Confused by Millennials? Three things law firms need to know about Millennials

Much in the same way as many of us have Brexit-fatigue, we are starting to develop “Millennial” fatigue. Countless articles, surveys, studies and even books have been written about the “younger” generation (including those written by the younger generation about themselves: “The Millennial Lawyer” by JP Box). Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials – we can’t even agree on which years they are supposed to be born in – or even if they are one generation with sub-generations. Type “generation y are…” into google and the first search term that comes up is “generation y are millennials” followed by “generation y are not millennials”. And the third one? “generation y are lazy”. There are so many different opinions and articles on what young people are like, or what they are meant to be like, that it can be (like Brexit) confusing at times. With this short blog, we want to cut through that confusion. Let’s start with who they are, and what they want.

Who are they?

According the European definition; Generation Y covers those currently aged between 25 and 37, Generation Z covers those aged between 9 and 24, and Millennials covers both generations. They are today’s students, junior and senior law firm associates, and junior partners. As most of the discussions relate to the conflict between “lazy” Millennial students and associates and “hard working” partners from other generations (e.g. Generation X, Baby Boomers), let’s cut through the debate about how to define them, and just say we are talking about students and junior lawyers, and call them “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”, that is after all the title from Richard Susskind’s famous book.

What do they want?

The Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession has been working with Tomorrow’s Lawyers for a long time now. Over a number of years, international students on our Law Firms of Tomorrow course (part of the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession Certificate in Management and Leadership) have been asked what they think: What do law firms need to do be attractive and retain Tomorrow’s Lawyers? What they would do if they were managing partner? What do law firms need to do to be more innovative, diverse and offer a better-work life balance? What should the law firm of tomorrow look like? With these insights, we have been able to draw conclusions on what Tomorrow’s Lawyers want (see Hartung/Ziercke, "What tomorrow's lawyers want: What law firms would look like if Generation Y were in charge".) In addition, we have recently been looking at the characteristics of young lawyers and students and comparing them to a test group from the late 1990s (see our research on Herding Cats) and of course, reviewing external studies on what young lawyers want, including the recent and extensive study on UK law students by Mary Bosnor from F-LEX (see "A Millennial Perspective on how law firms can retain Millennials" or talent? ). There is a wealth of information about young lawyers, so let’s cut to the chase. Here are the three things you need to know about Millennials…

1. It is partly about the money

F-Lex found that only 4.2% of respondents said that money was the most important thing they looked for in their career. This also concurs with our insights gained from Bucerius International Students, who felt that technology and work life balance (rather than increasing salaries) were key areas in which law firms needed to change in order to attract the new generation. But there is one big caveat. The question of the importance of money depends also upon the cost of legal education. For students in countries such as the USA, where legal education can cost up to $40,000 (just for the tuition fees), the starting salary is very important. We should also remember that the importance of money relative to job satisfaction changes throughout our lives. A young associate just getting his feet under the desk may well value money over work-life balance for the first few years of his career, but later, when he has a young family, he may well choose to prioritise work-life balance over pay. Sixty per cent. of our Bucerius Alumni, when faced with the choice (as a hypothetical managing partner) between (i) improving work-life balance, (ii) improving technology, (iii) giving associates a greater role in management, (iv) creating a fun and social work environment, (v) investing in associate development or (vi) increasing pay, chose to improve work-life balance first.

2. It’s not about being lazy

Ask Google: “Are generation Y lazy?” According to The Frankfurter Allgemeine (Die Generation Y ist ein Phantom), since 1985 the German workforce has been asked how many hours per week they actually work and how many they would like to work. Since 2007, and regardless of age, the number of hours that German employees wish to work has been dropping. We all want to work less. According to the insights obtained from our research, Tomorrow’s Lawyers aren’t lazy and they don’t want to work less – they want to choose. They want the freedom to choose between long or short hours, when and where to work, and between commensurate pay packages. That is why initiatives such as Your Link from Linklaters are gathering momentum, and young lawyers pay close attention to the alternative working policies of law firms (Flexible Working: Who is doing what? The Lawyer).

3. It’s about having a healthy organisation

“When picturing a law firm, many people imagine a very hierarchical work place with an old cigar smoking, aggressive male boss, whipping his associates through long hours of hard, even unrewarding work.” This is not what Tomorrow’s Lawyers want. Many of the proposals made by Tomorrow’s Lawyers relate to working practices:

  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers want a “voice” in the running of the firm, to be more involved in the management of the firm – even a democratic representation of associates in the executive committee.
  • Associate performance criteria should be more closely linked to outcomes, not input (see Ziercke/Hartung Fix the Firm or Fix the Woman?). An alternative to the billable hour as a performance criterion must be found to facilitate flexible working and reward efficiency (not “hanging around for the maximum number of hours”).
  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers want more feedback and more regularly, more mentoring, and a closer relationship with partners.
  • A greater focus on personal skill development and growth: horizontal not just vertical career development.
  • A transparent partnership election process: no more “cloak and dagger” elections!
  • Alternative career paths (not just partnership and counsel).
  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers want firms to invest more in technology. Firstly, to provide more user-friendly tools (hardware and software), but also to free junior lawyers up to do more exciting work: “they don’t expect to sift through thousands of documents manually, they expect there to be a program for that”.
  • Flexible working models should be available to both men and women “partners shouldn’t be surprised when male employees prioritise family over work”.
  • Mixed compensation packages: monetary and non-monetary incentives, such as vouchers, time-off, further education opportunities.
  • A more collaborative working environment, more interaction and relationship building, a more diverse workforce.


So, what does the Millennial-friendly law firm look like?

Looking at law firms’ websites, Tomorrow’s Lawyers will be expected to combine their legal work with trekking, canoeing or para-gliding. Gone are the pictures of young people in suits against a backdrop of high-rise offices. The “Millennial” career page looks more like an advert for an outdoor shop! “Show me the money” could also be the new motto of Millennial firms as newly qualified salaries continue to spiral upwards (see “Auf Sand Gebaut”, Juve 03/2017). But there is little evidence that much else is changing.

We think that the following description, written by a student describing their Law Firm of Tomorrow, perfectly reflects what the Millennial-friendly firm should look like.

“Today’s junior lawyers expect to work on a peer-to-peer basis with the firm management and have a team spirit with their firm. They should feel important and assured that their work matters. Together the partners and associates of the firm should have a clear, joint vision of the future and a way of working towards achieving that goal.”

Emma Ziercke and Markus Hartung


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Emma Ziercke and Markus Hartung


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