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Bar News - December 17, 2010

You Kids Are Alright: A GenY Guide to the (ahem) Older Lawyer


Editorís Note: This article was reprinted with permission of the Illinois Bar Journal, Vol. 98 # 10, October 2010.

Welcome, new admittees Ė we are your supervising partners, your wizened coworkers. What makes us tick? Hereís a handy guide.

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.
Ė George Orwell

Weíve been warned, and theyíre coming. The Millennials, Generation Y, or whatever catchy name theyíre going by this week, will soon be holding up their right hands, swearing to support the Constitution, and joining the ranks of Illinois lawyers. We lawyers of a certain age (Iíll call us Older Lawyers) have been inundated with articles and seminars about how we can work with the new kids on the law block, who, weíre told, differ wildly from us in work ethic, preferences, and outlook on life generally.

But there is relatively little guidance for the newly minted young lawyers who will be working with Older Lawyers. So, for them, here is a guide to Older Lawyers and how they see the world differently from the next generation - and a few ways in which both generations are very much the same - along with some ideas about how young lawyers can use their unique outlook on work and life to avoid some of the mistakes that we Older Lawyers have made.

Letís start with the differences.

1. Our career path was a ladder - yours is a jungle gym.

When I began my legal career, it was received wisdom that if you worked really, really hard and didnít disgrace yourself too badly, youíd make partner at your firm someday. Many Older Lawyers just put one foot in front of the other until we realized that our ladder led nowhere.

You are smarter, it seems, and you know that your career path may have many twists and turns. Because you know this, focus on learning all you can at every place you practice, so you can take it with you when and if you leave. I know the job marketís tough, but try to practice with the best lawyers you can. Learning solid skills and good practice management in the first place is much easier than unlearning bad habits later.

2. Work was our life - or thatís what we said, anyway.

Back in the day, lawyers had relationships and children and lives outside the office - but we were hesitant to talk about those things because it might make us seem less than serious about practicing law. You seem more honest about wanting balance in your lives, and that is a worthy goal.

Remember, though, that it is a goal. On any given day, reality can be otherwise, especially as you are beginning to learn your craft. Try not to let it get you down, and donít give up on doing what you can to stay healthy and sane.

3. Out of sight, out of mind.

We Older Lawyers predate flexible hours and working from home, other than reading a stack of transcripts on the couch once in a while. We worked in our offices - and if we werenít there, we werenít working, and might, in fact, have sloped off to Wrigley Field. Wrongly, we sometimes assume the same thing about you.

If you are working remotely, take the initiative and keep in touch. Ask questions, give status reports. This is good practice for the days when you will deal directly with clients, who also want some reassurance that you care about their legal matters and are handling them properly.

4. We like paper, but weíre intrigued by your electronic stuff, too.

You are technology natives Ė you were born into a world with computers. We Older Lawyers are immigrants from the land of books and papers.

Try not to mock us when we speak your language a little clumsily. Use your electronic expertise to make yourself more productive and organized, and share it Ė tactfully, please Ė with us. In these early days, when youíre constantly reminded of how much you have to learn, it can be very pleasant to teach an Older Lawyer a thing or two.

5. We talked to each other.

E-mail didnít exist when Older Lawyers like me began practicing law. Actually, my second law firm had E-mail, but it was internal only, so we used it to send important communiques like "Weíre going to Mrs. Levyís for lunch Ė wanna come?" and fun stuff like my daily exegesis of the "Gil Thorp" comic strip in the Tribuneís Sports section. (See #7 below).

Now you Ė and we Ė use email all the time, except maybe when you Ė and we Ė are communicating via Facebook or tweeting and being tweeted at. This is a reminder not just to you, but also to Older Lawyers that E-mail is not a perfect or even a good substitute for actual talking.

If you explain some complex electronic thing to me (like turning on my "Out of Office" message) and finish by saying, "Karen, does that make sense?" and I say "Yeeeessss?" with a rising inflection, you know you need to start all over again Ė I didnít understand a word. Think about how that Q & A comes across in E-mail Ė you could just go on your way assuming that I got it.

6. We had two "Casual Days" Ė Saturday and Sunday.

When I first went to work for a law firm, pantsuits on women were still a little questionable, and the only way Iíd show up to work without stockings was if the Chicago summer heat had actually melted them off my legs. (There were days when this seemed entirely possible.)

Times have changed, probably for the better. But donít forget that many Older Clients expect you to dress "like a lawyer." And studies show that you are 54 percent more likely to have a surprise court appearance or client visit on days when you are dressed casually. (OK, I made the statistic up, but the principle is still true.) Even if you arenít required to don full battle dress on a daily basis, hang a suit on the back of your door just in case.

And here are a few similarities.

7. We goofed off, too.

Donít be fooled by Older Lawyers crabbing that you are wasting time on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet. We goofed off too, just not electronically. We gabbed about TV shows, lounged in each othersí offices, and, on one memorable occasion, conducted a scientific experiment in which we filled a glass to the brim with water and watched it to see whether the swaying of our high-rise office in a wind-storm would make it spill.

However, I also remember the dirty look we received from a partner passing my office while this voyage of scientific discovery was underway. How things looked to others mattered then, and it matters now. I speak from experience when I say that itís not good to be perceived as someone who shops on the Internet all day long.

8. We goofed up, too.

You would never know it from our current state of perfection (kidding!) but we Older Lawyers messed things up sometimes. Sadly, you will, too. If you discover that youíve made a mistake, bring the situation to a trusted colleague in your firm now.

Itís always good to do this calmly, and to come with some ideas about how the problem can be fixed, but do not delay. It may be that the "error" is not really an error at all. Or perhaps it can be easily remedied.

But even if the worst is true - itís a huge, flaming, unfixable mistake - your reputation and the clientís interests are at stake.

Do not risk either by lying, ignoring the problem, or burying it. Nikki Giovanni said, "Mistakes are inevitable. It is the response to the error that counts." There are many sad stories about lawyers who disregarded this principle and ended up in malpractice suits and ARDC [Illinois lawyer disciplinary agency] trouble. Donít let it happen to you.

9. We donít know everything, either.

In the 20 years (yikes!) since I took the lawyerís oath, law has become ever more complex and challenging. Entirely new bodies of law have come into being (e.g., cyberlaw), and even established practice areas evolve constantly.

Abandon any hope that one day you will "know it all." For Older Lawyers and new lawyers alike, staying abreast of developments in just one practice area is a lifelong challenge. For this reason, you will want to choose a few areas on which you will concentrate your practice. "Jack of all trades, master of none" is a recipe for dissatisfied clients, claims, and other calamities.

10. Our Older Lawyers complained about us, too.

Seems like every generation takes pleasure in predicting the utter ruin of civilization once it falls into the clutches of the next generation. We heard it; now itís your turn. Ignore it. We Older Lawyers are glad youíre here, and wish you all the best as you begin your career as a lawyer.

Attorney Karen Erger, former vice president and director of loss prevention with ISBA Mutual in Chicago, now works with Holmes, Murphy & Associates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Copyright by the Illinois State Bar Association.

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