By Bjarne Philip Tellmann, SVP and general counsel of Pearson plc.

I've been thinking recently about the "care and feeding" of millennials. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that, unless we change the way we work, we will have trouble recruiting, retaining, and motivating them, not to mention integrating them, with baby boomers and Gen Xers.

Getting this right is critical. According to The 2015 Millennial Majority Workforce Study, millennials already constitute the largest single segment of the US workforce, at 45 percent, with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, making up the difference (at 31percent and 21 percent respectively). By 2025, fully three fourths of the US workforce will be comprised of millennials.

So who exactly are the millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers? Different studies provide different date ranges for when these demographic groups start and stop, but broadly speaking, millennials are those who were born between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s, while Generation Xers were born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, and baby boomers — the post-war generation — were born between 1946 and the mid-1960s.

Why would it be any more difficult to attract millennials to the legal profession than earlier generations? The answer lies in the fact that each generation is shaped by the era in which it grows up, including opportunities, challenges, and expectations. These in turn inform their preferences. To understand the preferences of millennials, we must therefore first consider the experiences that have shaped them.

The world of Millennials

What characteristics have shaped millennials?

First and most obviously, they are the world's first true digital natives. None of them can remember a time before computers. That has shaped both how they interact with technology and their approach to creativity and innovation. For example, they grew up during the social media revolution and their outlook is heavily influenced by it. According to the American Press Institute, 88 percent of millennials get at least some of their news from Facebook, while 83 percent and 50 percent get it from YouTube and Instagram respectively. 

Millennials are also far more diverse than preceding generations. According to a study conducted by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, about 15 percent of today's population between the ages of 15 and 34 were born outside the United States. That is far higher than in 1950, and close to the 20 percent peak achieved in 1910.

Education has played a major role in the lives of millennials. In fact, they are the best-educated generation ever. As the American Press Institute notes, 47 percent of millennials hold postsecondary degrees, more than any previous generation. Unfortunately, that also means they carry a fair amount of student debt: according to the Council of Economic Advisers study, about 50 percent of students took out student loans in 2013-2014, as compared to about 30 percent in the mid-1990s.

Finally, millennials are city dwellers. According to a Nielsen study, they are more urban than any other generation. Forget dreams of white picket fences, SUVs, and Golden Retrievers: unlike earlier generations, millennials actually prefer cities to suburbs. Consequently, America's cities are growing faster than the areas outside of them for the first time since the 1920s. Finally, unlike baby boomers, millennials seem to prefer the western US to the East Coast, with socially conscious, creative places such as Austin, Texas, topping the list.

Millennial traits

So how have all of these experiences shaped millennials? We should, of course, be careful about stereotyping an entire generation. That said, researchers have identified certain traits they consider to be fairly characteristic of most millennials. Many are recognizable to anyone who deals regularly with millennials; all pose challenges to the conventional way of running a law firm or legal department:

New ways of working

Millennials don't appear to accept the 9-to-5 lifestyle (or, in the case of most lawyers, the "9-to-9" lifestyle) and seem far less willing to put up with it than baby boomers or Gen Xers.

According to a study conducted by Bentley University, 77 percent of millennials feel that flexible work hours would make them more productive, while nearly 40 percent believe working remotely would do so. But be careful not to confuse that with a less rigorous work ethic: Bentley found that 89 percent of millennials regularly check their emails after work hours. Perhaps due to their "digital native" and social media upbringing: they are "always on" — even if not always "in".

Freelancing also seems to be attractive to this generation. I've become a regular user of legal outsourcing firms such as Axiom, Counsel on Call, and Hire an Esquire. The quality of the attorneys who work for these outfits is overwhelmingly solid. Many of the attorneys who work there do so by choice because of the flexibility it affords them, not because they can't get a "traditional" law firm job. In fact, many had traditional firm jobs but decided to leave when they discovered they didn't want the accompanying lifestyle.

Entrepreneurial

Millennials are entrepreneurial. According to the Bentley study, more than two thirds aspire to start their own business some day, while only 16 percent expect to remain in their current jobs for the rest of their careers. A measly 13 percent aspire to become CEOs or company presidents. Consider polling your millennials. How many long to become partners or general counsel? You might be surprised.

Many ambitious millennials look to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and other tech founders, many of who dropped out of college before graduating to focus on their fledgling businesses. To baby boomers and Gen Xers, who grew up dreaming of Wall Street and white-shoe firms, that seems a terrifying, if not suicidal, career strategy. Why drop out of Harvard or Stanford after so much effort, for such uncertain gain? Baby Boomers and Gen Xers generally find validation and security in a traditional organizational setting; millennials, less so.

Tech-savvy, open, and innovative

As the first native tech generation, millennials are naturally tech-savvy. Eighty two percent of hiring managers in the Millennial Majority Workforce Study felt that "millennials are more technologically adept" and considered them, by a wide margin, to be more creative, adaptable, and open to change, than Gen Xers.

Context and relationship-driven

Millennials are "high maintenance" workers. They value connectivity and authenticity in respect of both their colleagues and their work. Eighty four percent of them agree with the statement "knowing I am helping to make a positive difference in the world is more important to me than professional recognition" and 77 percent of them feel that their ability to excel in their job is contingent on deriving meaning from what they do.

Anyone who has worked with millennials knows how important it also is for them to have a meaningful relationship with superiors. They tend to discount traditional hierarchies, demanding immediate, high-quality feedback.

So what's the problem?

