Managing generational shift in the workplace is always a challenge, regardless of the industry. This is all the more true in the legal profession where a certain amount of conformity is expected and tradition reigns. With a diverse generation — Millennials — now representing the largest age group in the Canadian workforce and challenging those traditions, the legal industry is faced with having to quickly figure out how to build its future around its best and brightest young talent.

Attracting candidates right out of law school is still relatively easy. The market for students and young graduates to get hired for an articling position remains competitive, which is an advantage for firms. That could very well change, however, as a growing number of alternative career paths become available in the coming years and as a new breed of legal service providers emerges and takes root in the marketplace.

There is a great sense of urgency in retaining the young talent we have managed to attract. We’ve all seen this happen: A promising up and comer, poised for promotion, announces that she’s decided to explore other possibilities in a new job elsewhere. Another wants to try an entirely new career altogether. Another yet wants to dial back on the long hours because of his family commitments.

We understand that the younger generation is more focused on the importance of agile working, balancing career and family, being valued and making a difference.

Shift in priorities

These are values that no one would quarrel with. What is challenging for law firms is that this shift in priorities is happening at a time when clients are also demanding more for less; they’re calling the shots and, rightly, they want to see value and efficiency in the legal services they’re buying. They want solutions delivered promptly and on budget. They expect lawyers to use technology and a more collaborative approach in the way they work.

It may be unsettling, but these trends are only going to grow as a second wave of Millennials moves into the workforce, as technology and automation are applied to a growing number of legal tasks, and as the ecosystem of legal service providers becomes more diverse and competitive.

There’s no question that these are complex problems for today’s generation of law firm leaders. But it’s important for us to recognize that what we already have at our disposal is diversity – at least inasmuch as each generation approaches work, career and problem-solving in different ways. And while that diversity can present challenges, it can also provide interesting solutions and opportunities.

Changing the way we adapt to evolving client needs can be a boon to traditional firms seeking to improve the engagement and productivity of their young talent. Ultimately, it will help them address challenges of retention while keeping an eye on the other task at hand: modernizing the practice of law and innovating in the delivery of legal services[2].

Lawyers will continue to be sought out for their judgment, their analytical skills and their legal knowledge in the years and decades to come. What’s patently clear, however, is that the skill set required of young legal professionals is a far cry from what was expected of the generations that preceded them.

Foster a new work environment

Our responsibility, then, is to foster an environment where flexible careers are welcome and collaborative skills can thrive. We need to enlist bright young minds in the service of better project management, and technological solutions that serve client needs. Indeed many of the solutions to the challenges facing law firms and legal departments are likely to come from this dialogue.

Demographics, as the saying goes, explain two-thirds of everything. Hopefully they can provide us with as many ideas to help us modernize the practice of law.