The Questions Law Firms Need to Ask to Bridge the Generational Gap

Gen Z has entered the law firm – and the legal industry may never be the same.  

In the past few years, the oldest cohorts of Gen Z – defined as people born between 1997 and 2010 – have graduated from law school and joined law firms as junior associates. Law firms have four active generations of colleagues working together for the first time in decades (or perhaps the first time ever). Experts predict that by 2025, Gen Z will make up 30% of the U.S. workforce. And the impact of that is quite significant. 

Although generational classifications aren’t a scientific measurement, Boomers are generally considered to be those individuals born 1946-1964, Gen X includes those born 1965-1980, and Millennials were born 1981-1996. Two micro-generations – Zennials (1990-2000) and Xennials (1977-1983) – have also emerged. Although the criteria may seem arbitrary, generational designations can help understand common attitudes and behaviors. Of course, there is some overlap between the generations, and these are generalizations, not rules, but they can provide a helpful benchmark for understanding.  

In few places is generational analysis as relevant as the workplace. As Emma Goldberg wrote in the New York Times, “I learned in my reporting that theories about generational division wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it weren’t for their relevance to the workplace.” 

This brings us to the law firm workplace. To say that Zennials and Gen Z are disrupting traditional law firm culture would be an understatement. In many ways, they are shattering law firm norms. While that might seem scary and uncomfortable for many lawyers – especially the Gen X lawyers leading them – the generational shift offers new opportunities for growth.  

Understanding the Differences 

While there are some overlapping characteristics between generations, in general, each generation’s attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives are distinct. As I learned from book author and Gen Z expert Hannah Grady Williams, Gen X is a native-analog generation. Many Gen Xers grew up (and likely entered the workforce) with pre-internet experiences and circumstances. Accordingly, their style of problem-solving and decision-making, as well as their relationship with their career, is vastly different from other generations. 

Conversely, Gen Z is the first native-digital generation. Their lives have been shaped by their access to the internet, technology, and smartphones, which has shifted how they access information, approach problem-solving, and consider their place in the larger world. 

Because both Gen X and Boomers were largely raised in pre-internet environments, many of their social norms and professional expectations align. The success paradigms (e.g. “partner track”) for many Boomers and Gen X lawyers have been dictated by majority culture, with shifting attitudes regarding diversity. 

Millennials were the first generation who sought to upend these norms. Unlike previous generations, Millennials generally don’t want to “white knuckle it” through painful career choices that don’t align with a larger desire for work/life balance; they expect collaboration and thrive on feedback. Despite the tendency to lump Millennials and Gen Zers together, there are differences and nuances between the two generations. For instance, Gen Z is generally less concerned with operating within systems and more likely to create a new system that works for them. Many Gen Zers find the typical career progression from associate to equity partner outdated. Instead, they look at their career in phases and are more willing to take extended sabbaticals, view work through the lens of “gig working” or “tours of duties” and are more likely to change career direction than Millennials.  

As the law firm leaders who are often supervising Millennials and Gen Zers, Gen Xers might be tempted to assume that younger generations lack professional drive and ambition. These assumptions are often inaccurate, with younger generations simply operating under a different set for norms regarding professional goals and work/life balance.  

Build Bridges with Shared Values 

Although the misalignment regarding the traditional career progression model has created tension within law firms (and many workplaces), there are some shared values between generations that can build bridges. In his book “Drive,” social scientist Dan Pink discusses generational approaches to motivation and has observed that common motivators may span generations.  

For instance, Boomers and Millennials are both more likely to prioritize purpose over success. Boomers are at a stage of life where they may be examining their legacy and significance. Millennials are starting their career with this focus. In either case, individuals in these generations want to feel like they’ve made a difference and had a positive impact on their world.  

Rather than focusing solely on generational differences, emphasizing shared core values like this can build bridges between soon-to-retire equity partners and younger attorneys to foster a shared sense of purpose for the firm.  

Incorporate Reverse Mentoring 

Firms can gain valuable insights and wisdom through reverse mentoring. The strongest relationships are those built on mutuality. Mentorship within law firms has typically been a one-sided “let me tell you what to do” approach, however when law firm leadership understands that Gen Z also has wisdom and unique perspectives to share, the entire organization thrives. Reverse mentoring is a great way to facilitate open dialogue, foster empathy, discourage shaming, and fully capture the wisdom that every generation in the law firm has to offer.  

Change the Questions 

Without a shared understanding among various generations of lawyers in a law firm, the tension in those differences is exacerbated. The economic model of professional services firms is built on access to a reliable stream of skilled and experienced attorneys and professionals willing to grind and work their way into ownership or the C-suite. The current system of client experience relies on a revenue model the depends in talented attorneys who have loyal client relationships. With that said, what happens to this model if the access to talented attorneys doesn’t follow the traditional trajectory? What happens to the client service piece of the equation if the workforce is not consistently employed or they aren’t interested in the trade-offs that previous generations made? 

Instead of avoiding these questions or requiring younger generations to conform to previously established systems, law firms and their Boomer or Gen X leadership, consider how you might recalibrate ways to service clients and build client loyalty without the comfort zone of historically predictive business models. 

Law firms can do this is by leaning into these questions as a rallying cry. The desire to seek answers to complex questions about client service and client loyalty can be used as a mechanism for creativity, collaboration, and cooperation.  

To ignite this rallying cry, law firm leaders first need to be willing to change the questions. Instead of asking “What do we need to do to get our next generations of attorneys ready for equity partnership?”, consider changing the question to something like, “What would have to be true about the practice of law/law firm career development for the best and brightest next generations of attorneys to want to keep working and growing their careers at this law firm? What would need to be true for the best and brightest to want to be a part of our law firm culture now AND in the future? “ 

By changing the questions, law firms can change the conversation and intergenerational dynamic. When current law firm leaders proactively engage lawyers and professionals from all generations to understand what matters most, a new relevant paradigm and business model can emerge that invents a future where all stakeholders can flourish. Without this understanding, there is a much greater risk that the firm will continue to operate with a false sense of security that it’s “business as usual,” thereby creating an environment of instability for clients, professionals, and communities as a whole.  

This is a call to action for all Gen Xers like me.  Now is the time to use your ears and mouths proportionately. Change the questions, seek the truth (as difficult as it might be for us Native-Analogs), and unlock potential for mutuality and human flourishing.  

For additional information: 

Great Relationships: Gen X and Gen Z (a podcast hosted by yours truly) 

Native Digital + Native Analog (a podcast hosted by Hannah G. Williams)