Camille Stell

Stell: Generational Differences: 5 Tips for Effective Communication

For the first time in American history, we have four different generations working together. Generational differences affect every aspect of work from recruiting new employees to building effective teams. Our communication skills are being tested with so many different generations competing to speak and be heard.

Who are the players?

  1. Traditionalists were born from 1900 – 1945. They value patriotism, loyalty, hard work and respect. They have a “top down” approach to management. They lived through World War I, World War II and the Great Depression and were greatly influenced by these major events. Their names appear on the doors of many of the law firms across our state.
  2. Baby Boomers were born from 1946 – 1964 and make up the majority of partners in law firms today. Boomers are competitive, idealistic and optimistic. Boomers plan to keep working as long as they can be productive.
  3. Generation Xers were born from 1965 – 1980. They are skeptical, independent and resourceful. The divorce rate tripled during their generation and both their parents worked earning them the moniker “latchkey kids.” They often distrust the permanence of institutional or personal relationships. Many Gen Xers are your supervising attorneys.
  4. Millennials were born from 1981 – 1999 and are the majority of law students, young lawyers and legal professionals today. Millennials are realistic, confident and appreciate diversity. Millennials feel empowered to take positive action when things go wrong – this is an excellent trait for a young professional in a client service driven profession. Parents of Millennials included them in the day-to-day negotiations at home, so Millennials expect as much from the office. This can lead to challenges as Traditionalists and Boomers often lead their teams with a “need to know” mentality rather than inviting all team members to participate in the discussion.

Given the potential for conflict based on these generational gaps, here are five tips to help you maneuver through these challenges.

Where is your sense of tradition? Traditionalists and Boomers value tradition. They are proud of the law firms they built. They also experience conflict with the many changes that have happened in the legal profession. They are particularly troubled by the idea that the practice of law is viewed as a business rather than a profession.

As a result, they often feel Gen-Y and Millennials have no sense of tradition or respect for the ways things have always been done.

Solution: Millennials, honor the past by acknowledging that many things about the law do not change quickly. If you understand the resistance, it may help you develop better language to share your new ideas. Rather than focusing on the fact that “everyone” is using the new tools or the financial benefits, you may also want to focus on how efficiencies better serve clients. Traditionalists and Boomers, remember that financially sound business decisions today provide that the firm will be around for generations to come.

Get Out of Our Way. Millennials are confident and are ready to take action. Millennials often express this in an attitude that says “tell us our goals and get out of our way.” This is reflected in the popular style of mentoring often requested by Millennials – situational mentoring. Boomers were the recipient of traditional mentoring that included hands-on training, shadowing partners in client meetings and the courtroom, participating in long lunches to hear war stories and many introductions to the pillars of the local bar.

Solution: Millennials will benefit from listening and learning. There is a good chance you will not be mentored in the same way as the more established lawyers. Take every opportunity to receive an introduction, to get involved with the various bar associations and to ask for advice.

Honor Your Obligations. Understand the requirements of the job before you take it. If working long hours and weekends is expected, your Boomer Boss will frown upon you having an excuse that prevents you from working those hours.

Boomers, Millennials see work and life as overlapping. The idea of face time, sitting in a chair from 7:00 to 7:00 because that is how it has always been done, has no appeal. You can force Millennials to follow the rules for a while, but following old traditions without a business purpose will result in more turnover in employees and difficulty in recruiting top talent.

Solution: Communicate proactively and make sure everyone has the same expectations. Work must be done, deadlines must be met. Attend required and suggested work events and networking events.

Boomers, make clear your expectations with regard to client contact, billing time, face time in the office, and availability after hours. Also recognize that technology has forever changed the legal profession and be realistic in your expectations of face time.

Legal Writing. The most common complaint by Boomer Bosses about Millennial substantive work skills is the lack of excellent writing skills. This skill is honed by practice.

Solution: Millennials, constantly strive to improve your writing. Learn from the edits and rewrites that your Boomer Boss makes to your drafts.

Problem Solving. Ultimately, clients pay lawyers to resolve problems. Learning how to analyze problems and search for solutions is a key in your development as a valued member of the team.

Solution: Look for opportunities to listen in on negotiations and possible solutions to client problems. Listen to your client and understand what a “win” looks like for them. Attorneys across generations should collaborate to make sure you are working towards the same goal for your client.

Overcoming our stereotypes about generational differences will help us to communicate effectively.

Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at or 800.662.8843.

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