5 generations in the workplace: The next challenge for the legal sector.

December 13, 2017    Sarah-Jane Osborne   

The steady rise in average life expectancy across the western world has meant that we’re not only living longer but also working longer. While this is a positive thing, it has thrown up some new challenges for businesses, with up to 5 generations in the workplace simultaneously in some companies.

This is especially true in the legal sector, where a recent study by Investec Private Banking* showed that over half (55%) of lawyers plan to work beyond their official retirement age. In an industry which revolves around specialist knowledge and expertise, it’s no surprise that high-value senior colleagues are still in demand into their late 60s and beyond.

At the other end of the age spectrum, leading law firms know that in order to remain competitive in an ever-evolving market they need to fight to court the next generation of promising legal talent. The workplace attitudes and expectations of today’s graduates differ in some striking ways from those of their predecessors, and firms that are serious about winning the war for talent need to take the time to understand and cater to this new reality.

So, who are the five generations of workers, and how do their differing expectations impact on the way law firms operate?

The five generations and their different approaches to work.


Born prior to the mid-1940s, the tail end of this generation is likely to have delayed retirement plans due what is already being called the “Great Recession” (2007 – 2012) and its negative impact on company and personal pension pots. This generation is characterised as risk-averse, late adopters of change, with a need to feel in control at work.

Baby Boomers.

The famous post-war baby boom generation are now in their 50s and 60s, and represent a significant proportion of partners in the UK legal sector. They are generally perceived as hard-working, having sacrificed work-life balance in return for compensation and status. They are characterised as being reluctant collaborators, and focused on fee-earning today rather than planning for longer term goals.

Generation X.

Born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, Generation X are currently in or moving into senior and leadership positions. They are generally thought to be independent, somewhat cynical and always on the look-out for new opportunities. They don’t tend to invest a great deal of faith in reward for loyalty, and are more likely to advance their careers by moving from firm to firm, rather than sticking it out with the same employers for years on end.

Generation Y.

Also known as Millennials, this generation covers the newest entrants into the workforce up to those in their mid-30s. Some high achievers will have achieved partner status already, with a large number at solicitor, associate and senior associate level. They are perceived as needing continual feedback and validation, enjoying collaborative work and interaction, and favouring work that they find varied, fulfilling and meaningful over status and a large paycheque.

Generation Z.

Born after 2000, Generation Z will be entering the legal workforce very shortly, and the most forward-thinking firms are already taking steps to understand what drives them and how to engage with this next generation of managers and leaders. Often grouped with Generation Y, they are characterised as ‘digital natives’ who grew up with the internet and social media, and are similarly goal- and achievement-oriented, with a preference for social interaction and personal development.

It should be noted that there is always a great deal of variation among individuals of all ages, and that these thumbnail sketches represent general trends that may not apply to everyone. Nonetheless, research shows a significant shift in attitudes to work and workstyles from one generation to the next, and this has profound implications for the way we think about organising the workplace to get the best from all its users.

The problems with traditional law firm management.

Traditionally, law firms have operated as highly hierarchical organisations, in which power, status and responsibility rest to a great extent in the hands of a few senior partners who have ‘done their time’ with the firm and built up a reputation over a long tenure. Career success has tended to be linked to clients and networks, with new recruits expected to serve their time carrying out the more menial work, sometimes for years, before being allowed to rise up the ranks.

This ethos is one that is implicitly understood by Traditionals and Baby Boomers, but that is at odds with the outlook of younger generations, particularly generations Y and Z, who represent the future of the workforce.
Research has shown that the younger generations tend to be ambitious, questioning, achievement-orientated, seeking personal fulfilment and a sense of purpose. They tend to prioritise support, validation and flexibility over salary, and prefer active learning, collaboration and social activities, in contrast to older generations’ preference for a more traditional ‘command and control’ management style.

Most importantly, they don’t place the same value in loyalty as older generations, and are likely to move between different companies as a way of advancing their careers, rather than staying with the same firm over a long period of time.

All of this has significant ramifications for the way law firms recruit, manage and develop staff, as well as for their long-term succession planning. In a knowledge-based industry whose assets are above all its people, high staff turnover can pose significant problems for a firm’s continued success.

It’s clear that in order to manage a rapidly evolving workforce, with increasingly diverse expectations, law firms need to innovate in areas such as employee engagement, performance management, responsibility, internal communication, rewards and recognition, and personal development.

Law firms that are willing to embrace change are the ones that stand to win in the long term. In part two of this blog, we’ll look more closely at what this means in practice across a number of key areas, and how this impacts on the organisation of your workforce, the environment they work in and the tools and technologies at their disposal.

If you’d like to find out more about the quiet revolution that’s changing the way leading law firms do business, download our latest whitepaper “The agile law firm”:



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