A great deal has been written about why associates, and even young partners, have a different set of aspirations and values than previous generations.  It is further suggested that law firms must adapt themselves to these generational shifts if they want to successfully recruit and retain lawyers and staff.

But suppose that the issues we blame on the changing outlook of young lawyers are, in fact, the result of changes in the structures and values of law firms and the way we run them.  Could it be that many of the concerns we have about Generation X lawyers may be products of our own creation – and within our capability to correct?

A couple of years ago, within the same week, I had the occasion to interview two third-year associates at two different law firms.  Both worked for fairly large, very well-regarded and highly profitable firms.  One was a transactional lawyer who, during the previous year, had billed 2800 hours and was on track for an even higher total for the current year.  He kept an air mattress in his office and often spent the night on the floor.  In an attempt to understand what on earth a law firm does to motivate someone to work that hard and put his health and marriage at risk, I asked him why he didn’t just go home.  He looked at me like I had just asked the most idiotic of all questions and said, “The work I’m doing is so cool that I’m afraid if I go home I’ll miss something.”

Same week, different law firm – I interviewed a litigation associate who had spent the entirety of his first two and one-half years of practice working on a single case in an off-site warehouse sorting through client documents to identify those subject to the lawyer-client privilege.  Although he worked a very routine nine-to-six work schedule, he was able to bill a respectable 2000 hours in each of the previous two years.  The young lawyer did not seem particularly perturbed about the work but asked, “Six years from now when I come up for partnership, do you think some committee will sit around the table and say, ‘He’s great—he can do five boxes a day.’”

Of course these are two extremes.  But, having talked to both of these young men, I don’t think that, had they somehow been magically swapped on the first day of their first year, the interviews would have been substantially different.  They were both members of Generation X and came from remarkably similar academic and personal backgrounds, but their attitudes appear to have been largely shaped by the experience provided to them by their law firms.

Traditionally, work in law firms runs through a screening process.  Partners, who bring in most of the work, keep the most complex and sophisticated matters for themselves. The work they either don’t want or can’t do is passed along to younger partners and senior associates.  They also keep the most interesting and challenging work for themselves, and pass on what’s left to mid-level associates.  The process continues until work trickles down to paralegals (okay, certain types of work jumps directly to young associates and paralegals but we’re working with a concept here).

Law firms depend on this screening process to provide training for lawyers.  The best lawyers will be the most inquisitive and always looking for projects that will help them develop new skills and acquire special knowledge.  The associates who don’t do that end up doing the same work repeatedly and fail to progress and, if the system works, they get weeded out in the annual evaluation process.

But law firms changed one important part of this process – the weeding out.  The concept of “up or out” fell out of favor as firms, in pursuit of increased profitability, decided that if they had an associate who was willing to pump out hours and for whom the firm could get a good rate, it was silly to force them out and lose the revenue.  What resulted was a new and growing cadre of lawyers wedged between the equity partners and the associates.  Some firms call them non-equity partners or of counsel.  Others call them senior or permanent associates.

So, as firms became more selective about their equity partners but retained senior lawyers who were not elected to equity partnership, this new cadre became an inner tube around the waist of the law firm pyramidal structure.  These lawyers, who are by and large being paid to bill hours, will, if given the opportunity, sap off the best and most interesting work.  And, because this interim level is steadily growing, less and less challenging work gets down to younger associates.

Now, we can accuse Generation X’ers of a lot of things, but being stupid isn’t one of them.  They look up, see what’s happening, and find themselves with two choices.  They can accept the situation, cash their large paychecks and bonuses and learn to live with the “tsk-tsking” of partners about how young lawyers aren’t motivated anymore.  Or, they can find another job.

The brightest and best will realize that they only have seven or eight years to learn their profession.  There are no “do overs.”  They can’t push the rewind button and start over again as a first year associate. They get one shot and have to make the most of it.  That may be why many law firms have 20+ percent attrition rates.

Of course there are differences between generations molded by their experiences (including what they learned by watching their parents), and law firms must be willing and able to adapt themselves in a manner that is best for the associates while maintaining the values and culture of the firm.  And, of course, older lawyers will always chuckle about the younger generation of lawyers not understanding the concept of spending hours doing library research that is now done in seconds on the internet, or spending all night at the financial printer.  Technology has forever changed the world in which law firms operate in many ways.

But at their core, regardless of generational differences, young lawyers are just like older lawyers.  They are the brightest and best our society has to offer.  Their fertile minds require constant opportunities to learn and expand their capabilities and they want to be proud of what they do.  Provide the younger generation with a level playing field in the allocation of work and a lot of the fretting about generational differences will go away.