June 3, 2008

Gen Y's Delayed Impact on Big Law

My post last week on Generation Y versus Big Law and its impact on law firm knowledge management generated a great deal of traffic and some interesting discussion.  Among the commentators was Anna Ivey, who is an expert in law school admissions.  In her post Gen Y, Meet Big Law, she suggested that Gen Y will not have a revolutionary impact on Big Law, at least not initially, because the lure of large salaries (and the reality of mountains of educational debt) will cause them to refrain from making demands that result in material changes in the way Big Law does business.

I agree that Gen Y most likely will not have an immediate impact on big law firms, but my reasons are a little different.  While there are shared tendencies that characterize a particular generation, each generation undoubtedly has within it a reasonably wide range of personalities and experience.  Within that range, there will be people in Generation Y who are bit more like their Gen X and Boomer predecessors and others that are on the extreme far side of Gen Y behavior.  I'd be willing to bet that law firms will tend to recruit from the quasi-Gen X/Boomer end of the range rather than the extreme Gen Y end of the range.  As long as this recruitment is successful, we shouldn't expect to see many meaningful changes in the way law firms are managed or law firm knowledge management is carried out.  However, once that pool of potential lawyers runs dry, things will get interesting.  Big Law is built on the assumptions of the fungibility and high attrition of associates.  If there are not enough Gen X/Boomer types to feed the Big Law recruiting beast, then the beast will have to adjust its diet.   Along with that adjustment in diet will come changes in how law firms are managed as they struggle to accommodate (finally) Gen Y.  

With respect to law firm knowledge management, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for all those cool web 2.0 tools to be adopted by firms merely on the threat of an influx of Gen Y lawyers.  Remember, we've been trying to sell that line to Boomer and Gen X managers, who are basically unsympathetic to the Gen Y perspective on life.  There is, however, a silver lining to this dark cloud.  As increasing numbers of Gen Y lawyers enter firms, they will be able to demonstrate in a more compelling way what we Boomer and Gen X knowledge managers have been trying to explain:  namely, that they live, work, socialize, dream and problem-solve using social media.  Therefore, if they are to be productive within law firms, it would be more efficient to give them the social media tools they already know and love rather than demanding that they use our tools (which must seem like quill pens to them).  The reason that the Gen Y lawyers will be more successful in championing web 2.0 is that their claims are more authentic.  They actually use the stuff.  By contrast, relatively few Gen X or Boomer lawyers or law firm managers are even familiar with the benefits of social media.  Therefore, most of our arguments are based on hearsay, hype and fear of the impending threat of Gen Y, rather than a belief (grounded in deep experience) in the practical merits of social media.

So, instead of building web 2.0 castles in the air, what should law firm knowledge managers focus on until there is a critical mass of Gen Y lawyers within their firms willing to fight for social media?

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