There has always been a generation gap in communication style between senior lawyers and their junior colleagues, but the smartphone era has made this problem increasingly costly. This generation gap is not confined to attorneys—businesses have spent an estimated $60 to $70 million last year on the new field of generational consulting, sometimes at rates as high as $20,000 an hour, and are making radical changes in corporate culture to keep up younger employees’ morale. Though rigorous studies are still needed to quantify the full extent of the problem, I have had the opportunity over the course of my company’s market research to have conversations about the generation gap with lawyers at all levels of practice.
The issue that comes up again and again is that both senior and junior lawyers do not feel that the other generation does enough to make itself available for communication. This is because younger lawyers do most of their communication over various text messaging platforms, which senior attorneys tend to use rarely if at all. Senior attorneys try to make themselves available via phone and e-mail, viewing these as all-purpose communication tools, but to the younger generation, these are specialized media only appropriate for certain types of communication.
The younger generation uses phone calls and e-mail less and less because both media have real drawbacks, which also apply in the professional sphere. A phone call is insistent: it demands that the person on the other end drop everything to answer it. Because text messages are less disruptive, the younger people avoid using the phone when texting would suffice. From this perspective, calling up a senior colleague over a minor question would be a breach of etiquette that could interrupt something more important, even though senior colleagues who use the phone more routinely might not see it that way.
E-mail also does not lend itself to certain types of workplace communication. Some senior colleagues expect e-mail to be written like formal letters, with greetings and pleasantries before getting to the point. This leads younger attorneys to err on the side of formality to avoid potentially offending a colleague by appearing brusque, but it also means that some questions are not worth going to the trouble of e-mailing at all.
The result is a failure to communicate: Senior attorneys try to encourage their junior colleagues to come to them with questions, but increasingly report that their younger colleagues do not take advantage. From the younger generation’s perspective, senior attorneys are available for questions that are urgent enough for a phone call or meaty enough for an e-mail but not for the type of question more appropriate for a text message. In practice, this means that instead of asking senior colleagues for guidance, when asking a question would be awkward over a phone call or e-mail, junior attorneys proceed without help. More and more, this wastes attorney time on costly revisions when younger lawyers make mistakes that they could have avoided by talking to senior colleagues.
Law firms and corporate legal departments will continue to see these costs rise unless they take this generation gap seriously. To some extent, this problem can be mitigated by training. Senior attorneys want to make themselves available to help junior colleagues, and they can explain more clearly that receiving phone calls or terse e-mails about minor issues will not annoy them. But these efforts have seen limited success. For young lawyers, using newer communication media, and the etiquette that has developed around them, are too ingrained. Persuading them to make more use of phone calls and e-mails, communication tools that they see as inefficient and more prone to social miscues that could have professional consequences, is largely a losing battle.
Instead, bridging the generation gap means approaching it as a technology problem, not a training problem. At any legal workplace, the younger attorneys are already using some type of text messaging platform, unofficially, to work together and ask questions, with senior lawyers not necessarily aware of being left out of the loop. Rather than leave them to their own devices, firms and legal departments should follow their lead and invest in a text messaging platform for the office’s internal use that facilitates on-task communications.
Convincing younger attorneys to move their conversations to a new communications platform is easy: as long as it has some feature that makes workplace communication more efficient than whatever they were using unofficially, they will gravitate toward using it. For senior, less tech-savvy attorneys, some adaptation would be required, but the amount of training needed is minimal, especially for the benefit of having much more productive relationships with their junior colleagues. Lawyers’ rapid adoption of the BlackBerry, even among normally tech-averse senior lawyers, shows that senior lawyers are willing to embrace new communication technology when it clearly helps them work with colleagues more efficiently and serve clients better.
Firms and legal departments should understand the present generation gap not as an intractable problem but as an impetus to rethink the way attorneys communicate. Adapting to a new mode of communication has costs involved, but it will lead to a more cohesive atmosphere, with fewer costly mistakes and, ultimately, better client service.