I hear a lot of complaints from law firm partners about the associates and young lawyers in their firms. Larry Bodine's August 17, 2006 post on his Law Marketing Blog, entitled, "Generation Gap Hurts Law Firm Marketing" addresses this issue.
Changes in expectations about partnership and long term legal practice
Bodine says that 69% of associates today don't see themselves making partner, and 55% aren't sure they'll stay in law practice. Based on those statistics, Bodine opines that the real reason behind the reluctance to market is that "it's impossible to market a service that you don't want to perform."
I'm not sure I agree that Bodine's conclusion necessarily follows. Just because a lawyer isn't sure they want to stay in traditional law practice or make partner at their firm doesn't necessarily mean that lawyers don't like the law, or serving clients, or being lawyers. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that they can't or don't want to market for that reason.
Lawyers today know that the landscape of law practice, and indeed business in general, is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Statistics show that people change jobs and careers more often. Young lawyers are leaving open the possibility that anything can happen. They don't assume that they're going to have one job for their entire career.
Just because a lawyer may not want to make partner or have a life-long legal career doesn't necessarily mean that young lawyers aren't interested in their firms, or in marketing. Most young lawyers realize that marketing and bringing in business will increase their professional reputation as well as their own personal bottom line, whether they ultimately stay with their firm or not.
So what's the problem?
Bodine says that the young lawyers and associates of today, "don't want to be like the people who are in charge of the firm, the Baby Boomers who have a strong work ethic, are competitive, optimistic and show success visibly with trophies and plaques."
Although I agree that the younger generation of lawyers is probably looking at the people who are in charge of their firms, and determining whether they want the same lifestyle, I don't think it's the strong work ethic, competitive nature or optimism that they shy away from. And I don't think those are qualities that are missing from the current generation of lawyers.
The new generation of lawyers wants something more than a plaque or a name on a door
Associates today are well aware that there are significant stresses, anxieties, responsibilities and sacrifices required to make partner - even if they don't know exactly what those stresses and responsibilities are. They don't place as much value on the mere status and prestige of being a law firm partner. Many of them know that they want something different that what they've seen from the previous generation - they want more from their family and personal life than they've seen from the partners of the past. And they may be willing to give up partnership, even with its financial rewards, to get it.
Part of the problem may be the way the different generations define success, or how 'in tune' the individuals are with their real goals and values. The older generation may be defining success by prestige, partnership and financial status, while the younger generation may be defining success as living an exciting or happy life, having more free time and being more involved with family and community.
The older generation of lawyers has a specific idea of what 'work ethic' looks like that is defined, at least in part, by the time in which they were coming of age as lawyers, and the limitations of technology during that time. Many partners are still assuming that if a lawyer isn't physically present in the office, they aren't working.
For many lawyers, 'work ethic' has become synonomous with giving over your entire life to your firm and putting the firm ahead of everything else - family, friends, outside interests, and even health. That's not a work ethic - that's slavery. It may bring financial rewards and prestige in some circles, but it also often brings depression, alcoholism, anxiety, stress and a whole host of other problems.
The number of billable hours expected from associates has climbed, although they have the same 24 hour day that older lawyers had, even though, in most cases, the firm's partners were required to bill up to several hundred less hours annually than the associates of today. Under these circumstances, it's not hard to see why there's a difference of opinion about 'work ethic.'
None of this means that younger lawyers can't or won't market - they just a different mindset and different priorities than the older generation. In order to motivate the younger generation, they have to see how marketing their firms will benefit them. If they aren't interested in partnership, then firms have to motivate them by emphasizing other rewards that will come from marketing the firm. If marketing means that a lawyer is going to have to spend even more time away from family and other activities, the younger generation isn't likely to do it, particularly if the only reward they see is a partnership they don't want.
Training and support are key
As evidenced by some of the comments to Bodine's post, the 'seeming reluctance' of younger lawyers to market may have a number of causes. One is simply lack of training. Many associates are thrown into impossible work schedules with almost no guidance.
Even for those firms with training or mentoring programs, few firms invest serious resources in training associates in marketing. Many firms purposely exclude associates from client meetings or business development activities. Still more fail to bring in outside help or spend significant time discussing or training lawyers on how to develop business. Many of the mega firms fail to educate their associates enough about the firm's different practice areas to allow the associates to cross-sell.
The increasing pressure to bill more and more hours is also probably partly to blame for the lack of marketing on behalf of the younger generation. When associates are expected to bill in excess of 21-, 22- or 2300 hours a year, it doesn't leave much room for making connections, building relationships, or spending time outside of the office to pursue business opportunities. If a firm doesn't provide support in the form of time to allow associates to grow professionally and to develop relationships, marketing won't be successful, even if associates do make the attempt.
Atmosphere accounts for associate dissatisfaction
In addition to lack of training, as those who left comments on Bodine's blog indicate, dissatisfaction with the firm itself, its culture or the way it does business may be to blame for associates not wanting to market the firm, rather than a dislike of the services they perform.
The comments on Bodine's blog point out that associates may not like their firms, and therefore they're more comfortable marketing themselves as individuals, rather than marketing the firm. They're not feeling the support or the loyalty from their firms, so why should they support the firm or be loyal to it?
As one commenter points out, if law firms would create an atmosphere where people WANT to work, and would train them properly, provide clear guidelines about advancement and support the lawyers in their goals and in their legal careers, perhaps more lawyers would want to stay.
Time for a change
Rather than complaining about it, maybe it's time for the older generation of law firm partners to take a good look at reality - if the situation really is as 'bad' as it is, who's going to carry the torch? Who's going to take up where these partners left off? How are these partners going to retire comfortably and have their firms continue? If the old way isn't attracting associates and associates don't like what's happening, then perhaps it's time to start listening and making some changes.
The fact is that not every lawyer can become a partner in a law firm. Nor should every lawyer want to be a partner in a law firm. It's time for firms to start thinking about their associates and training them properly, not just in how to handle a file, but in how to market themselves and their firm, and how to identify and cultivate their strengths. The firm will get a stronger, more loyal associate who is better prepared to serve clients.
Some associates may be perfectly willing to stay at a firm long term, serve their clients well, and market the firm. But the 'up or out' mentality of a lot of firms prevents that from happening. Firms don't necessarily support associates who aren't going to become partners, and this lack of support hurts the firm just as much, if not more, than it hurts the individual associate.
I do see a 'generation gap' in the legal profession. But I don't agree that it's a problem - I see a lot of this as positive. Perhaps the generation gap will lead to a change in the way law firms are traditionally organized and how they think. Perhaps it's time.
Are you looking for a way to train your associates in marketing? Are you an associate trying to learn how to be a rainmaker?
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