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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Rewriting the DNA of Law Firms

Millennials with their total break from earlier generations have compelled the law industry to overhaul its structure to stay relevant

Influence can happen in unexpected ways. American philosopher Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This appears to be so true of what is happening with millennial influence today.

The millennial generation in the US, according to the US Census Bureau, comprises 83.1 million people, and has become the largest group of spenders in the economy. Their perspective and inclinations are the most powerful among generations living today, and are inducing changes in different professions and industries from the outside. This appears to be true of most lawyers too, from criminal to family lawyers.

The law profession, one of the world’s oldest, with its roots in Greek civilization, for all these years, mirrored hard work, success and a way to change things for the better, in the US. Yet, according to Christopher Chapman, CEO of AccessLex, the US financial guidance organization for the legal profession, the numbers of students enrolling for law school dropped drastically in recent years, ending, two years ago, at an all-time low in 42 years. Chapman attributes this to the changing priorities of Millennials. He said, “Studies have shown that individuals in this age group have different expectations and aspirations for their future. They tend to value flexibility and work-life balance, and they seek work aligned with their personal ethics.” However, the falling numbers of enrollment have stabilized since 2016, with the slightest of rises in enrollments. Chapman says, “This is not a death knell for law schools or legal education. I believe this is a great opportunity for law schools and the legal profession to change the view of what a law career is or must be.”

What the millennials have inherited is a legal industry that manifests rigid hierarchies, billable hours, and mountains of paperwork manually handled and other cumbersome features of a pre-technological era, including monstrous legal fees. And it is not likely Millennials will accept the status quo that was the norm during an earlier era. From a laid back, low-tech, individualistic legal system, it is evolving into a high-tech, dynamic and collaborative one, to suit an era of digital natives.

Each generation may have its quirks and leave their signature on the generational fabric. But in the case of millennials, the differences are almost rebellious, and above all, the timing is momentous for the legal industry. Even as millennials are choosing a career in law, and progressing in their careers, the legal industry itself is yet to recover from the beating of the 2008 recession. As the industry tries to reevaluate its relevance and reorganize, it has to also compete with the booming tech industry that is relentlessly scouting for young talent. And as law firms reach out for business, the companies they seek to represent are also run by millennials. Jonathan Littrell, managing partner at Raines Feldman law firm in Los Angeles, California, said, “If you were to look at the law firms that are out there and their client base, their client base is being more and more run by the millennials. If you’re viewed … as an old-school law firm, I don’t think the 30 year-old who created the next Uber will be excited to use your firm.”

And so, the legal industry has to inevitably reckon with the requirements of the millennials, especially with Baby Boomers fading out of the scene. Large firms that had a rigid work structure and long work hours and six-day weeks, have now begun offering flexible work options, with one or two days of remote work per week.

Mitch Zulkie, Chairman of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, in Washington DC, believes that law firms are compelled to keep themselves relevant to young lawyers. He said, “The war for talent … requires us to be more thoughtful about adapting our firms to the workplace they would find engaging.” Therefore, many legal firms have invested in technology which pleases young lawyers.

The legal industry is also known to be reluctant adapter of change and letting go of long-held traditions. But, currently, it is in the midst of a major shift in managing and designing its real estate. Law firms have relocated to more modern buildings, or remodeled and overhauled their workspaces to be in line with millennial needs.

With their human assets being the mainstay of their industry, legal firms have decided to give young lawyers more influence and the opportunity to pitch business ideas. Director of Attorney Development in a Washington law office, Jodie Garfinkel said, “We are selling our talent. Therefore, we are always listening to what our talent needs, so we can attract the best and the brightest.”

Millennials, after all, have many options and many places to go. With options like virtual law firms, they are not bound to accept standards they find archaic and out-of-place in a tech-savvy world.

Siobhan Handley, chief talent officer in another Washington law firm, said, “There’s just much more competition, a much smaller talent pool, and then that group when they’re coming in, they’re not staying. Partnership is not the Holy Grail it once was.”

The legal industry has had to change its entire outlook to ensure its survival amidst a revolution of change in a millennial-dominated world. As American artist Andy Warhol said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

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