Recruiting and Retaining the New Generation of Lawyers
Contributing Authors: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair & Wendy L. Patrick, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County (CA)
Generational value misalignment
In our last blog, we broached the subject of generational value misalignment:
This topic is large and complex and gets blamed for a lot of wellbeing crisis at work. Old-timers complain about Millennials the same way that the Silent Generation complained about the Boomers. Each new generation has a value structure born of contemporary and rapidly changing social phenomena and those values seem to be misunderstood and ridiculed by each current round of elders.
Old Guard criminal justice professionals express their frustrations with newer hires. Why don’t they want to work? Why are they so spoiled? Why are they recalcitrant to jump into a trial? What is Venmo?
Some older generation lawyers fail to recognize that nostalgia can be a tricky and alluring emotion — an alchemist that can alter a memory to the good, which sounds good, but isn’t always. I was at a meeting recently when one salty old-timer referred to new lawyers in his office as snowflakes and then boisterously recited how things used to be, with a heavily-filtered romantic spin on chaos. It went something like this:
“When I was a new prosecutor, I handled hundreds of felony cases, with little mentoring, no support, and went to trial with files I’d never laid eyes on. We didn’t get to wait until we were ready, we jumped in. We got up early, stayed late and worked on weekends. We didn’t complain like these kids do now. We just did what the job required and we felt lucky to have a good job. I won almost all of my cases and it was hard, but very rewarding.”
In her new book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Random House (2021), Brene Brown brilliantly describes and defines hundreds of human emotions to provide a common language for us to better engage in difficult but important discussions. She nails nostalgia, pointing out the positive aspects of remembering the olden days, as well as the complicated context in which these memories often emerge.
“Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.”
This generational rift, unless deconstructed and addressed, results in many unhappy people at all levels of an organization. It is a large part of high turnover rates and challenges filling openings in DAs’ and Public Defenders’ offices. The solution, which we’ll explore in more depth, lies in focusing on our inter-generational commonalities, highlighting the unique strengths that the new generation brings to the work, reframing what we perceive as weaknesses and making reasonable concessions. In short, do what we do best: negotiate.
Recruitment and retention have a BFF and her name is wellbeing.
If you were secretly relieved that this week’s blog seemed less focused on wellbeing “sociology stuff” and might be more useful, I have some bad news. Running an organization that prioritizes wellbeing and support as a culture, promotes a purpose that is in-line with individual and office values, and offers some flexibility in scheduling — the subject of all of the articles on wellbeing — is the key to recruitment and retention.
I was recently asked by a leadership seminar attendee, “Please address recruitment and retention and tell us how it relates to wellbeing.”
My response? “They are actually married, and the data support us on that. We can’t recruit capable people for what we pay, or retain them for the long term unless and until we offer them a place where the culture supports their wellbeing and purpose.” I quickly added, “And allows flexibility in scheduling.”
I fully admit that talking about “generations” is simplistic and paints millions of unique individuals with a very broad brush. But we are able to identify common denominators within age groups, molded by global and social influences at play during the formative years. We can use this general knowledge, despite its imprecision, to bridge gaps, reduce judgment and increase understanding amongst all ages of employees. It is helpful to first understand where they are coming from.
OK, I’m trying to be delicate and avoid offending anyone, but the reality is that old timers — whom I’m throwing under the proverbial bus — constantly complain about workers born after 1990 and are quite critical. We left off last time discussing the need to negotiate with newer hires, by focusing on our commonalities, understanding and utilizing their unique strengths, reframing what seem like weaknesses and making reasonable concessions.
Recruiting new generation employees: showcasing both flash and substance
How does prosecutor work compare with private firm life? Lower pay and higher caseloads. Especially now, as we collectively trudge through pandemic backlog. Sure, recent law school graduates want to gain trial experience, an opportunity that was freely available pre-pandemic. But now, it is not necessarily true that new prosecutors will gain the trial experience they crave, due to many courts prioritizing serious cases first; which means cases tried by experienced, senior trial deputies, not new hires.
And what about money? True, many lawyers become prosecutors in pursuit of justice and public safety. But they also want to pay off their student loans — as soon as possible. And with soaring inflation adding to existing debt, it is harder than ever to lure talented young lawyers who have many other options.
But prosecutors’ offices do have tools at their disposal that appeal to the new generation.
1. Pursuit of justice
In an era of social climate change, as basic as it seems, one of the biggest selling points we have as prosecutors’ offices is our mission to pursue justice. There is nothing quite like the opportunity to make the world a better place — a safer place, case by case. This mission provides emotional and cognitive appeal above and beyond salary concerns, because new generation lawyers value much more than money, and particularly value the ability to make this world a better place through the work that they do.
2. Social media savvy
The opportunities we provide and the great work we do as prosecutors within our respective jurisdictions should be prominently showcased in the first place where prospective new employees are going to look: our website.
The best websites incorporate both flash and substance. Eye-catching graphics and up-to-date information appeals to those who are looking for a career that is satisfying both emotionally and financially. Videos are particularly engaging for a younger generation that is used to visual stimulation, and a dynamite way to create content that showcases the passion, productivity, and gratification of the great work that we do.
3. Good news too
Prosecutors’ offices should use both traditional and social media to showcase good news as well as bad. Sure, we use public platforms to report crime and convictions; but also to highlight our efforts at prevention. After all, good prosecutors can convict criminals; great prosecutors can prevent crime. We aim to attract a new generation of great prosecutors.
4. Promoting diversity
New generation employees are keenly aware of demographic, historical, and class distinctions, and are particularly interested in a career where they will have an opportunity to both pursue justice and rectify injustice. Office policies and outreach efforts that address these concerns will be uniquely appealing to talented young lawyers who are seeking more than a salary.
