How We can Benefit from Our Generational Differences

The Bencher—May/June 2021

By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers think and act differently. These differences can lead to friction, frustration, and a lack of productivity when dealing with both fellow attorneys and clients. An associate asked to meet a partner on a Saturday may respond that he has weekend plans he cannot break. A client seeking an in-person meeting with an attorney might be disappointed to receive a text message offering some quick legal advice. Some seasoned firm lawyers might be frustrated when the new attorney asks why he can’t try a different approach than the one the firm “always” uses. Most of us loathe change, but change—when appropriately viewed—can present new opportunities we can maximize. If we seek to understand one another, we will come to realize that our differences can be organizational assets.

Although not everyone fits the mold of his generation, literature has identified certain personality characteristics as predominating each generation. Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) often are committed workaholics who are good team players and make excellent mentors. They dislike change, are generally not tech savvy, and are motivated by recognition, achieving more as a result of their competitive nature. Gen Xers (1965–1980) usually are great workers who place a high emphasis on successfully juggling career and family. Many are unsatisfied with senior management but opt not to complain, and they focus on preventing the perfect from being the enemy of the good.

Millennials (1981–1996) work well independently, are creative, place a high value on ethics and social responsibility, and dislike being told exactly how something should be done. Their independent streak can make teamwork unappealing, often leading others to conclude that they do not have a strong work ethic, and they can be impatient when it comes to career growth. Gen Zers (1997–2012) are extremely comfortable with technology—allowing them to ably multitask—and often are ambitious entrepreneurs. They can be cynical, however, focusing on realism over idealism, and they sometimes are accused of being too reliant on technology.

Keeping these traits in mind can be helpful in the practice of law, although we must recognize that they are merely tools to find better ways to work together and not intended to make quick stereotypical judgments about our peers. At a minimum, these generational personality traits can be thought of as conversation starters that can inform how we can make the most of our working relationships with our colleagues. For instance, Millennials and Gen Zers are often frustrated with institutional ways of doing things. Instead of being annoyed by another calendar meeting invitation with a one-hour default duration, they might consider asking the organizer why the meeting is structured as it is. What is the organizer hoping to accomplish in this meeting? Is an agenda available? Is there anything the attendees can do in advance to be more efficient or make the meeting more productive? These questions show investment in the process and allow further understanding and potential incremental improvements to the way things are done.

Similarly, Boomers and Gen Xers should consider seeking feedback to demonstrate that they value the opinions and ideas of Millennials and Gen Zers. How can meetings be more engaging? Can the structure of meetings be improved? Can virtual meetings be successfully leveraged instead of in-person meetings?

Generational differences also frequently are evident when attorneys communicate within the firm environment. Boomers and Gen Xers are used to face-to-face meetings that start with a firm handshake, often involve some get-to-know-you discussion about the attorneys and their families, and eventually lead to the legal topic at hand. This facilitates the creation of deep personal bonds and wonderful mentorship opportunities. Millennials and Gen Zers, on the other hand, appreciate the efficiency of email and the effective use of technology, can fully take advantage of electronic legal research, and perhaps choose to share social media with other attorneys to allow them to get to know their personal side.

There clearly are benefits to both viewpoints and advantages to working together. Younger attorneys can help their mentors brush up on technical skills so they might be less apprehensive about sharing on social media. Older attorneys can encourage one-on-one communication by dropping by their younger colleagues’ offices for a sounding board regarding possible legal strategies and share a bit about their personal lives. Making efforts to help others by showing them how they can benefit from a different communication style is one approach to bridge generational differences.

Marketing is another area where there is a seemingly stark generational divide. Millennials and Gen Zers often don’t see the value in the “rubber chicken dinners” that the older generations grew up on as a way to meet clients, but they have found ways to maximize LinkedIn and other social platforms in ways that seem out of reach and, at times, undesirable to the more seasoned practitioners. Recognize and appreciate these differences because they are opportunities. Consider having a LinkedIn-minded attorney promote the work of another attorney who is attending, presenting at, or organizing a marketing event. This internal cross-marketing promotes a culture of teamwork and shows clients that you work well with your colleagues. In addition to writing traditional articles for the firm website, consider a legal blog or a Twitter feed in order to be more topical in your communications with potential clients.

As we attempt to bridge generational divides, we need to keep in mind that, at least to clients, we are service providers, and generational considerations are not limited to those that affect our colleagues. There are similar and important questions to consider with respect to clients as well. What are their expectations? Do they want us to visit them in person and see their business from their perspective? Do they expect responses to their email or texts within a certain amount of time? Are we expected to be in the office when they drop by unannounced? Are they comfortable meeting via remote video? Although we may be convinced that there are more efficient and effective ways of practicing law, clients may not share those beliefs (at least not yet). That is not to say that we should avoid attempting to persuade them, just that our efforts might require a gentle touch.

Learning from others and sharing our experiences shouldn’t be limited to the confines of the workplace. By participating in American Inns of Court, bar associations, practice groups, or blogs; by writing articles for our firm, the local bar association newsletter, or The Bencher; or by simply sharing with a colleague or a mentor in person or remotely, we can all continue to benefit from and share the views of others. Ultimately, a diversity of personalities fosters creativity and productivity. We can use personality types and generational differences to learn more about our colleagues and discover how we can work together better. If we don’t, our rigidity will likely lead to dissatisfaction and inefficiencies. Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Judge David W. Lannetti is a circuit court judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s 4th Judicial Circuit). Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is a civil litigator at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. Lannetti is a past president, and both he and Eaton are current Executive Committee members of the James Kent American Inn of Court in Norfolk, Virginia. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or Vandeventer Black LLP.
© 2021 Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esq. This article was originally published in the May/Jun 2021 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.