Generational Issues in the Practice of Law

The Bencher—May/June 2021

By Judge John I. Guy

Perhaps the best way to address the issues that arise between attorneys of different generations is to first consider what must not be issues. Whether an attorney is in one’s first year of practice or one’s last, integrity, professionalism, and civility, above all else, must govern an attorney’s conduct toward other attorneys and the court. As stated in the preamble to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous, and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system.”

Indeed, the cornerstone of professionalism is found in the very oath one takes to become an attorney. Although the oath of attorney varies from state to state, almost all speak to the interaction between attorneys and between attorneys and judges. In Idaho, for example, attorneys swear they “will never seek to mislead a court or opposing party by false statement of fact or law, and will scrupulously honor promises and commitments made.” In Colorado, attorneys swear to “treat all persons whom I encounter through my practice of law with fairness, courtesy, respect, and honesty.” In Florida, and in many other states, attorneys swear to “maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers” and “to opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.” In other states, including Alaska, attorneys swear they will “adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct in my dealings with clients, judicial officers, attorneys, and all other persons.”

Similarly, the intended outcome of any judicial proceeding should not be affected by an attorney’s tenure in the practice of law. In all judicial proceedings, the attorneys, as well as the court, are charged with attaining a just outcome, born of the law and facts and exercised with a strict adherence to due process.

That said, the purpose of this article is to examine the issues that arise when attorneys of different generations find themselves on opposite sides of the courtroom table and to offer possible solutions.

Perhaps the most pervasive issue of the generational differences between attorneys is that of communication. The days of the Rolodex and meeting for lunch are almost extinct. Today’s younger attorneys have been raised on social media, text messages, and emails. And while those forms of communication are faster and often more convenient than in-person meetings and phone calls, too much is lost in such electronic communication. Some discussions, such as the time change of a proceeding, are fine for a text message, but others, such as negotiations or client issues, are not. To fully understand one’s position, an attorney needs to hear the connotation and inflection in another’s voice or see the meaning in an opposing counsel’s eyes. The answer then may be the observance of discretion in deciding when to send a message and when to request a meeting. As a general rule, the more important the topic, the more likely it should be a sit-down.

Another area that often confronts attorneys of vastly different ages is professional perspective. The younger attorney should understand and appreciate the more seasoned opponent harbors a valuable asset—firsthand experience. What the younger attorney is doing for the first time, the senior attorney can do without hesitation. And while this can often be intimidating to a younger attorney, it can also be a useful resource. Beginning lawyers can learn much from listening to a more experienced colleague and asking probing questions. I recall as a young prosecutor asking opposing counsels what they believed would be a fair disposition for their client and the state. Their answers often told me volumes about who I was dealing with.

Conversely, older attorneys should recognize and consider that a younger lawyer may lack the wisdom that experience brings. The veteran lawyer might tactfully inquire of the younger attorney’s level of experience and/or background in a particular area. The more experienced attorney may also provide legal authority or other guidance for a specific proposition. Finally, veteran lawyers would be well-served to thoughtfully recall their own emotions and experiences at the onset of their careers.

Of course, younger attorneys may also provide assistance to their more senior counterparts. Typically, younger attorneys are well-versed in the use of technology, research tools, and social media. Presented with such an opportunity, the junior attorney should leap at the chance to assist a senior colleague. Similarly, senior lawyers would do well to seek the knowledge of younger lawyers in these and other related areas.

A few moments of preparation and reflection, to consider the position and perspective of one’s opposing counsel, is time well spent.

Attorneys’ expectations are another area where 20-something-year-old lawyers may differ from 60-something-year-old lawyers. The focus of a case should remain on the impact the outcome will have on the well-being of the client. Period. Following all rules of professionalism, and adhering to the procedures of court, attorneys must zealously and ethically advocate for their clients. However, attorneys today may be equally concerned with the impact of an outcome on their bottom line. A review of recent articles on the subject reveals that today’s law students graduate with student loan debt of between $100,000 and $200,000. Employers and older attorneys should be mindful of the concerns of today’s newest attorneys in this regard. Additionally, employers should explore ways to address and confront these issues and help newer attorneys to do the same.

Finally, there is the issue of professionalism itself. Is the deference afforded to fellow attorneys and judges by the most recent law school graduates the same today as it was 30 years ago? So much can be learned by observing experienced, well-respected veteran attorneys. To the newest lawyers among us: Watch, listen, take note. The most highly regarded attorneys almost always have fairly and honestly achieved such acclaim. Watch how they conduct themselves. Listen to the way they address the court and other attorneys. Take note of their preparation and results.

Which brings us to perhaps the most useful and practical solution: mentoring. The American Inns of Court has long recognized the value of sustained and effective mentoring programs. Indeed, in its professional creed, the organization observes that “preservation and promulgation of the highest standards of excellence in professionalism, ethics, civility, and legal skills are essential to achieving justice under the Rule of Law.”

The goal of these mentoring programs is to bridge the gap between those new to the practice of law and those chiseled from the years of experience, wins and losses, triumphs and failures. A successful mentoring relationship takes the young lawyer through years of experience in a matter of minutes or hours. Rather than step in the same hazard as the mentor, the mentee is better able to foresee and navigate around such problems. And, importantly, as any mentor will attest, the mentoring relationship is just as valuable and rewarding to the mentor as it is to the mentee.

Every law firm and bar association should give great thought to the creation or revamping of a mentoring program. Wherever possible, careful consideration should be given to the pairing of a mentor with a mentee. Among other things, program leaders should consider the interests of those involved, their respective goals, and the likelihood that the pair will be motivated to interact with each other. Inherent in the level of success of the mentoring relationship is the mentee’s willingness to learn and the mentor’s ability to convey. Ideally, each pairing would include highly motivated participants.

Rather than avoiding the generational differences between young and veteran attorneys, the occasion should be embraced and examined so that each may benefit from the other. Instead of focusing on what may appear to be an experiential chasm between the two groups, attorneys of all levels of experience should focus on their commonalities and develop ways to bridge their differences. A sustained and successful mentoring program allows attorneys of all generations to learn and prosper from each other.

And, of course, not lost in the endeavor must always be the integrity, civility, professionalism, and goals that are the hallmarks of our system of justice.

Judge John I. Guy is a judge for the Family Division of Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court in Duval County, Florida. He is also the current immediate past president of the Florida Family Law American Inn of Court in Jacksonville.
© 2021 Judge John I. Guy. 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.