quick points to keep in mind.

1. Boomers believe in the corporate ladder. They created and crawled up through the law firm partnership hierarchy, by which associates endure six to nine years of purgatory before being ushered through the pearly gates of partnership. You might think this system is irrational, arbitrary and self-serving, but don’t mistake it for a mere structural aberration: it’s central to the Boomer concept of “paying your dues,” and if you expressly reject it, your employers will take it personally. Try to understand that “time served” is a meaningful measure of qualification and character for many Boomer lawyers. If you disagree, do it quietly.

2. Boomers can’t stand “entitlement mentalities.” Yes, it’s ironic, considering Boomers basically invented the concept during their 60-year march through demographic history. But, related to the concept of “paying your dues,” Boomer lawyers feel they worked for everything they ever got, and you should have to go through it too. (Women Gen-Yers: you’ll find this attitude coming between you and some potential female mentors.) This gives them a deep aversion to “work-life balance,” which they hear as “I want all the perks of success without any of the hard work.” I know that’s not how most of you feel, but that’s the reputation that’s preceding you into the workforce. Drop terms like “balance” and “holistic” in favour of “focus” and “integration,” and talk a lot about “commitment” and “professionalism” — two very elastic words that Boomers love to hear.

3. Boomers don’t understand multitasking. Well, they do, but in the sense of “I’m carrying 75 files at one time,” rather than “I’m drafting a top-notch memo while IM’ing a friend and listening to a podcast.” Boomers live in a linear and sequential world, while you were thinking outside the box before it became a cliché. Great illustration: a consultant told me of a Gen-Y associate, loaded down with work, who received yet another task from a partner. Another associate volunteered to do the task for her. The associate accepted gratefully; the partner hit the roof. That represents two completely rational, and completely incompatible, ways of dealing with workflow issues. What it comes down to is this: don’t give a Boomer lawyer any reason to think he or his current task has anything less than your full attention and priority.

4. Gen-Xers don’t believe in the system. Ironically enough, this is one point on which Boomers and Millennials stand on common ground: they’re both idealists, believing in the idea of grand accomplishments for the greater societal good. For many Boomers, it was civil rights; for many Gen-Yers, it’s the environment: for both, it’s a no-brainer that there are causes worth fighting for. Gen-Xers don’t buy it. They aim low, keep expectations in check, emphasize self-sufficiency, and distrust organizations, institutions and big ideas. Don’t approach a Gen-X partner with a great plan for a major client initiative or departmental overhaul; go to the Boomer instead, because you’ll find a much more kindred spirit. But do consult a Gen-Xer if you need a workaround, a pragmatic alternative — or just a dose of cynical commiseration about those frickin’ Boomers.


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