Generation X +1 – the legal profession’s Achilles’ heel?

With changes in the retirement age, pension funds under performing, discrimination laws, good health and longevity, all of us are faced with working – or being active well into our 70s.The question that we and generations to come need to ask ourselves is: ‘what will I be doing over this period?’

Issues facing employers in 2005 and onwards:

With changes in the retirement age, pension funds under performing, discrimination laws, good health and longevity, all of us are faced with working – or being active well into our 70s.The question that we and generations to come need to ask ourselves is: ‘what will I be doing over this period?’ The answer may well be that we will all have several careers, that we will look at ‘work’ (n. action involving effort or exertion, esp. as means of livelihood) as just the part of our lives that provides an income, with maybe a pro bono element, which is creative and of interest to us and allows us to pursue activities outside the traditional working hours. A tall order for any employer!

Employers should also consider:

– demographic trends in the UK – we are going to live longer, but there will be fewer young people working to support pensioners;

– State Pensions will not provide adequate support, so people will work longer (to have an income)

– how technology will de-skill legal work even further with remote dictation, voice recognition/transcription, extranets, hole-in-the-wall services, etc., and

– global economic trends predicting India and China are set to overtake the Western world’s provision of professional services by 2020 – if not sooner.

Specific issues facing the legal sector from 2005 onwards:

The legal sector, as in other professional and service businesses, has additional issues to contend with. These are around the:

– expectations and demands of the younger professional staff – Generation X+1;

– some partners and senior staff not being competent to manage or develop business, etc., due to disinterest in training or little or no inclination or appetite for management;

– past selection criteria creating a legacy of senior (and professionally very able) partners who would not now be selected for their management and business acumen;

– stifled careers through ‘dead man’s shoes’ syndrome encouraging a flighty attitude by staff; due to increasing retirement age limits and flatter structures;

– professional acceptance of a lack of loyalty to one firm in a lawyers career, especially when they believe / realise their partnership prospects will not be realised;

– 25 – 45 year olds getting married and having children later resulting in increased stresses and pressures on these very capable and experienced lawyers, whose absence could affect client retention.

– need to plan for more holistic and flexible people management, e.g.: childcare arrangements, working from home, interruptions on the career ladder, to avoid loosing very capable lawyers some of whom are leaving the profession all together through frustration and disillusionment.

The Past – Generation X:

The now old Generation X, Thatcher’s babes, worked harder, raised the bar, achieved the expansion of the profession, earning what was seen as un-dreamed of salaries and profit share, sat on top of huge legal empires, and are now going global. All accepting that this was the route they had to take to ‘get to the top’, to make their fortune, be successful in their chosen career. This group developed the city slicker image, some may have burnt out young, or died in harness from heart attacks and the like. Others have suffered from broken marriages, and the guilt of having children they have rarely seen or known. Work was life and life was work. That was acceptable in the 80s and 90s; however we are now seeing an challenging shift in emphasis.

Currently – Generation X +1:

Generation X+1 is more vociferous, more demanding (I know my rights) flexing their muscles, although they are more junior, powerfully making their demands which are responded to – because without retaining this junior level, firms will become top heavy and potentially unprofitable. Their demands include:

– a broader range of work with a variety of quality client relationships;

– reasonable working hours – so that they can enjoy life after work;

– competitive salaries and benefits packages, especially in the major cities;

– personal development in a structured manner that gives them transferable skills (they accept they may well move firms a number of times in their careers as a lawyer);

– responsive and effective management – they do not want to feel that they are so much cannon fodder;

– quality internal support so that they can be lawyers and not administrators;

– an overt career path, that goes up to and includes equity partnership – if that is the goal, and a clear indication of what they need to do to meet the criteria;

– a value-based culture where they are respected, rather than used; and

– open and honest communication from ‘managers’.

This generation have had it good so far. Their affluent parents have indulged them hugely. Lack of time with these children by working parents has been bought off with gifts, distractions, entertainment (almost relentlessly,) so that they have become activity-fun-time-junkies. The academic system has shifted so that this generation have not really known failure; just not such high grades – but still a pass; they still get to university – somewhere! Failure is not a term many are familiar with and it certainly is not ‘their fault’ if things do not work out as they had planned. Their expectation of relentless success is high.

On the one hand this abundant confidence is excellent and to be cheered: on the other it can be seen as overly arrogant and aggressive. As a nation we are too quick to decry success, however, this culture of wanting it now – and having it now presents firms with some very real challenges in managing the performance of their staff.

How can you attract and compete for these scarce resources?

Now that advances in technology make law firms practically identical, the old adage that ‘People are our most important resource’ is inescapable. Competition for these scarce, quality people whether a Trainee, internal promotions or taking on lateral hires, firms must become more creative and imaginative in how they attract and retain staff. Currently there are some excellent examples of viable solutions being developed by firms, through out the UK, including:

– using predictive behavioural recruitment tools for Trainees, promotion to partner and lateral hires against criteria for the next 10 + years;

– consideration of late entrants to the profession, second or third career candidates and from other disciplines, e. g. Barristers, and with the Clementi review in mind widening the partnership boundaries;

– developing criteria which is more rounded, less academic, using competencies, behaviours and outcomes as firms seek to mirror their client base and style of ‘selling’ professional services;

– developing skills from within the partnership using leadership, management programmes and coaching – and selecting wisely;

– developing alternative career paths (i.e. not partnership) and rewards in line with individual aspirations and client synergy*;

– being intelligent and agile, experimenting with flexible working patterns – such as hot desking (i.e. over one week up to 3 people may use the same desk), or the 9 day fortnight, etc.; and

– recognising and managing work – life balance as it takes precedence over basic pay as a reward, retention and investment mechanism.


The choice is enormous and firms do well to learn from other sectors how they have approached creative HR practices. These need to be drawn into current employment legislation, policies and procedures, the firm’s ethos and culture and its overall direction and vision. This is not about cloning other firm’s ideas – but about the originality and needs of each firm.

Firms who ignore these vivid warning signs are in danger of loosing their capable staff and being left with the less able and less marketable. Flexibility, agility, imagination, creativity, different – are all words that must now be associated with HR practices in law firms. Ignore at your peril!

Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD) is Principal Consultant, Coach and Trainer for Trafalgar – The People Business Limited.
For more information please contact her on:
Tel: +44 20 7565 7547
Mobile: +44 7973 721 859


For more information on how to develop practical career alternatives for lawyers and support staff, please see the article: To be a Partner – or not to Bother! By Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD).