Becoming Recruiting Magnets for Millennials

Steven Harper (2013), a retired BigLaw partner-turned-critic, blames the Baby Boomers for making “a mess of the legal profession. Time and time again, the focus on shortsighted metrics has sacrificed long-term vision” (p. 208).  While there surely is blame to go around, Baby Boomers are part of the story. Historically, Boomers have been characterized as being hypercompetitive, working long hours, and scoffing at work-life balance (Rikleen, 2014; Retzloff, 2010). Studies find them to be materialistic and focused on external rewards (Retzloff, 2010).

The generational dynamics that shaped current law firm culture are likely to generate increasing tension as Millennials—the 86 million Americans born from 1980 to 2000—continue to inundate firms and question prevailing values (Rikleen, 2014). The positive law firm blueprint better aligns with Millennial values and may provide a recruiting advantage to aspiring positive law firms.The American population of Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) is huge (numbering 80 million), giving them power to shape culture by sheer numbers (Rikleen, 2014). The smaller generation sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials is Generation X, encompassing 38 million Americans born between1960 and 1980 (Rikleen, 2014).

Generation X is depicted as less materialistic than Boomers and committed to work-life balance (Rikleen, 2014; Retzloff, 2010). The Xers originally were expected to make significant changes in the workplace by challenging the Boomers’ workaholic tendencies (Rikleen, 2014). But, due to the much larger size of the Boomer population, Generation X was compelled to adapt (Rikleen, 2014; Espinoza, 2012). The same will not be true for the large and opinionated Millennial generation.

The first Millennial college graduates entered the workforce in 2004 and will continue do so until around 2022 (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010). The Boomers are reaching retirement age. The oldest turned age 62 in 2008, and the youngest will turn 62 in 2026 (McKnickle, 2010). Specifically as to law firms, some estimate that nearly 65% of equity partners will retire over the next decade (Shannon, 2011). Generation X, due to its small size, cannot fill all the gaps left by retiring Boomers (McKnickle, 2010). A massive workforce shortage is predicted until the Millennials grow into the jobs left by so many Boomers (McKnickle, 2010). As a result, businesses increasingly are encouraging Boomers to delay retirement (McKnickle, 2010). The combination of all of the above means that three generations will be teamed up for the foreseeable future and must work together cohesively to plan for the Boomer-less years ahead.

Much work has been done to study the three generation’s values and beliefs (e.g., Retzloff, 2010; Espinoza, 2010). Three main differences among the generations can be categorized as perceptions of work ethic, work-life balance, and teamwork (Retzloff, 2010). Research reflects that Boomers are optimistic, team-oriented, and hypercompetitive (Retzloff, 2010). Their value system includes productivity, pursuing goals, loyalty to the organization, and ruling the workforce (Retzloff, 2010). They are aggressive in seeking to get ahead and expect rewards such as advanced titles, more money, special parking spaces, and large private offices (Retzloff, 2010). Boomers routinely have foregone family obligations in favor of their commitment to organizational goals and pursuing materialistic rewards (Retzloff, 2010).

Generation X and the Millennials inherited Boomers’ workaholic, materialistic work culture, which creates tension with their own values (Retzloff, 2010). Generation X cares less about materialistic rewards and values autonomy and independence, individual achievement, work-life balance, and a sense of purpose through opportunities for personal and professional growth (Retzloff, 2010). They measure personal success through intellectual challenge, success in the organization, and continued growth (Retzloff, 2010).

Millennials want jobs that mean something to the good of society (Retzloff, 2010; Rikleen, 2014). They seek meaning, purpose, and shared commitment (Rikleen, 2014; Ng, Schweitzer, & Lyons, 2010; Hershatter & Epstein, 2010). Similar to Generation X, they are committed to work-life balance (Espinoza, 2012). They do not believe in trading off a good living for a good life. They also want supportive, nurturing, fun work environments (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010; Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Ng et al., 2010).

The Millennials want to advance quickly and so are eager to understand their career path and advancement potential (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Espinoza, 2012; Ng et al., 2010). Lots of real-time feedback—mostly positive—also is important (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Rikleen, 2014; Espinoza, 2012). The use of positive reinforcement to shape behavior will need to become standard practice, because Millennials are unlikely to respond well to negative reinforcement or reprimands (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Espinoza, 2012). The most effective communications will be those that are positive and designed to set a tone of focus, enthusiasm, success, and fulfillment (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Espinoza, 2012). Millennials like to feel appreciated, valued, respected, and that they are making a real contribution (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009). The common theme to the Millennial profile is that they respond best to employers that convey “you matter to us”; your well-being and enthusiasm are important to our success (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009; Espinoza, 2012).

Given the varying value sets of the three generations that will team up to determine law firms’ future success, firms will be best served by expanding their value system. Positive law firm culture will be more positive, affirming, and connected to a higher purpose—a culture that will be particularly attractive and motivating for Generation X and Millennials. It also may be that Boomers, as they approach retirement, are ready to embrace expanded values. Psychologists focusing on adult life stages note that extrinsic motivation for money and rewards levels off in mid-life, as a greater interest in self-identity and creating a legacy emerges (Retzloff, 2010).

For all these reasons, now appears to be an ideal time for law firms to turn toward the positive.


Espinoza, C. (2013). Millennial integration: Challenges Millennials face in the workplace and what they can do about them (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. AAI3534921)

Harper, S. J. (2013). The lawyer bubble: A profession in crisis. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hershatter, A. & Epstein, M. (2010). Millennials and the world of work: An organization and management perspective. Journal of Business Psychology, 25, 211-223.

McNickle, E. A. (2010). A grounded theory study of intrinsic work motivation factors influencing public utility employees aged 55 and older as related to retirement decisions (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. AAI3372746)

Retzloff, D. H. (2010). Understanding generational work values to create effective multi-generational work teams (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. AAI3538856)

Rikleen, L. S. (2014). You raised us – Now work with us: Millennials, career success, and building strong workplace teams. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association Publishing.

Sujansky, J. G. & Ferri-Reed, J. (2009). Keeping the Millennials: Why companies are losing billions in turnover to this generation and what to do about it. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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