21st February 2024

The current generation of early career lawyers is, well, different than previous generations.

You’ve probably heard some version of this sentiment yourself. Maybe you’ve even said it. This generation is often labeled as less motivated and unwilling to put in the hard work necessary to succeed in the legal profession. Many see this group as lacking drive and claim they will fail to develop basic legal skills expected by clients.

They’re not entirely wrong. The current generation of early career lawyers truly is different. But, it isn’t because they lack work ethic or drive to succeed. The differentiating factor is how the new generation of lawyers defines themselves. Unlike previous generations, their primary identity isn’t defined by their chosen profession.

There are plenty of good reasons why newer lawyers are redefining the relationship between identity and work.

We’ve Seen It Go Wrong

The Great Recession still has a profound impact on an entire generation of lawyers. As a law school graduate in 2008, I watched as classmates had offers rescinded and start dates deferred. Some graduated and struggled to find a job for years before giving up on the law altogether. These were excellent students with bright futures who found that there was no place for them in the law, even after years of school, tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and passing the bar exam. Many of us with jobs post-graduation were either laid off or found ourselves tolerating toxic work environments lest we meet the same fate.

More recently, we’ve seen this play out again as companies and firms turn to layoffs in response to the pandemic and now a softening economy. Even employers that appeared to be purpose-driven and employee-centric made deep cuts.

With this in our collective memory, who can blame us for being skeptical of too closely tying our personal value to our professional status? We’ve learned time and again that while you can love your job, your job will never love you back.

The Moving Goalposts

For many baby boomer and Generation X lawyers, partnership was attainable well within a decade of practice. However, that’s changed for many newer attorneys. As Kyle Robisch, partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, shared in a recent conversation: “For many young lawyers, the timeline for partnership has stretched. First, the runway to make partner is often longer. Second, the journey might include another stop—as a ‘non-equity partner.’”

It’s not much brighter in some corporate legal departments. As baby boomers stay in the workforce longer, the pace of progression for others slows. With many Generation X lawyers still waiting for their turn to lead, the path for advancement for millennial and, someday soon, Generation Z lawyers, grows longer. As these paths stretch and careers stall, newer lawyers need to find meaning and purpose untethered to the next professional brass ring that may never materialize.

Shifting Views

Newer lawyers have different views of acceptable professional experiences. Baby boomer and Generation X attorneys may expect newer lawyers to endure a “trial by fire” experience. However, newer lawyers may expect training and coaching before being thrown into a task. What experienced attorneys call a “tough love” approach, newer generations might call bullying.

Behaviors that previously signaled dedication and loyalty, like long hours of office facetime, working while sick, or returning to work very soon after welcoming a child, are viewed by newer generations as hallmarks of unhealthy or even exploitative workplaces. When workplaces uphold and reinforce values that no longer resonate with newer generations of lawyers, those lawyers look for ways to separate their identity from their work.

Growing Burdens

There’s no way around it, newer lawyers shoulder a heavy burden. Between skyrocketing housing costs, massive student debt, childcare costs that rival mortgages, and the specter of saving for the education of their own children someday, they bear historic financial pressures. Couple these pressures with the recent memory of recessions and layoffs and it’s no wonder that many seek income streams—and purpose—outside of their traditional employment. Side hustles aren’t the mark of the uncommitted, they are the mark of those without a safety net. As a result of this professional diversification, newer lawyers continue to inch their identities further away from their day job.

What can legal employers do to bridge the gap?

Develop Generational Fluency

All isn’t lost. Legal employers can begin building the bridge by recognizing the varying needs and values of lawyers across different generations. Legal employers should consider the origin of those values rather than chalking them up to character flaws. Generational fluency paves the way for greater collaboration and understanding.

Examine Structures and Incentives

Legal employers should examine existing ways of working and update them to reflect the values and expectations of newer lawyers. This may include implementing programs that allow for more equitable allocation of work and rewarding efforts to train and mentor junior lawyers. If opportunities for advancement are slim, employers can invest in top talent by providing personalized leadership coaching, education, and development opportunities, outside of the traditional advancement path, ideally with billable hour credit.

Redefine Lawyer Value

Finally, employers should explore ways to allow purpose and flexibility in the practice of law to coexist with advancement and meaningful compensation. Not for the faint of heart, this may require the difficult work of disentangling lawyer value from the billable hour.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

Author Information

Brittany Johnson is director, corporate counsel, at Starbucks Corporation. She and her team lead legal support for the company’s domestic and international expansion through brand licensing. Johnson is a mother, a mentor, and a coffee lover with an early morning writing habit. Her views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.