Can Intergenerational Conflict in Law Firms Be Attributed to Lawyer-Identity Threat?

An identity-based perspective

A New Perspective on Change

I recently read the outstanding dissertation of Alexander Fruehmann “Requiem and Epilogue for the Legal Profession: A psychodynamic Investigation into the Undercurrents of a Profession in Radical Change”. Apart from the effective way in which Fruehmann is able to uncover the unconscious motivations within the concepts of “lawyer” and “legal profession” without losing sight of the practical relevance of his analysis, one key finding caught my eye: Lawyers’ resistance to change is strongly connected to the idea of an existential threat to the identity of lawyers.

Lawyer Identity

Fruehmann explains (1) that lawyers tend to define themselves in terms of the work they do and the prototypical characteristics ascribed to them. Furthermore, professionals become intertwined with their profession and incorporate professional attributes and values into conceptions of their self-identity (2). This means that an individual’s self-esteem is directly related to the esteem conferred on the larger group (the legal profession) with which the member is associated (3).

In-Groups and Out-Groups

Fruehmann finds that in/out group dynamics mean that lawyers maintain their own definition of what it means to be a lawyer. Consequently, there is a tendency for lawyers to see themselves in a favourable fashion and to attribute their success to factors such as competence and character, whilst attributing their failures to external circumstances. He makes the poignant statement that the more self-defining an identity is, the greater the psychological distress the person feels when the identity is threatened (4). Thus, the changes which are afoot in the legal market, such as the commoditization of certain legal tasks, strike at the characteristics associated with lawyer-identity, and are therefore perceived as a devaluation of the self-worth of the individual, as their self-identity is derived from the lawyer-identity. As Fruehmann points out, this is exactly what makes the assertions of legal market thought leaders such as Richard Susskind and Mark Cohen so offensive to lawyers.

Lawyer Identity and Intergenerational Conflict

In 2020 Markus Hartung and I wrote about intergenerational conflict in law firms (see Ok, Boomer: Generationenkonflikte in Anwaltskanzleien in: Konfliktdynamik, page 198 - 205 KD, Volume 9 (2020), Issue 3 - the English language version will be published in due course). Our thesis is that conflict arises because Generation X and Baby Boomers (“Non-Millennial Lawyers”) are confronted with change. These changes, embodied in Generation Y and Z (“Millennial Lawyers”), call into question many of the values and beliefs that Generation X and Baby Boomer lawyers have grown up with, and which form part of their lawyer identity.

Our thesis was based on an intergenerational study (5), as well as our own research (6) and observations from working with Millennial Lawyers on our annual Law Firms of Tomorrow course at Bucerius Law School. According to Urick, generations are increasingly considered through an “identity-based” lens, with reference to inter-group relations and social identity. Urick explains that individuals seek to classify themselves as belonging to a particular generation because they perceive oneness with the traits popularly associated with other members of the group (the in-group) and classify others into separate out-groups based on dissimilar characteristics. Thus, an individual might associate his or herself with the “Non-Millennial Lawyer” group on the basis of the perception that older lawyers work hard and Millennial Lawyers are lazy. This is a problem in the workplace, because individuals can create positive in-group bias and negative out-group bias, leading to conflict between the groups.

Value-Based and Lawyer Identity-Based Conflict in a Multi-Generational Law Firm

In our article, we argue that some of the characteristics of the “Non-Millennial World” are threatened by the characteristics of the “Millennial World”. The conflict between Millennials and Non-Millennial lawyers can be viewed as value-based i.e., arising from the perception that others weigh the importance of certain values differently, as well as identity-based i.e., arising from the way that people define themselves. For example, Non-Millennial Lawyers value hierarchy. Their legal training involved “doing as the Partner says”, and now that they are at the top of the law firm pyramid, this is what they expect from lawyers below them in the hierarchy. Millennial Lawyers on the other hand, value equality and participation in decision-making processes. They are therefore unafraid to question what the partner says, leading to conflict.

Non-Millennial Lawyers have had to work hard in order to earn their position as partner, including recording a high number of billable hours - a necessary “sacrifice” in becoming partner. Thus, hard work and long hours in the office equal respect and form part of Non-Millennial Lawyer-Identity. For Millennial Lawyers, however, long hours in the office do not automatically equate with respect. In fact, Millennials consider those who work long hours to the detriment of their family or health to be bad role models. Changes to law firm culture, including working processes and the rise of remote working, as well as Millennials’ reluctance to work 24/7, together constitute a threat to this element of Non-Millennial Lawyer-Identity: Suddenly, long hours do not guarantee a badge of honour.

