The Generations War comes to the law firm

It’s not about who’s right, Boomers or Millennials. It’s about the most profound change to the fabric of the legal profession in 40 years, and how we’re going to get through it.

Illustration by Midjourney

I’ve never had a tweet go truly viral, and probably I should be grateful for that, but yesterday was as close as I’m likely to come.

I’d spotted an article from LegalTech News about older law firm partners’ frustration with so-called “Zoom Associates,” which contained all kinds of red-meat descriptions of incoming associates who “lack initiative, ownership and personal responsibility” and “don’t want to work hard.” (Important note: Those incendiary descriptions were offered by interviewees to express what many partners believe about associates, not what the interviewees themselves believe.)

The article was quite good, exploring the whys and wherefores of different generations’ approaches to work. But I was really struck by those descriptions, because as I said in my brief thread, they’re not complaints about approaches to employment so much as they’re judgments about associates’ character, rooted in moral indignation and resentment of the implicit rejection of older lawyers’ values.

So I saw this as an interesting illustration of the generational conflict playing out in law firms, and tweeted as much. I wasn’t prepared for the volume and intensity of the responses, especially from younger lawyers. Here’s a sample:

  • This entire profession is deeply fucked & one symptom of this insanity is the deep loathing attorneys at the top have for those coming up behind them.
  • There is nothing appealing about being a big law partner. It’s an exhausting life and the money isn’t enough to want it. … We took these jobs because we were in debt not because we wanted to be our dads.
  • [Associates are] doing substantively boring work for evil-to-amoral clients at all hours of the day and any real sense of accomplishment or professional development is hoarded by older management who simply won’t retire
  • I was locked in a room with several lawyers all day yesterday, and they were griping that first year associates want to be paid too much and that “we need a recession to set things right”.
  • Boomers and Gen X have only themselves to blame for my generation and the ones after me telling them to take their expectations and shove it up their asses. They took all of their generational economic advantages and pulled up the ladder behind them.
  • These boomer partners have no qualms over-hiring during boom & cutting the SECOND it looks like they can’t afford their 4th Italian villa.
  • The idea that younger associates “don’t want to work hard” is bullshit. They’re just not as willing to be *abused* as some of my peers were.

More replies keep coming in even as I’m writing this article. Note the strong language in these and many other comments, the anger and raw emotion on display. I think older lawyers, especially those in the Boomer generation, might be surprised by the anger — but many would likely respond in kind, with harsher comebacks. The conflict and the enmity are real.

But Boomers shouldn’t be surprised by this war of words — in fact, it might even ring a bell for many of them. What we’re seeing here, as I said yesterday, is “what happens when one generation starts to displace another in a law firm: genuine friction over clashing values.” We haven’t seen this happen in nearly 40 years — but the last time it did, it changed the fabric of the legal profession.

From 1946 to 1964, as you might have heard, the American population Boomed. About 20 years after the end of the war, law school enrolment began to explode. Assuming the average lawyer began their career in their early-to-mid 20s, that puts the start of the Boomers’ entry into the legal profession around 1970 and its end around 1988.

From 1970 to 1984, the number of lawyers in the US grew by 98%. From 1980 to 1990, the number of US firms with more than 50 lawyers tripled; the number of lawyers in those firms rose 119%. From 1960 to 1980, the average US lawyer age dropped from 46 to 39. In 1967, businesses bought 39% of US legal services and individuals bought 55%; by 1992, those shares had switched to 51% and 40%. The legal profession in the US (and in other countries that experienced similar demographic trends) became much more populous, more business-oriented, and much younger in a very short period of time.

It also became more cutthroat. “Within the large-firm sector, the 1970s saw the dissolution of the world of assured tenure, infrequent lateral movement, and enduring retainer relationships with loyal, long-term clients,” wrote Marc Galanter in 1999. “In its place rose a world of rapid growth, mergers and breakups, overt competition, aggressive marketing, attorney movement from firm to firm, fears of defection, and pervasive insecurity.” This was how Boomers’ values — hard work, individualism, growth, consumerism — began to replace those of their Silent Generation elders.

