Creating the Law Firm of the Future – Combating Age Bias
Updated: Feb 2
Creating the Law Firm of the Future – Combating Age Bias
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“Leadership is a journey, not a destination” — John Donahoe
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought rapid change to many aspects of our society, including how we view and approach our work. The “way we used to do things” has quickly and drastically evolved. Priorities are shifting, and American workers are quitting their jobs at record numbers in what is being termed “The Great Resignation.”
We are going through a huge reimagining of the way we do things in our profession, and things that once seemed unimaginable—remote work, flexible schedules, and quality benefits, oh my!—will prove to be hugely important for recruiting and retaining lawyers.
Recently, the coauthors heard of a 75-year-old law firm that was forced to wind down after the cross-generational differences among the partners couldn’t be resolved. Millennials and Gen Z attorneys wanted to implement drastic changes and felt that Baby Boomer attorneys weren’t moving fast enough—so the younger attorneys walked. Sadly, this inability to find common ground left many staff members without a job and led to lingering feelings of regret that it didn’t have to be this way.
Evolving Business Models
Traditionally, founders of solo or small firms build a practice, work until the end of their careers, close the doors, and walk away from years of sweat equity. While some practitioners have successfully sold their practices in recent years, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
We believe that everyone can be best served if lawyers of all ages collaborate with the objectives of empowering younger generations while preserving the values and equity interest of senior attorneys. By working together, we can maximize success for all of us, whether we are just hanging out a shingle or on the verge of retirement.
When we collaborate cross-generationally, we find that we have a lot more that unites us than divides us. The age difference between the coauthors is almost 35 years, which we view as one of our greatest assets! We celebrate our age gap and recognize that we each bring unique experiences and skill sets to the table.
At present, we may encounter no less than five generations in the legal profession, including the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. Indeed, this moment offers the opportunity to come together across generations to craft supportive, sustainable work environments that bolster our individual and collective well-being.
We hope that by writing this series, we can facilitate more productive working relationships among attorneys of all ages. By recognizing our common humanity and embracing our differing perspectives, we can consciously create spaces where everyone feels appreciated and valued—regardless of age!
How Age Bias Sabotages Success
Age bias is just one of many examples of our implicit biases run amok. Indeed, we may not even be aware that we are harboring such biases or that they unconsciously influence our thoughts and decisions. Thus, raising our awareness of implicit bias in general is an essential first step to recognizing and curbing its negative effects.
It is critical to recognize that ageism can affect legal professionals of all ages. For example, age discrimination against young attorneys may manifest in their being frequently interrupted or having their ideas dismissed by senior attorneys. In addition, young attorneys who are also women and/or members of a minority group may face further discrimination.
We must also be on the lookout for internalized age stereotypes that can hold back young and old alike. Young lawyers may incorrectly believe that they are too young to work in certain capacities, while senior lawyers may erroneously believe that they are too old to develop new skills. Here, biases based on commonly held age stereotypes could unduly limit professional development for both inexperienced and seasoned attorneys.
In addition, such entrenched stereotypes feed into the impostor syndrome, defined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” For more in-depth information on this topic, refer to our blog post “Unmasking the Impostor Syndrome.”
Interrupting Implicit Bias: General Suggestions
Overall, addressing ageism in the legal profession can strengthen cross-generational collaboration, meaning better service for clients and more fulfilling workplaces for us all. By bolstering awareness of our age biases, we can create environments of respect and appreciation for what each individual brings to the table:
1. Become aware of your own biases. We recommend that you start by taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test: Age (“Young-Old” IAT) created by Project Implicit. According to the research, “the test often indicates that Americans have automatic preference for young over old.” You may be surprised at your own biases revealed by the IAT.
2. Become a lifelong learner. Educate yourself about the science of implicit bias and gain a deeper understanding of the harmful effects in all arenas, not just ageism. For additional information, refer to our previous columns: “Eliminating Implicit Bias among Lawyers,” part 1 and part 2.
3. Be vigilant about observing your thoughts. As you find yourself engaging in biased thinking (and it is likely that you will), intentionally redirect yourself into “curiosity mode” and question the assumptions that automatically come to the forefront. Reflect on why certain thoughts are arising and examine any underlying beliefs based in stereotypes.
4. Intentionally spend time with people of all ages. This will give you access to their perspectives and the opportunity to learn and shift your own thinking.
