With its broader theme of “Culture, Client Service & Law Firm Talent Transformation,” the 2018 Legal Executive Institute Forum featured a panel discussion with “Gen X” law firm executives on the opportunities and challenges of leading firms during a period of major economic and cultural change.

The panel’s moderator, Cristina A. Carvalho, managing partner at Arent Fox LLP, provided some context on the current age demographics within law firms. “Millennials,” professionals who are 36 years old and younger, comprise the industry’s largest age group while the “Boomers,” who are between 53-71 years old, dominate the management committees and account for about 40 percent of all partners. For their part, Gen X’ers, between 37-52 years old, are fast-assuming leadership roles, and account for more than 50 percent of partner ranks.

The panelists on the stage included Matt R. Burnstein, chairman of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP; Scott J. Fisher, managing partner, Neal Gerber Eisenberg LLP; James Goodnow, president & managing partner, Fennemore Craig, P.C.; and F. Chase Simmons, vice chairman & chair-elect, of Polsinelli PC.

The conversation began with each panelist describing the generational profile of his firm’s larger leadership team, including a look at how transition takes place, which may be entirely organic or prodded along by term limits.

Addressing differences in leadership and management styles, one panelist acknowledged that he observes Boomers who were raised in more traditional law firm environments preferring to maintain the implicit rules of a hierarchy. At the same time, rather than age, he speculated that a driver for consensus-building among younger entrants to a firm may be to develop relationships more broadly.

Considering how to prioritize the various needs of distinct age cohorts, one panelist made a distinction between an internal and external focus. He stated that within his firm there’s more emphasis placed on millennial talent development, while externally there is more investment made in lateral recruiting.

As for the proverbial elephant in the room – the worn-out characterization of millennials being more entitled than their predecessors – there was a collective understanding among the panelists that this younger generation was raised with greater empowerment within their nuclear families, which may lead to the expectation that they will have a recognized voice in the workplace.

“There’s also the challenge to manage the exuberance so it’s not perceived as irrational but received as productive interest in having a ‘seat at the table,’” Fisher said. He suggested that it’s a leader’s responsibility to coach millennials on how they can most persuasively present their ideas to more senior lawyers, while another proposed that early-career lawyers be given a literal seat at the table, perhaps at established committee meetings.

Perhaps still more differences characterize this new generation, as Carvalho asked if there’s a widespread perception that millennial lawyers are less interested in attaining partnership. One panelist replied that while Boomers have long entwined their professional identity with a Big Law title, younger lawyers seem less concerned with sticking to a single career track. Several panelists agreed that this phenomenon is no coincidence, given both our more transparent world and a greater number of career options for trained lawyers, whether with in-house counsel, or from newer roles that disaggregate the delivery of legal services.

To be sure, as one panelist described, conversations with associates at his firm are focused on ensuring they have a good experience while there, rather than looking too far down the road.

“The idea that we’re going to get them in, and they’re never going to leave, that’s just not the world anymore, even for the Boomers,” Simmons said.  In this new reality, firms are investing resources in alumni networks to develop channels for subsequent referrals and other business development opportunities.

On the all-important topic of succession, the panelists were asked to describe their approach to motivate late-career lawyers to hand over the reins to new leaders. One panelist noted how his firm has tied leader compensation to the success of the transition, while another stressed the importance of financial incentives more broadly.

As one panelist noted, Gen X is in a great position to bridge the generation gap and advised that leaders emphasize the common ground among all talent. Another noted that while behaviors may differ, the core tenets of business remain the same.

“At its core, business development is still relationship-driven. While a boomer may forge that relationship on the golf course, a Gen X’er may chat with parents while at a kids’ event, or Millennials may do it thru Instagram… it’s just different ways of forging that same human connection,” Goodnow said.

In closing, Carvalho posed the million-dollar question: what will be the potential legacy of Gen X law firm leaders?

“I think the Gen X managing partners will endure a much more disruptive time; and stewardship and being a custodian won’t be enough,” Burnstein said. The big question, he continued, is “what decisions should we be making over the next 10 years, and how can we lead people to them?”

This post was written by Heather Fox, manager with Thomson Reuters Commmunications team.