Generational Perspective: The View from Millennials During COVID-19
The Bencher—May/June 2021
By Jordann L. Wilhelm, Esquire
Officially, I am a Millennial lawyer. Unofficially, I am from the “Zennial” generation. The “Zennial” generation is oddly sandwiched between the late 1980s before technology was widespread and the early 2000s where every child grew up with some form of technology in their hands. As a Zennial, I have found myself lumped into both the Millennial and Gen Z generations depending on who I am speaking to at that moment. From a practical standpoint, I grew up at the time of the technology boom—I remember the first iPods, iPads, and smartphones. But I also remember dial-up internet and the days where internet was a commodity. To top things off, I was admitted to the Florida Bar at the ripe age of 23, and I have now been a practicing attorney for three years as an associate at a small private firm. My age and experience at a smaller firm has provided a different perspective to the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues involved with teleworking.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic it was fascinating to watch how quickly law firms were willing and able to move all employees to telework on a full-time basis. In my limited experience, teleworking was not the norm and was limited to vacation and weekend work; however, the COVID-19 pandemic opened the opportunity to full-time remote work. Though the technology for remote work has been available for years, it was initially difficult to work with fewer resources—it was even an adjustment working on a smaller laptop screen.
During the transition period, I observed that younger attorneys more readily adapted to and accepted the leap to remote work. In a lot of ways, remote work has been a relief for younger Millennials and Gen Z because there are seemingly fewer outside pressures when you are working from home. However, as to be expected, the older Millennials and prior generations have not been as accepting of the full-time remote work. For some, the difficulty lies in the obvious distraction of being at home and improper technological resources or training. For others, the difficulty lies in the transition away from the stereotypical law firm scene. However, on the whole, law firms and courts have readily adapted to telework during the pandemic and the process is still running seamlessly, even a year later.
In a smaller private firm, I noticed that the ability to move work completely online was easier than it was for larger employers, both as a practical, strategic matter and as a mentality. In fact, everyone seemed to embrace the ability to work from home despite the fact that this was a step away from typical office life and inhibited open communication and support of ideas within the office. With all of the remote work technology, video-calling platforms, and good old-fashioned telephone use, it is almost like things never changed for our firm.
Nonetheless, while the technology has been readily available to work remotely, it has been more difficult as an associate to remind senior attorneys, partners, and clients that although I may not physically be in the office, I am available and ready to work. Now that working from home is the new normal it is difficult to get the “face time” that associates are so accustomed to. For example, I can no longer walk down the hallway to touch base with a partner regarding the project I worked on last week. Another partner cannot pop into my office because she just remembered a deadline is approaching and she needs assistance. Without face time, teleworking has required that I communicate more often with my superiors and clients so that I can remind them that I am indeed still working.
The easiest way to deal with this gap in face time has been to directly call or email clients when there is information available that I think may be relevant to them. Similarly, directly contacting partners to remind them that I am willing and able to work has assisted in boosting my workload. Yet, despite the increased communication, I have found my workload to be significantly less than it has been in years past. It leaves the question: Are associates still needed during economic downturns? And, if we are not busy, how do we keep ourselves relevant? As an associate, the overwhelming concern is making sure I am still relevant and needed. On the whole, no one wants or needs an employee who is not working full eight-hour days.
The short answer is that associates have had to think outside the box during these unprecedented times to remain relevant. We are publishing more articles, reaching out to clients with helpful (and non-billable) information, and are making sure we get face time in any way possible. For me, staying relevant meant that I learned everything possible about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). I spent hours poring over the new legislation and each subsequent change that occurred. The FFCRA and all COVID-19–related legislation has been at the forefront and, as a result, I made myself relevant by following the new legislation that was, and is, relevant to all employers and employees in today’s society.
Moreover, the face time issue has been compounded as younger generations have had to make major adjustments in attempting to care for children within the home while also working from home. It is also harder for partners to see what associates are contributing, and it is even harder when there is a stereotype or bias involved with a working parent with children at home during the workday. Many parents have had to pull double-duty and act as teacher, caregiver, and employee throughout the entire day. The concern—and reality—is that many parents may be penalized for their need to care for children during the day while schools and day cares are closed. In addition, this bias and struggle seems to have disparately affected women in the workforce. The National Women’s Law Center has found that women have accounted for over 50% of overall net job loss since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is critical for the legal practice to adapt and recognize that associates are still diligently working throughout the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 lockdown has changed how the legal world has functioned for several decades. The situation requires the legal field to be more flexible. Flexibility has been needed in terms of where we work and how we work. Flexibility includes accepting the need for flex hours so that younger generations can care for their household while working from home. Flexibility also includes accepting that the workflow has been interrupted for many associates, so billable hours may look differently in years to come. However, that does not mean younger generations are less engaged or committed to the work we are doing.
Despite all the changes to the legal practice within the past year, there have been many positive points that seem to be recognized more by younger generations. One of the positive sides to teleworking has been that it is much easier to be readily available to clients and supervisors. Without the daily commute I find that I am ready to work even earlier (and later) than I did prior to COVID-19. In addition, by not having to commute, it is easier to transition into home life once work has completed for the day. It is literally just a step away! Furthermore, collaboration with other attorneys and discussion of ideas is much more intentional. There are fewer wasted hours on issues that could have been discussed briefly via email. Teleworking has truly provided a streamlined process for work to be completed and eliminates wasted time in commuting, meetings, and social calls.
For me, the forced requirement to work from home has been a reprieve. Though many people feel differently, working from home has been a much-needed change of pace in my life. It has allowed me to be more intentional with my work and time. Even the setting has been more relaxing, and after a hard day, I am less likely to feel strain because I already had the opportunity to take a short break for meals, a change of clothes, or a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, these short breaks just aren’t feasible while in the brick-and-mortar law office.
On the whole, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a lesson in flexibility and adaptability. Despite many concerns and challenges, younger generations have embraced teleworking and have found the silver lining in the process. If anything, these unprecedented times have taught us young, Millennial lawyers that our fancy offices are not a necessity, that our work marches on, and that, without a doubt, we are still relevant and needed.
Jordann L. Wilhelm, Esquire, is an associate with Radey Law Firm in Tallahassee, Florida where her practice primarily includes employment and administrative law litigation. She is a member of the William H. Stafford American Inn of Court.