Supporting the Next Generation
Given their years of experience, older attorneys will necessarily hold more positions of authority throughout the profession. As such, senior attorneys are key players in firm-management decisions and business continuity. Below are a few strategies to promote cross-generational collaboration and support the next generation of firm leadership:
1. Empower young lawyers. Strive to uplift less experienced colleagues by creating opportunities for their participation and advancement. Seek to “pass the torch” of knowledge and experience to younger lawyers within your organization. Proactively delegate tasks and give them more responsibility on established matters, including opportunities for direct client interactions. Provide formal professional development opportunities, including mentorship programs with more experienced attorneys.
2. Leverage cross-generational engagement. Deliberately include junior lawyers in organizational decision-making and leadership positions. For example, be transparent about the firm’s economics and involve them in business management decisions and succession planning. Be open-minded, and actively listen to suggestions and feedback even if divergent from the long-term status quo. For example, younger attorneys may have more familiarity and/or experience with implementing updated technology.
3. Recognize that we are stronger together. Treat all attorneys as valued members of the team who contribute to and share in the organization’s success. Leverage age differences in your team as a means for creative collaboration and innovative thinking. Approach differing perspectives among older and younger team members as opportunities to generate constructive dialogue and learn from each other. Connecting with our colleagues, regardless of age, can offer mutual career support, as well as reduce feelings of isolation as we continue to navigate pandemic times.
Practice Tips for Aspiring Leaders
As you seek to move into positions of leadership, consider what skill sets these positions require. If your responsibility levels are not being increased to your satisfaction, don’t automatically assume that it is because you are a victim of age bias. While it could be that the senior attorneys are “set in their ways” and unwilling to grow, perhaps there are other factors at play. Which of the following suggestions are you willing to entertain?
1. Establish strong communication channels with senior attorneys. As you seek to increase your responsibilities within the firm, create a clear vision of your ideal role. When the time is ripe, inquire as to whether the firm leaders have established a clear path to partnership. If they haven’t, are they willing to do so? Unless you have consistently generated revenue for the firm, this type of discussion may be premature.
2. Be prepared with written proposals outlining change. For example, if you want the firm to invest in a client relationship management (CRM) system, research available vendors, disclose the current and ongoing financial investment, and outline the benefits that the firm will realize. Include a plan of action regarding implementation. Ideas that have been developed have a better chance of being given serious consideration.
3. Assess your current personal/professional brand, skills, and network. This will help you identify the additional training, guidance, or other resources that you need for career success. Dedicating yourself to your own growth throughout your lifetime will give you leverage both now and later, especially as your knowledge base and experience builds on itself year after year. Committing to your own personal development is a way of making yourself indispensable.
4. Expand your horizons. Most likely, you have been exposed to only a few law firm operations and may not be aware of the countless opportunities in the legal field. One approach is to identify the attorney that you want to be most like when you are older and ask for an interview. At Cindy’s suggestion, one of her younger clients contacted a nationally recognized attorney who ultimately spent two hours (in person!) sharing his secrets of success.
5. Take into account alternate perspectives. If they founded the practice, the law firm is their “baby,” which could explain the reluctance of some to give up the reins. Keep in mind that practicing law has been their main identity for decades and decades. As lifespans increase, people are staying in the workforce longer; however, there are business models that can be created to accommodate the needs of all generations. As you research alternative ways to structure the business side of the firm, look both within and beyond the legal profession for your inspiration.
6. Be willing to take a strong stand. Despite all of your efforts, the older attorneys with whom you are affiliated may not budge with respect to their attitudes. For example, they may not be willing to move forward in creating a viable business succession plan. If that’s the case, you need to determine whether you are ready to make a move that will allow you to reach your full potential. In 1984, that’s exactly what Cindy did when she founded her own practice. From that point on, she had the freedom to implement her vision of “the dream law firm.” Should you decide to take this leap, make sure you have business training and some savings. Otherwise, you may find yourself jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”—Jo Cox
As we continue to traverse the ongoing challenges of living and working in pandemic times, we need each other now more than ever. Seeking to understand one another and being open to differing perspectives can help us be more empathetic, creative, and flexible.
Indeed, adapting and adjusting to meet the needs of all team members is good business management. Especially as so many workers are prioritizing flexible scheduling and remote work, the ability to reimagine “business as usual” and craft innovative solutions will be essential to attract and retain attorneys and staff.
In next month’s column, we will share ways to carve out more time for yourself, especially if you are overburdened with a heavy work overload.
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Nov. 2021 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 4) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.