5. Finding flexibility
More than ever before, young employees are looking for jobs that offer work-life blend. Unlike the 18-hour days many of us anticipated when we signed up as crime-fighters, younger lawyers expect to have a life outside of the office. The ways in which we market the prosecution experience we offer should include the realization that healthy employees are productive employees. Our commitment to maintaining both the emotional and financial health of our lawyers is a marketing tool that we can use to showcase our dedication to not only providing a living wage, but also a satisfying lifestyle, and a workplace designed to cultivate loyalty and longevity.
Retaining new generation employees: job satisfaction is much more than salary
Congratulations! You have an impressive class of new hires, ready to fight crime with passion, proactivity, and technological proficiency. Don’t get too comfortable; today’s new employees are ideological and flexible. Their eyes are open to new experiences, and new job offers. Nonetheless, in order to retain the talent you attracted, there are ways in which the newer generation employees can be different that should matter to you:
1. They are technologically savvy and connected
Newer hires are significantly superior than their predecessors when it comes to all things tech. Technically modern organizations are much more attractive to them because it enables them to perform their jobs more efficiently. If you are willing to modernize, they will be of great assistance in accomplishing the upgrade. If you are years behind the curve, they may move on to an organization that uses available tech to modernize their work.
2. They tend to be transparent
As a general rule, the newer generation employees are more transparent and often will share things about themselves on social media or if you just ask them. Their openness can offer insight on how to mentor them and help them be successful. If you ask them what they need, they will usually tell you. They also value transparency in others, so it is important to be as transparent as possible about you and your organization’s motives, goals and shortcomings.
3. They tend to value straightforward management and mentoring
Newer generation employees tend to be planners and many like to know exactly what they are signing up for, rather than waiting decades for their careers to develop organically. The more robust the onboarding experience, the better. Define and clearly state your expectations. They perform better if you lay out a review process so that they know that their performance will be recognized, evaluated and discussed periodically. Training is critical if you want to keep them engaged at optimum levels. Everyone benefits from mentoring, but individuals in this group can thrive with a good mentor match and will work very hard to impress those they admire. Be open about the typical and possible career trajectories and what they will need to do to promote within your organization.
4. They need to know that they are fulfilling an important purpose
I recently read a characterization that the newer generation of workers wants to build castles, yet hates laying bricks. One of their motivators is the need for their work to impact the world. They will work hard if that hard work will make a difference. As leaders, if we frame our mission through their eyes and show them the incremental steps toward meaning, we are not only offering job satisfaction, but the opportunity for life fulfillment.
During the interview process, let them know the position they are interviewing for is important to the organization and how it fits into the bigger picture. Periodically remind employees of our greater purpose. It isn’t obvious to everyone. In criminal justice, our jobs are oozing with purpose, we just need to remind them why we do the work we do, and then celebrate big every time someone succeeds in easing the suffering of another human.
Additionally, it is important to brand and promote your organization’s purpose in the greater community as a method to attract future employees. Cultivate youth interest by starting a Youth Academy, like the one in Sacramento, California. Go into the high schools, colleges and law schools and teach programs like Prosecution Ethics, and Officers Doing Good Work. Send your diplomats to job fairs to promote not just your organization, but your values.
5. They thrive on appreciation and recognition
We all like to be told we’ve done a good job, but newer generations respond quite favorably to recognition for their work performance. Many grew up raised by Baby Boomers and Xers who offered them constant praise. That’s not their fault but it molded their understanding of feedback. When their performance merits praise, recognize them. Especially praise employees who demonstrate human connection, compassion, and restraint, just not technical excellence.
John Hollway of the Quattrone Center at Penn, in one of the Wellbeing Task Force webinars, pointed out the importance of deep listening to the needs of young attorneys. He said,
“There’s a gap between what many older prosecutors think they should have to provide to young attorneys and what the young attorneys think they need. That gap has to be bridged if the Great Resignation is to be avoided or addressed. And leaders will have to cross the bridge first and show a true willingness to engage if younger attorneys are going to feel cared for and if senior leadership is going to get the memo.”
6. They desire diverse work and collaboration
This group of workers was raised by multitasking parents and caregivers and are accustomed to having a lot going on at once. They can handle a diverse task list and gladly will take on additional responsibilities if the contextual purpose or importance of a project is articulated. They tend to collaborate well with others, including co-workers and within agency partnerships.
7. Newer generation workers seek positions that offer work-life equilibrium and flexibility
This group of workers has a firmer grip than we did on the necessity of life outside of work and it isn’t shy about telling you they are not willing to sacrifice their personal lives to advance their careers. However, if you offer a work landscape that embraces a well-lived life, they will do all the work and then some. They appreciate an organization that understands this balance by offering flexible work hours, partial remote work and/or modified work schedules, like four 10-hour days or staggered start/end times.
8. Money matters but wellbeing at work matters more
It is imperative to get funding to pay your people a livable wage. We can never pay them what they are worth, given the uniquely challenging environment, but we can offer them some things that many value even more than money: culture, purpose and flexibility. Show them you are not all wellbeing-talk and offer to pay them for their time engaging in wellbeing activities and expand benefits to include wellbeing costs such as gym fees, adult education courses, etc. As a boss you can create a culture of ‘off work off duty,’ discouraging no email after hours absent an emergency.
We’ve all suffered employee losses during the pandemic and we’ve all experienced challenges in recruitment and retention. My colleague Kimberly Overton Spahos recently succinctly summarized our challenge.
“New employees want to work at a place where they see their values reflected in the culture of the office, in your mission. Help each employee find their purpose and promote your culture with a defined narrative.”
Those values include a focus on self-care, family, team-comradery, peer support, value-driven work and . . . flexible work schedules. Sounds like the perfect recipe for some wellbeing. Maybe they are really on to something.