It’s either the biggest game changer to hit Big Law since alternative fee arrangements, or hype cooked up by the media on a slow news day.
I’m talking about the hoopla over Gen Zers and how this latest cohort will shake things up as they come of age.
Predictions from corporate soothsayers suggest that law firms had better heed the hopes and dreams of Gen Zers stampeding into their offices—or else.
“The impact of their entry will be swift and profound,” Deloitte predicts in its report on this new generation following Millennials. “Entire industries and businesses will rise and fall in the wake of the Generation Z.” They roughly span birth years between 1997 and 2012.
‘Woke’ Workplace Wanted
Gen Zers now range in age from 26 down to 11, so much of this is a future problem. But apparently, there’s reason to fear that this rising generation of lawyers will bolt at the drop of a hat and leave Big Law high and dry.
According to Deloitte’s 2022 survey, four in 10 Gen Zers plan to quit their jobs within two years, and over a third would do so even without another job in place.
The top reasons should sound familiar to those in Big Law: “pay, feeling the workplace is detrimental to their mental health, and burnout.”
“The Gen Z attitude is that if we don’t like the job, we won’t do it, and we’ll let you know it,” a third-year female law student at Vanderbilt Law School told me. “That’s what TikTok and social media is always telling us.”
Reputedly more outspoken and demanding than previous generations, Gen Zers expect, at a modicum, flexible work arrangements, meaningful feedback, work/life balance, and a fat paycheck.
And note to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: Zoomers want a “woke” workplace. “To win the hearts of Generation Z, companies and employers will need to highlight their efforts to be good global citizens,” Deloitte reports, noting they should emphasize commitment to solving social and climate problems.
Practical and Savvy
It all sounds excruciatingly noble, but are young lawyers, particularly those going into the rough-and- tumble world of Big Law, that misty-eyed?
The short answer is no. From my recent chats with a group of Vanderbilt Law School third-year students and other law students in the past year, most struck me as practical, ambitious, and savvy.
When I asked some Vanderbilt students whether they’d quit law firm jobs they disliked, a typical response was, “Absolutely.” But this caveat followed: “Provided I can pay up my loans.”
One young woman added another perspective: “As an immigrant, I’ve worked so hard to get where I am that it would be hard for me to just leave. I know some of my classmates are already planning to leave their jobs—they have one foot in the door, and the other out—but that’s not me.”
This is also a group that seems very aware of the changing economic picture, though a few students expressed hope that they still had leverage. “Big firms want to retain new associates since they’re losing money on us during the first few years, so maybe they will be more receptive to our preferences,” one said.
More were worried about possible layoffs. “Most of us grew up in a bull market where labor had more power,” said a male third-year student who’s joining a big New York firm. “I think law firms will be taking back power in 12 to 24 months.”
It’d be easy to dismiss Gen Zers as a copy of Gen X or, God forbid, Baby Boomers with their concerns for job security, except they’ve also been through some unique traumas.
Some in this generation came of age during the pandemic, the Trump presidency, the murder of George Floyd, and the Jan. 6 riots, so how can Gen Z not be different? The question is, are they different enough to challenge the Big Law paradigm and change its evil ways?
The Most Diverse Generation
I’m not placing any bets. But when it came to diversity and flexible work arrangements, Gen Zers seem more willing to go the mat.
“The other ESG stuff [firms making commitments on social justice and climate change] is nice, but what I really care about is diversity,” said the third-year student who immigrated to this country as a child.
“As a woman, I value diversity,” another third-year student commented. And one of the male students added, “It’s just more interesting to mix it up. Who would want to work in a vanilla firm?”
Considering that this generation is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, it’s a no-brainer that they’d expect diversity at work. Pew Research Center finds that Gen Zers in the US are 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, 6% Asian, and 5% some other race or two or more races.
And for those who experienced a chunk of their law school years on Zoom, remote work is practically sacrosanct. It’s not that they mind showing up at the office a few days a week—they just don’t like to be told to do so.
“I feel it’s important to be in the office since my first year was hybrid and my first summer internship was completely remote,” one student said. “But when firms tell you that you have to show up in the office to get a bonus, we were appalled,” alluding to Sidley Austin’s policy.
Yet that outrage wasn’t shared by one of her classmates, who said, “I don’t get why people reacted so negatively to Sidley’s bonus structure. I mean, we’re talking about a bonus—something extra.” This third-year student, who intends to stay in Big Law and possibly go for partnership, also said he’s likely to abide by the firm’s dictates: “Remember, young lawyers are always risk-averse.”
None of this sounds like a bunch of revolutionaries about to burn down Big Law.
Force for Change
But academics who specialize in the future of the legal profession think Gen Z will make a mark.
“This generation wants to use their education for positive change,” Jennifer Leonard, executive director of the Future of the Profession Initiative at University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, told me.
And that ethos is increasingly embraced across the board. “When I was a law student, there was a big divide between public interest and private sector students,” she explained. “Now, there’s an overlap in goals.”
“I think the changes that Gen Z wants will lead to a more humane, healthier, and ultimately more productive legal profession,” Caitlin Moon, director of innovation design for the Program on Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt Law School, said.
Some law students are not automatically jumping at the biggest firms that pay the biggest bucks, William Henderson, professor at Indiana University, Maurer School of Law, remarked. “When given complete information, most sane young lawyers, including Gen Z, will pick the corporate model that gives you a good income but leaves you with a soul.”
Moon noted that this generation is much more empowered because of technology. “Students today have access to an increasingly vast amount of information about the profession—all that it offers, all that is wrong with it, as well as a growing number of opportunities that are not traditional Big Law,” she said.
One of Moon’s students agrees: “There used to be an asymmetry of information. But now word gets around quickly if a firm is terrible. And I can always find people who’ve left big law firms and are doing fine. I feel less trapped. I feel there’s a power shift.”
He added, however, “I’m not sure whether firms are reacting to any of this. They should be.”
From what I can tell, firms aren’t sweating over the issue. “It’s overblown,” a senior partner at a Wall Street firm told me emphatically about the fuss over Gen Z.
So is Gen Z on the Big Law radar at all? “Oh, there was some presentation about generational differences once,” a senior associate at another big New York firm told me.
“But no one really talks about anything other than billable work here. HR asked me to mentor junior associates, but that is code that I should be telling associates what is expected of them”—meaning, according to her, more billable work.
As much as we’d like to believe that major firms will starve for talent if they don’t take Gen Z’s concerns to heart, we know firms will hum along just fine.
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