It’s during this period that mandatory retirement policies are first introduced, allowing law firms to push partners out at the (now-astonishing) age of 55. Money shifts from a taboo topic to seemingly the only topic worth talking about (it’s the ‘80s, after all). In 1979, Steven Brill launches The American Lawyer; in 1987, the magazine debuts the AmLaw 100 and introduces the legal profession to Profits Per Partner. “Lawyers find themselves competing not just with lawyers in other firms, but with their own partners and even the associates coming up the ladder,” Galanter writes. “Lawyers complain of the decline of collegiality. The bonds of fraternity are frayed.”

Silent Generation lawyers, proprietors of the small, dignified, exclusionary law firms of the mid-century, were overwhelmed by this massive wave of optimistic, determined, sky’s-the-limit lawyers flooding into the profession, remaking the practice of law and the business of law firms to reflect and ride the expansive post-War high. Older lawyers’ values — loyalty, elitism, stability, frugality born from childhoods in the Depression and WWII — were pushed aside.

I don’t imagine there are too many Silent Generation lawyers reading this Substack. If there are, maybe we can allow them a little smile of vindication as history begins to rhyme again. But as I said on Twitter, I’m not particularly interested in taking sides; as a modestly self-employed Gen-Xer who spent hardly any time working as a lawyer, I have no particular dog in this hunt. (Okay, fine, I’m a liiiittle more sympathetic to the Millennials). But I do think I can contribute a couple of useful points here.

The first is that, as some of the interviewees noted, everyone’s frustrated and upset these days. We’re all short on patience and empathy for people with drastically different perspectives from our own, and there’s a lot for us to be angry about. But when we can’t see someone else’s position, we can’t relate to or communicate with them, and then we’re stuck where we are and it’ll only get worse. You don’t have to like the other side. But I think it’s important to briefly pretend you’re standing there to get a sense of the view.

Boomers and older Xers are immensely proud of what they’ve built. They worked extremely hard and sacrificed a great deal — they know better than anyone what they gave up — to create a legal profession far richer, more influential, and more diverse than the chummy little boys’ clubs they entered. They credit their success to outworking their competitors and finding the courage to keep expanding outwards. They feel justly entitled to the rewards of their efforts, and they expect anyone who wants to share in those rewards to recognize their accomplishments, acknowledge their values, and work equally hard to maintain and grow their vision.

You can argue all you like about the validity of this perspective. But it is what it is, Boomers are who they are, and they’ve got some points. There’s truth to the idea that if you inherit a grand castle, you owe something to the people who built it and you implicitly accept the means that were employed in its construction. What you do with that perspective is up to you.

But Boomers and older Xers, you really need to understand where younger lawyers are coming from. Your parents made extravagant promises that could be fulfilled in the bright 1950s and 1960s; their parents made the same promises in the dark 1990s and disastrous 2000s and they proved empty. They know the sacrifices you made because they were usually on the receiving end of them. They faced more competition and endured more pressure than you ever did as teenagers and young adults. They worked hard too — not because they chose to, but because they had to.

And what they’ve kept hearing about, throughout all these trials, is their inadequacy and shiftlessness. Towers came down and bankers killed the economy and politics grew toxic and the world literally caught fire, but apparently they’re the problem because they don’t like paying the bills someone else incurred. So they’ve adopted different values from their elders, prioritizing personal relationships and peace of mind over profit per partner. And as their numbers grow and as they move into positions of power in law firms, they’re going to infuse their values into firms to change what lawyers do, how they do it, where they do it, and how long they do it for.

And that’s the second point I want to make. This might be a War Between The Generations and all the rest of it, but it’s a war whose outcome is predetermined. When you began reading this article, a Boomer partner somewhere retired. By the time you finish it, a Millennial lawyer somewhere will have become a partner. More and more every day, the values of the Millennial generation are becoming the values of the legal profession, and they will ultimately transform it.

Law firm leaders, I urge you to recognize this. Your law firms are becoming something different, in real time, and it’s perfectly natural that this transition creates tension and upheaval. But the more you fight it, the longer it will take and the harder it will be. Law firm associates, I urge you to open lines of communication with your law firms’ leaders and keep them open. Understand where they’re coming from, empathize with the sense of loss they’re experiencing, and begin preparing for the day you lead these firms and this profession in your chosen direction. They might have some good advice for you.

This is a great profession, folks, and an important one, and it needs to emerge from this difficult transition ready for this century’s unbelievably difficult challenges. However our values diverge, we can at least all agree on that. Let’s start there.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with author’s permission with first publication on his Substack.

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