Before the Millennial Deluge: Corporate law departments are overwhelmingly unprepared for a seismic generational shift

Monday, December 5, 2016 - 05:09

Multiple factors, from emerging technologies to the use of legal process outsourcing, are transforming the practice of law. But few factors directly influence the changing face of the profession as much as the unprecedented generational shift that is occurring as baby boomers retire and more millennials join the ranks of corporate counsel.

Yet legal departments are unprepared for the shift taking place, according to the Thomson Reuters report The Generational Shift in Legal Departments: Working with Millennials and Avoiding Baby Boomer Brain Drain. Thomson Reuters surveyed 153 attorneys working in corporate legal departments and representing three generations: baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials. The report gauged current perceptions of millennial corporate counsel and the impact of the generational shift on the workplace.

Wake-Up Call for In-House Leaders

Corporate counsel’s perceptions of millennials include the good – they’re tech savvy and entrepreneurial – and the bad: they’re disloyal job hoppers. These perceptions affect how colleagues interact, even though the traits associated with millennials are only beginning to shape the workplace, given how relatively new millennials still are to the workforce. But by 2025, millennials will comprise up to 75 percent of the workforce.[1] Simply put, millennials will bring significant changes to the workplace.  

The importance of tapping the potential of millennials now, as the pace of baby boomers’ retirement accelerates, can’t be overstated. In-house leaders are still dealing with the rise of new technologies and all of the changes in the practice of law since the 2008 economic meltdown. The workforce evolution is another challenge legal department leaders have to address, and it’s crucial they act quickly.

In-house leaders need to capture baby boomers’ extensive experience while making the most of millennials’ traits and skills. It takes time to identify which key roles will need to be filled when baby boomers leave and to mentor millennials and Gen Xers to prepare them to step in. Legal departments can’t afford to wait. Alarmingly, the survey indicated that in-house leaders may not be prepared.

Overwhelmingly, corporate counsel reported they’re not doing anything to prepare for this generational shift. Only 26 percent of legal departments have a succession plan in place, and the vast majority of legal departments do not have a formal mentoring program; only 6 percent reported having such a program in place. 

The low numbers may be attributed to the length of the typical corporate counsel career path, which includes law school followed by a law firm role; in other words, millennials are just now starting to work in-house. With the relatively smaller number of millennial employees currently in legal departments, general counsel may have avoided these issues so far. But they can’t be ignored any longer.

Tapping Millennials’ Potential 

Legal department leadership must start to prepare now by being aware of millennials’ different work styles and recognizing how their organizations will need to change to accommodate them. Three areas stand out where senior legal department leaders can focus in order to attract and retain millennials: technology, decision making, and mentoring and work/life balance. 

In-house leaders can start by

  • Involving millennials by providing leadership opportunities on appropriate technology projects
  • Including millennials in the decision-making processes and encouraging diverse viewpoints
  • Assigning millennial employees a mentor
  • Allowing for even more flexible work environments and promoting work/life balance

These areas align with millennials’ strengths – such as their tech savviness – and their priorities. For example, the survey responses indicated that millennials are eager for mentoring and coaching opportunities for two reasons. First, it’s important for millennials to feel like they’re leaving their mark on a company; second, they thrive on developing relationships. Succession planning and mentorship programs would foster both of these millennial priorities, while addressing what should be a key concern of in-house leaders: retaining millennials.

Making the most of millennials’ traits and skills will require legal department leaders to examine how the perceptions of millennial corporate counsel – from their technological expertise to their job hopping – will shape legal departments, and to use millennials’ priorities to their advantage. Department leaders must begin now to tap the potential of millennials and preserve baby boomers’ institutional knowledge before they retire. The future of legal departments depends on in-house leaders capitalizing on millennials’ strengths and, in turn, developing strategies to inspire, motivate and retain them.

[1]  Wannemacher, Paul. "5 Ways Millennials Can Avoid Boomer Mistakes." Forbes, June 5, 2016.

Bernadette Bulacan is Director of Market Development for Thomson Reuters Corporate segment.  She can be reached at Bernadette.bulacan@tr.com.