It would seem that many of these traits are positive ones. Yet, despite that, many millennials are failing to gain traction in the workplace. According to the Millennial Majority study, there is a growing gap between supply and demand. Thirty nine percent of these tech savvy and innovative millennials report trouble finding a traditional job, while 53 percent of hiring managers are having difficulty hiring enough millennials. 

I believe there are two causes for this "employment gap". First,baby boomer/Gen X managers often reject millennials based on an inappropriate way of evaluating candidates; and second, many workplace cultures are outmoded, causing millennials to reject traditional careers.

As for the first cause, older generations often view millennials through the distorted lens of their generation. For instance, hiring managers in the Millennial Majority study perceived millennials to be four times more likely to be narcissistic than Gen Xers. Could that be driven by the fact that millennials demand more mentorship from their bosses, are less respectful of hierarchy, and more likely to value meaning and context than Gen Xers? How can we expect millennials, who grew up in an age of connectivity, context, and information to embrace the ethos forged in a time of less information and a more rigidly hierarchical society? More importantly, instead of viewing these qualities as narcissistic, we should prize them.

The second cause for the "employment gap" is the traditional workplace itself, in which input is often valued as much as, or more than, the quality of the output; where people pay their dues over many years, patiently climbing the ladder, enduring years of routine work before being promoted to a role that is interesting.

This culture, where — to borrow Woody Allen's famous quote — "80 percent of success is showing up," is emblematic of the legal profession. Indeed, many of us "grew up" in a law firm, where long hours were spent proofreading and doing due diligence or document review, often in windowless rooms. Our "managers" (such as they were) were largely absent and rarely gave us any context. We were expected to "soak up" knowledge through discipline and repetition, mostly by ourselves. At the end of the rainbow, many years out, lay the prize: lifetime partnership. Given their values, can we blame millennials for finding this fate to be appalling? Even to many of us non millennials, work in a big firm with the "prize" of partnership up ahead often seemed like a turbo-charged pie-eating contest where the big prize was, well, more pie.

Add to this the changing nature of the legal industry, with technology, offshoring, and outsourcing eroding margins and security, and it isn't too hard to see that we will soon be facing a crisis where the best and the brightest no longer seek the law. Clearly, in a world where the majority of the talent pool is millennials, it is critical for us as legal managers to get this right.

The fix

So what can be done to attract the very best and brightest millennials to the law? In short, we need to change both the way we hire and the way we work. Here are seven steps to getting there:

  1. Stop hiring only those millennial candidates who look and feel like Gen Xers and baby boomers. Ensure your hiring managers take off their "generational goggles" and consider millennials on their own terms. Take risks and get comfortable with diverse ways of working.
     
  2. Openly prize output over input by encouraging flextime and remote working. In a world in which we are all connected 24/7 from anywhere, unless we have meetings or team-based work to do, there should be no need to put on a suit, travel for hours to get to an office, and sit behind a desk for a fixed number of hours. We can't expect this generation's talent to adapt to an environment that no longer makes sense. This will have the added benefit of also attracting more working moms back in to the law. Our profession has neglected too much of the human talent pool for too long.
     
  3. Ensure your young talent gets exposed to different tasks and assignments. Variety is the spice of life and will go a long way towards retaining millennials, who are eager to constantly try new things. Of course, this means younger team members will likely make more mistakes, so make sure their decision making authority can't bring down the house. But it also means you will have a more flexible, confident, and resilient talent pool.
     
  4. Invest in intuitive technology that enables work, rather than hindering it. Millennials are tech natives with little tolerance for poor infrastructure. Your technology says a lot to this generation about your sophistication, competitiveness, and agility.
     
  5. Upgrade your leadership capabilities. Traditionally, lawyers have valued client-facing service, brilliant analytical skills, and a super-human work ethic over leadership, EQ, and communication abilities. The latter, however, are the skills most needed to attract and retain millennials. They are also essential to thriving in a world where clients demand more of their service providers.
     
  6. Encourage mentorship and promote managers who love teaching. Leaders who provide feedback, enjoy coaching, and have a willingness to learn from anyone will attract the next generation of talent. Incidentally, encouraging managers with these traits, especially a willingness to learn, are also essential for your overall competitiveness. A lack of innate curiosity is the first step on the road to extinction.
     
  7. Embrace the fact that most of your talent will not be with you for life and re-organize your workplace accordingly. Make pensions and other benefits portable, and adapt to accommodate a "gig economy". As Ben Casnocha, Chris Yeh, and Reid Hoffman frame it in their brilliant book "The Alliance," you have an opportunity to build a lasting, innovative organization if you treat your talent as free agents who join you for single or successive assignments rather than for life. You need to be more like a sports team and less like a factory. Basketball teams don't hire top talent for life. Individual player contracts may or may not be renewed after a few years, but during it, athletes and teams give each other 100 percent. Configure yourself so that when your talent does leave, you incorporate them into your professional network. They may come back later for another assignment. They may connect you to future talent. In any case, they remain part of your "knowledge bank", which you can draw from. This approach seems to work well in Silicon Valley, so why not in the professional services context?

In the liner notes to his seminal album Scarecrow, singer John Mellencamp wrote: "there is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands". We are witnessing the transition of the legal profession from baby boomers and Gen Xers to millennials. It is up to us as today's leaders to ensure the transition is more glorious than sad.

For further reading, download the ACC Docket article “The Graying of the Legal Department and Its Implications for Hiring and Developing In-house Talent”. Learn tips for recruiting and retaining the emerging crop of millennial lawyers.