Millennial Lawyers Can Transform the Industry, But They Need Help
Many young lawyers think the law firm business model is broken. To fix it, they need guidance—from the people who broke it.
Nicole Abboud practiced law for five years before calling it quits and starting her own business. Now, along with hosting The Gen Y Lawyer podcast, she helps lawyers improve leadership skills and create their own brands.
This comes at a time when more than half of lawyers believe the law firm business model is fundamentally broken, and two-thirds consider making partner less desirable than it was just a generation ago, according to a survey by Above the Law and Major, Lindsey & Africa. But the survey also found that 62 percent of young lawyers agree that millennials are transforming law-firm policies and culture for the better—providing a ray of hope as the industry grapples with relentless workloads that have been blamed for everything from the gender pay gap to suicide.
What can law firms do? Improved work-life balance would be nice, but it’s a tall order given the way Big Law has treated young lawyers for generations. Abboud says hope may lie in one relatively untapped vein: increased and improved mentoring. We talked to her about the challenges young lawyers face and what they can do to help their careers go smoothly—and what firms should do, too.
TS: Lawyers—particularly young lawyers—face enormous pressures, but working long, hard hours is often just seen as part of the job. What can firms do to help young lawyers avoid burnout and help them be more satisfied?
NA: It is inevitable lawyers are going to have a lot of work, and higher-ups in the firm need to remain aware of where the young lawyer is in his or her life. They need to be more understanding and compassionate toward what is going on—because everyone is different. Most people have other things going on, and lawyers shouldn’t just be treated as a number, but as individuals.
I’d suggest law firms—and the young lawyers themselves—really emphasize mentorship. There are good examples of firms institutionalizing this approach, like the Career Advocacy Program at Littler. That program, which works to develop diverse talent within the firm, selects high-performing associates who are visible minorities or identify themselves as LGBTQ or differently abled and pairs them with the firm’s most influential leaders and rainmakers, as well as general counsel of the firm’s clients. These relationships go a long way in helping diverse associates develop the skills and visibility needed to progress in their careers.
TS: Beyond the firmwide programs, what can individual lawyers—young and old—do to promote mentoring?
NA: Every person needs to do their own due diligence and reach out to people for advice. But law firm leaders should realize that mentoring—actually, nurturing—young lawyers will create better lawyers. The more forward-thinking law firms, even if they are Big Law, are embracing technology and are more client centered, and they tend to give more support and flexibility, all of which can make it easy to establish mentorships with people in different offices across the country or around the world.
Established lawyers should generally be open and approachable, with some form of open-door policy or way to communicate. An old employer of mine had his door closed all the time, and I was hesitant to ask him questions or for advice. More natural ways of communicating for some young lawyers can be preferable to a more formal mentorship program, which, if done poorly, can be forced and unnatural. Grabbing coffee or stopping by someone’s office can also be a good way to establish mentorships and relationships.
TS: If we figure that overworking young lawyers won’t change anytime soon, could other solutions help?
NA: I am a part of a Facebook group for women lawyers, and some of the most common posts are from women who have too much on their plate. It’s rare that these posts are related to specific practice areas—it is more related to everything else they have decided to take on, along with practicing law.
Lots of work comes with the territory of being a lawyer, and people know that going in. It’s everything else we take on—whether with our families or communities—that contributes to lawyers feeling like they are spread thin. But a lot of it is just how the industry has been built. And if that’s ever going to get better, industry leaders need to rethink old models and look for new approaches. Otherwise, this problem will never get better.