Organizations need to find ways to optimize the talents and skills that each generation of workers can bring to client service and business development
We are witnessing more and more Baby Boomer lawyers and accountants retiring each day, and this is likely to remain a trend through 2030, the year that the last of the Boomer generation turns 65 year old. Compounding this fact for many professional service firms and organizations is the often-unintended pandemic accelerated retirements of productive Boomers.
However, a four-generation workforce will still be prevalent for most of this decade. When it comes to client attraction and retention — an evergreen top concern for law and accounting firms — it is crucial to maximize the assets of each generation for higher performance in these areas.
- Boomers — They come with extensive knowledge of existing clients and industries. They also have valuable networks within the firm and across industries and professions that carry the ability to both refer work and coach and mentor colleagues in the area of business development.
- Gen X — The two-decades experience with many of those individuals in line to take over from Boomers and their ability to adapt are two key assets provided by Gen X members which can benefit their law firms and accounting employers. Though not everyone from this generation will enter management, they are willing to work hard. Most Gen Xers are experienced and comfortable communicating in-person, on the phone and with technology across generations; and they are reliable for crunch-time, urgent matters, and deeper engagement. (In fact, Gen Xers developed most of the tech commonly used now.)
- Millennials — Their natural affinity for technology and a digital-first mindset is an asset that employers can leverage to better understand the coming marketplace and how technology is evolving for efficiency and effectiveness in workflow. Millennials were educated in teams, meaning they have adapted to the way work is now typically accomplished. And they frequently have better presentation and public speaking experience and more travel experiences, resulting in increased cross-culturally awareness than older generations had at the same age. All of this makes them good candidates for leading a team for client assignments.
- Gen Z — Leveraging Gen Zers’ tech-savviness and their drive to succeed quickly offers opportunities for law and accounting firms to increase agility and adapt swiftly if employers can harness these talents well. Gen Zers’ continual search for ways to boost efficiency is also a quality that firms can mobilize to their advantage.
How to put these assets to work
Understanding how different generations’ attitudes and behaviors inform and influence how they approach client development is important. Needs and demands of clients, brought by chief legal officers and general counsel, will continue to evolve quickly and substantially, so agility is key. To respond to these dynamics, law and accounting firm leaders should take action now to maximize the success of multi-generational rainmakers and service providers. Such actions should include:
- First, firm leaders should seek to gain more clarity on what matters to younger workforce members, which will increase engagement of these workers more quickly. These workers are motivated by seeing the impact of their work and value acknowledged by an employer that respects their diversity and strong desire for equity, inclusion, and belonging.
- Leaders should also eliminate the multi-layered caste system within firms, which has been long resented, especially in law firms. This includes the two-tiered system of lawyers and non-lawyers. Replace references to “non-lawyers” in regard to the firm’s business and professional staff; and ditch the language of hierarchy between partners, of counsel, associates, and staff lawyers. Everyone is at the law firm to contribute for the benefit of the firm, and treating everyone with the same level of respect is important for an organizational culture that employs a multi-generational workforce.
- Finally, leaders should realize that ongoing multi-dimensional learning pathways are also critical. In particular, transferring institutional knowledge from the older generations to younger ones is crucial and urgent for client retention. Currently, firm colleagues are rarely compensated for this kind of knowledge transfer, and often actually face disincentives, which encourages knowledge and contact hoarding.
Working through the challenges of hybrid work
Hybrid workplace environments add complexity to internal relationships that serve and build connections with clients. Physical limitations — such as not being seen in the room and having less opportunity for casual and spontaneous conversations — will decrease opportunities if these situations are not proactively dealt with. In particular, limits on physical proximity can lead to “familiarity bias” and something called “proximity bias,” which essentially means out-of-sight, out-of-mind, especially when it comes to leaders’ role assigning work.
Those individuals working virtually also can have fewer opportunities to share their perspectives. So, it is crucial that intentional effort be made to ask for their feedback during team and group meetings. In addition, without intentional scheduling of coaching, training, mentoring, and apprenticeship for business development, expectations and resulting skill improvement can suffer because of fewer informal opportunities to develop relationships internally at the firm and with clients.
To avoid these hybrid work pitfalls and reach more desired outcomes, modifications need to be made in measuring results and compensation. Such modifications should include:
- First, client-focused outcome metrics should be the standard for performance metrics. Activity-based metrics, such as the billable hours, have often run counter to stated goals and individual motivations.
- Also, policies involving life-time origination credit should be amended, especially if the person who is receiving the credit no longer is spending their time serving the client.
Besides treating all personnel well, making changes in compensation and measurement policies is the clearest path to motivate workers to leaders’ desired outcomes. This has been recognized and advocated by consultants for decades.
The optimist in me hopes that the pandemic-induced turmoil all industries have experienced over the last 20 months will have the positive result of implementing these recommendations, with the result of maximizing the contributions of all members of each generation.