By JOHN MCKNIGHT, Published in Employment Law - Feature

"If the whole world depends on today's youth, I cannot see the world lasting another 100 years." – Socrates


A law firm is a living thing which needs to be nurtured and grown. The population of its junior levels, with capable youngsters who can ensure the advance of the firm into the next generations, is vital. Good recruitment is critical to this. Law firms invest huge resources in seeking out and securing the very best talent they can, to offer them the same opportunities that the incumbent members of the firm had, so that the youngsters can walk in their footsteps and in so doing, continue the legacy of the firm.

But what if the new crop of youth is not interested in this deal? What if the new crop of youth want something different, something alien to the existing membersofthefirm. Somethingtowhichthepartnershavelittleornorelation?

Welcome to the world of Millennial recruitment, where the traditional paradigm that "hard work pays off" is severely assaulted and employers feel caught between Scylla and Charybdis in kowtowing to these new demands, while ensuring the firm's emergence into the next generation.

What is a Millennial?

Millennials are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when this cohort starts or ends but demographers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years.

The Millennial generation is generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies. Their upbringing was marked by an increase in a liberal approach to politics and economics and the effects of this environment are demonstrable.

Millennials have been seen as narcissistic and entitled, but it is generally recognised that they:

  • are liberal/progressive;
  • eschew corporate structure; and
  • have an emphasis on work-life balance and social consciousness.

Millennials will make up 46% of the work force by 2020 and 75% by 2030.

Simon Sinek's slightly jaundiced view of Millennials suggests that they want bean bags and free food in the workplace but, as Sinek himself acknowledges, it goes deeper than that. CLICK HERE to watch Sinek's interview

What do Millennials want?

One in three Millennials said they would prioritise flexibility over salary in accepting a job offer.

Millennials prefer on the spot recognition rather than traditional performance reviews, and 80% said they would prefer real time feedback. Millennials prefer structured assignments with opportunities to learn and grow and contribute in meaningful ways.

Among South African Millennials, 31% expect to be promoted after one to two years in their current position. Interestingly, the survey showed that along with lifestyle, South African Millennials ranked equally highly both remuneration and the social impact of their work (something that does not correlate with global findings – as usual, we are unique).

  • Millennials want a work environment that is comfortable and inspires them to contribute without fear of criticism.
  • Millennials are natural collaborators, particularly when the group's purpose and goals are understood. (Employers should be clear about deadlines and business boundaries.)

So it is clear that Millennials have a unique set of needs that is going to require some adjustment on the part of the law firm to deliver against. But what can the firm expect in return?

What will Millennials contribute?

  • When harnessed correctly, Millennials can be a powerful force for growth in any organisation.
  • Millennials are digital natives who will have little difficulty learning new tools.
  • Millennials will be social advocates for the firm.
  • Compared with other generations, Millennials are less motivated by money (although less so in the South African context).
  • Millennials are team players.
  • As the "Trophy Generation" in response to the "everyone's a winner" mentality and the endless pats on the backs associated with their upbringing, a need for praise and validation will often facilitate effort and achievement. So, whilst this means more feedback, Millennials will work hard to make sure it is of a positive nature.
  • Given that Millennials are so self-expressive, one can expect unabashed brainstorming, generating new solutions and fresh perspectives.
  • Like any youth generation, Millennials will help keep the firm up-to-date with social, entertainment, and other market trends. Building a relationship and offering Millennials an opportunity to grow with the firm means that they will reward the firm with continued relevance.

Summary Page 417 (4th edition) of Alcoholics Anonymous states that it seems almost too simple to be true, but acceptance - accepting things exactly as they are - can be the key that unlocks the door to happiness. Millennials are an unavoidable reality going forward. There is no advantage in criticising the characteristics of the generation or indeed trying to change them. Learning from, rather than dismissing, Millennials will benefit all age groups in the firm. It is important to avoid seeing Millennials as complainers. Better communication is key to effective management and Millennials are leading the way in creating environments that encourage open dialogue. Hiring and working with Millennials will require a shift in traditional attitudes from partners and staff in conventional law firms. In particular:

  • traditionally frequent job moves have been interpreted as a lack of commitment. Instead Millennials look to embrace change and pursue fulfillment.
  • spending extra time at the office is viewed as the mark of a hard worker by older practitioners but many Millennials prefer to find better ways to do the job by, for example, working from home.
  • Millennials ask for what they want and for answers if they do not understand. This can come across as demanding but it can be a good thing. The mindset of wanting to learn and grow is one that should be nurtured.
  • Millennials will require more praise and validation in real time.

This should not be a problem for perceptive firms. Indeed, to have come as far as most long established firms have, there must have been a history of embracing change and being progressive in attitudes to staff (and clients) and it should not be huge step for partners to embrace the change that Millennials necessarily herald. As John Maxwell once said: "Change is inevitable. Progress is optional". Indeed, the emergence of Millennials presents a good opportunity for any firm to capitalise on being an employer of choice and, in so doing, being able to select preferred candidates from the emerging demographic.

Sting from The Police may have written these words in 1983, but they have proved to be remarkably prescient when it comes to succession planning:

"Mephistopheles is not your name,

I know what you're up to just the same.

I will listen hard to your tuition,

And you will see it come to its fruition."

McKnight is a Partner with Spoor & Fisher.