Responding to Lawyer Identity Threat: Dealing with Change

When one group is confronted with a change which threatens its identity, it must respond. Fruehmann mapped his own research data to a number of known change transition and identity-threat models. When personally confronted with the idea that the legal profession will not continue in its past form, he found that his sample group resorted to mostly avoidant responses (anger, denial, frustration, confusion, uncertainty) and identity-protection mechanisms. This type of response can also be seen in discourses involving intergenerational conflict (see for example the response of a partner to an associate’s refusal to correct his work, as outlined in our publication Ok, Boomer: Generationenkonflikte in Anwaltskanzleien, or the language used by the popular legal market press in which Millennial Lawyers are framed as “the problem”). 

When viewing the conflict through an identity-lens, these responses are entirely logical. The definition of what it means to be a lawyer has been fuelled by the in-group (Non-Millennial Lawyers) meaning that a threat from the out-group (Millennial Lawyers) is particularly stressful as the individual perceives it to be a devaluation of his or her self-worth. For example, Non-Millennial Lawyers’ feelings of self-worth are derived from the billable hour system, a concept which Millennial Lawyers proclaim to be archaic, thus a Non-Millennial Lawyer may feel personally aggrieved by the suggestion that the billable hour should be abolished.

In our article, we argue that in order to reduce conflict, an inclusive approach to intergenerational diversity is needed. However, Fruehmann’s dissertation has highlighted that more is needed at an individual level in order to deal with lawyer-identity threat. Change is an emotionally intense phenomenon for which emotional intelligence strategies are needed to help us cope (for a detailed discussion of best-practice strategies, see Excellence Under Pressure by Madeleine Bernhardt and Emma Ziercke (7)). As a short “take-away”, the following four guidelines (8) provide a good starting point to help us cope with change at an individual level:


(1) Identify the source of your resistance to change. Causal analysis is an essential element of resilience. Being able to step back and objectively identify the cause of difficulties, resistance and adversity, is the first step towards being able to influence our emotions and modify our response to change.

(2) Identify your emotional response. Being aware of our own emotions and identifying the primary emotion provoked by change, as well as being able to recognise our “automatic” thought patterns and emotions, allows us to move to the next step – regulating emotions.

(3) Regulate your emotional response. If you are aware that you are becoming more tense whenever you are confronted with change, by reflecting on how this contributes to how others see you, you can influence your impulses and emotions in order to be able to act in a more conscious way.

(4) Practise realistic optimism. Whilst realistically assessing the change and its potential challenges, we can also simultaneously recognise the opportunities – a key factor in resilience.


An Individual and Organisational Response to Change is Needed to Alleviate Conflict

Media portrayal of intergenerational relations is predominantly negative and leads to the perception that generations are inherently different. This can be explained through an identity-based lens, which informs the idea that law firms have “in-groups” and “out-groups” in terms of Millennial and Non-Millennial Lawyers. Many of the current changes in the legal profession are incompatible with factors relevant to Non-Millennial Lawyer-Identity. As many of these changes (such as work-life balance, purpose and equality) are embodied in Millennial Lawyer-Identity, they are perceived as a threat to Non-Millennial Lawyer-Identity, resulting in negative “identity-threat responses”. On an organisational level, one solution to the conflict is to promote inclusiveness within the law firm, weakening the relevance of in-groups and out-groups. On an individual level, emotional intelligence strategies can help the individual to embrace the changes heralded in by the Millennial Lawyer.


Additional References

  1. Fruehmann cites Mael and Ashforth, 1992, “Alumni and their alma mater: A partial test of the reformulated model of organizational identification
  2. Loi et al, 2004, “The effect of professional identification on job attitudes: A study of lawyers in Hong Kong
  3. Fruehmann cites Fukuyama, 2018 “Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition”.
  4. Ellemers et al, 2002, “Self and Social Identity”, Swann, 1987 “Identity negotiation: Where two roads meet”, and Petriglieri, 2011, “Under Threat: Responses to and the Consequences of Threats to Individuals’ Identities”.
  5. Urick, Hollensbe, Masterson and Lyons, 2016, “Understanding and Managing Intergenerational Conflict: An Examination of Influences and Strategies
  6. Hartung and Ziercke, 2019 “Managing Lawyers is like Herding Cats – or is it?” and Ziercke and Knipping, 2020 “Next Generation Study
  7. The German version of Excellence Under Pressure is available here: Hochleistung unter Druck
  8. The guidelines are based on the Harvard Business Review article by Wiens and Rowell, 2018, How to embrace change using emotional intelligence


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Emma Ziercke, Senior Research Associate, Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession