There's been a lot of commentary about this National Law Journal article condemning "Gen Y" associates:
Some call them slackers. Others are more diplomatic. But whatever the moniker, "Generation Y" associates are getting a bad rap for what some say is a flabby work ethic and an off-putting sense of entitlement.
Attorneys from Generation Y-those born in 1978 or later-are plenty smart and generally well educated, say firm leaders and industry experts. But these young attorneys also are lacking in loyalty, initiative and energy, so the criticism goes.
My first thought, of course, is that I'm
four years older than this definition of Gen Y, so I'm obviously on-course to become one of the cranky oldsters.
The commentary on the article has focused on the usual suspects: from the associates' side, partners are being exploitative, billable-hours requirements beggar belief, and loyalty declines because odds of becoming partner are declining. From the partner's side, the associates are either (a) simply lazy and whining, (b) don't understand how good they have it, or (c) are overly loyal to their own "class" instead of the firm. Then there's a third side, sort of structuralists, who argue that the problem is more a matter of how these firms are put together: young lawyers come to them often without business or work experience; law firms, on the other hand, often have a management deficiency, because they're run by good lawyers and bad managers; and less loyalty is only to be expected in an environment where few people make partner.
Now, I don't really have any great thoughts to add to this from a legal perspective, as my experience in a Japanese law firm last summer was probably an outlier. But I do have a thought about loyalty, and why I don't put much stock in a random partner's complaints about it.
Before coming to law school, I worked in a few places that had employee retention problems. It's relatively easy to get a job at a firm like that: they'll employ you pretty quickly if you've got talent, because they need to replace the last fellow who walked out the door. It's also pretty tough to get into firms where people don't leave, even in a boom or a bubble: people know when they have a good job at a good firm.
I worked for some very good bosses. (I also dated a manager of similar skill, and watched how she worked.) These were folks who, when the chips down, could get their people to work long, hard hours. Indeed, often they were more demanding than some "tough" bosses, but they received a great deal fewer complaints. In firms with retention problems, few of their team members walked out the door.
This lead to some significant benefits. Their teams were coherent, and thus more efficient. They didn't spend a lot of time making HR decisions. And they could spend time investing in their people, teaching them firm- or team-specific processes that increased productivity. In my twenties, I was doing my best to develop a management style, and wanted to learn from these people.
Every one of these high loyalty (or low turnover) bosses focused on three things. First, they knew each of their direct employees. By this I don't mean that they remembered birthdays or anniversaries (although some did, because they were that kind of people). Instead, they'd bothered to learn what made their employees tick. Some team members worked very well placed next to a high-flyer--they thrived on competition. Others worked better stuck in a corner where they could grow with less threat. Some lit up if they were praised, while others needed that occasional kick in the tail. The bosses made a note of it, and used it.
Secondly, they were all very interested in efficiency. Not bureaucracy or paperwork, but in actually making sure their employees spent the minimum amount of time on busywork and the maximum amount of time on getting their jobs done. One manager I knew was extremely good at this: if a corporate form needed signing by her team, it was on their desk the first thing the next morning with a note to fill it out before starting work. It neither interrupted her staff or kept them at the office when they'd finished up. This efficiency translated into loyalty because it looked a lot like "not wasting my time."
And third, they all were willing to break for their employees personal lives. That doesn't mean they allowed a lot of slacking, but if an employee had a personal event--death in the family, marital problems, a child ill--then the manager found a workaround. The best of these bosses put it to me this way: "Look, people spend more time in good times than bad times. Give them the bad times, and you'll get 120% out of them during the good. You make up the slack." I would have walked through fire for that boss. The guy who yelled at me? He got work out of me, and it was good work because I didn't want to get yelled at. But I'd not have spent a lot of time trying to get his fat out of the fire.
When I was a boss, I did my best to follow these precepts, although I'm sure I didn't manage it completely. To my credit, however badly I may have done, I did have low turnover. And to this day, I'll say the most important lesson I learned was that loyalty isn't something that employees come pre-packaged with: it's something you instill in them through good practice and fair dealing. You don't blame poor loyalty on your employees, or your associates: you look square at the boss.
But I'd also suspect that loyalty is more important in working environments where (a) the most important functional group is the team, (b) communications and groupware systems can be leveraged to the advantage of staff who are trained in them, and (c) the whole of a team's work has a value above the sum of its parts. While this is more of a guess than anything else, I wonder how much this applies to the modern law firm?
Law firms are professional associations, and at least at some theoretical level, those who work for them are supposed to be independent professionals, not team workers. And that seems to fit with the obsession for the billable hour. I mean, when you think about it, it's a pretty crude measure of productivity. If Employee A does better work more quickly than Employee B, his billable hours will be lower. If Employee B honestly tells a client that work doesn't need to be done, his billable hours drop. If this eventually leads to a client walking away... well, the individuals still have the hours they've already billed.
There's an entire industry out there developing employee evaluation metrics, and I won't try to step on the toes of my B-School brethren by listing them. But suffice it to say that I haven't ever worked in an industry that places such emphasis on a single figure.
When you focus so much on one number, everything else gets lost. Why do you need to retain staff, when one person's billable hour is the same as any other? If you're not trying to capture the efficiencies that experience brings, if you're not managing your knowledge, then why worry if some of it walks out the door? Think of the stereotype of the partner who is a "real yeller." An organization that cares about loyalty won't reward him if his underlings flee him at their first chance to jump ship; an organization that doesn't capitalize on loyalty will worry about how much he bills. Which sounds more like the stereotype of the law firm?
I'm not saying law firms don't make efforts in this direction (although knowledge management professionals are generally more than mildly scathing of most law practice, see this as one example at random), but they certainly don't seem to emphasize it. Call it a working hypothesis, but my guess is that if there's a loyalty complaint about Gen Y, it should run something like this: law firms don't value loyalty as highly as they might say; this, in turn, means that they don't put structures in place to promote it, or reward it particularly highly; and finally, this results in an overall low level of employee loyalty. This doesn't mean the firm won't be profitable--it can capitalize on different advantages to make sure it makes money--but it shouldn't be shocked that associates don't identify with the firm.
Anyway, that's my hypothesis at this point. Anyone is welcome to comment, but let me emphasize again that I'll delete impolite comments, especially about particular firms.