The Legal Industry Generation Gap

Topics: Data Analytics, ediscovery, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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LAS VEGAS—The legal services industry has an age problem.

That general impression, more than any specific technology trends or exciting new products, is my primary takeaway from last week’s ILTACON in Las Vegas, the annual meeting of the International Legal Technology Association.

ILTACON is a big, energetic show that—in contrast to Legaltech, the other big legal technology show held in the winter—is put on by a membership organization rather than as a trade show. This adds a lot of new dimensions to the event. For one, the attendees are a large, engaged group of lawyers, firm Chief Information Officers, programmers, e-discovery specialists, and other IT professionals (1,600 attendees this year) with a lot of common interests. And the conference sessions are much more likely to have a peer-to-peer aspect than the vendor-centric presentations you might see at Legaltech.

Time after time at last week’s ILTACON, innovative technologists and lawyers presented exciting new tech-based innovations that they are bringing to their firms and law departments. But when asked to identify their challenges, more often than not the senior managing partners within their organizations were identified as a barrier. That is, senior management was seen as a barrier to technology adoption and to needed changes in the way legal services are delivered.

The issue even turned up in the sketch at right. A cartoonist from KENDEO was brought in to help visualize and storify key issues in legal tech on several large panels set up in one of the conference hallways. Under the caption “My biggest challenge next year will be….” attendees were invited to post their biggest problems. One response was “60-year-old partners that refuse to learn or support innovation,” which was promptly illustrated by one such partner kicking a light bulb out of the way.

ILTACON

Age is, of course, not really the problem. There are lots of creative, flexible, innovative people of all ages contributing in many tech-intensive industries. But there’s something about the Baby Boom generation (those people born in between 1946-1964) currently in charge of most law firms that does seem to be slowing things down. The Boomers were going to change the world, and they did in many ways. But how is it that they are now the problem, not the solution?

  • Is it deliberate? Joshua Lenon, Lawyer in Residence at Clio, thinks so. At a side event, Ignite Law, organized by Dan Lear of Avvo, Lenon ran a quick presentation called How the Baby Boomers Destroyed the Legal System. He argues the Boomers are doing to the legal profession what they are doing to Social Security and other public systems—reaping the benefits and then pulling the ladder up after themselves. As firm management ages, the percentage of equity partners is declining, and that cadre is doing all it can to hold on to its piece of a pie that’s generally not growing, while cutting younger lawyers off.
  • What are firms missing? In another session at that same event, Erika Concetta Pagano, Lecturer in law and Associate Director of the University of Miami’s Law Without Walls program, pointed out what the older generation of lawyers is missing by failing to connect to the skills of younger lawyers: multi-lingual, tech-savvy, globally-oriented and energetic opportunities and resources. Her exuberant, wide-ranging talk at Ignite Law was the perfect counterpoint to Lenon’s; it prescribed more multi-talented, multi-faceted, and multi-lingual 28-year-old lawyers as the solution to the industry’s ills.
  • How do clients see it? Well for one thing, Am Law 100 data shows that larger firms are still firmly in the hands of the Baby Boomers, while the leadership of their Fortune 500 clients is being turned over to the next generation. According to a recent American Lawyer article, 20% of GCs at Fortune 100 companies, and 30% of Nasdaq companies, are members of Generation X (those born between 1965-1979)—compared with less than 5% of Big Law leaders.
  • How do the Millennials see this? They have self-esteem issues, among other things. The Pew Research Center has new data showing Millennials (often called Generation Y, and include those born between 1980-1995) struggling to keep up with the Boomer ideals: “Get a good education. Get a well-paying full-time job. Find a stable partner. Buy a house and a car. Preferably, have a child. Failing any stage of this process is a reflection of your self-worth and indicates a lack of moral fibre.” The Boomers were born on third base and grew up thinking they had hit a triple; as economic conditions change and make it harder for following generations to reach the same milestones, it leads to frustration and self-doubt. But more importantly it leads to a lot of wasted potential as the Millennials either give up, or think that they can get where they need to be by simply running faster in their hamster wheels.
  • Is there a backlash? Sure there is. Despite the gloom of Pew Research data piece noted above, other observers note that younger generations are less likely to put up with the relentless pace of legal practice as understood by their Baby Boomer masters, and are investing in alternatives. In a piece in the Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams notes that many of the innovative alternative forms of legal practice that have come into the market in recent years are the direct result of desires for a more reasonable way of balancing work and life. The traditional model of the law firm may still be around, but there’s a growing menu of alternatives, especially for corporate buyers of legal services: managed legal services firms; specialized boutiques; tech-driven software providers; secondment and temporary legal staffing companies. Many of these have been formed by younger lawyers, convinced there is a better way to do business (and to work) and who are frustrated with the willingness of the generation in charge to change the model.
  • Are some firms doing something about the problem? Yes. John Alber, recently retired from one of the more innovative firms out there, Bryan Cave, was at ILTACON and led a sobering session entitled The Rise of the Machine, about the effect of machine learning and artificial intelligence on legal services. He’s taken on the role of “Futurist” at ILTA, and can be expected to visibly address the generation gap issues on an industry-wide basis. While still at Bryan Cave, however, he initiated the remarkable Bryan Cave Business Academy, described in detail in a recent Chicago Lawyer article. He brought in 100 young associates to start to tackle the firm’s business issues with new solutions. And the generational aspect was never far from their minds: The St. Louis event venue was called T-REX, and “one associate joked that the venue was appropriate: Our profession is a dinosaur, he said, and it is run by dinosaurs.” Away from the withering glances of those senior firm leaders, the young associates brainstormed their way to ideas involving technology, pricing, and new processes.

There was so much energy and so many good ideas at ILTACON. It’s up to ITLA members to find new ways to bring that energy and innovative spirit back to their organizations and execute on them. But it’s also up to the 50- and 60-something firm leaders to be sure that their organizations are ready for those innovations and ideas.