As a new generation of lawyers is about to enter the workforce, they bring new ideas, perspectives and ways of working that are bound to influence how law will be practiced in the future. Gen Z practitioners will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the profession. Why? For one thing, this generation is proportionally large: Gen Zers will soon comprise one-third of the world’s population, and they already make up more than a quarter of the US population. They are also the most diverse generation in US history.
Perhaps more to the point, Gen Zers’ attitudes toward work, technology and training clearly distinguish them from millennials and boomers, according to recent research. As more boomers retire in the coming years, law firms that wish to attract and retain emerging top Gen Z talent will need to understand these differences and plan accordingly.
Perspectives on career: A job is more than just a salary
Gen Z resembles their millennial counterparts in their desire for independence and their entrepreneurial instincts, according to a recent report based on a survey conducted by Network of Executive Women (NEW) in partnership with Deloitte. However, unlike millennials, whose career aspirations seem directed toward startups and early-stage companies, Gen Zers are more likely to value the safety of stable employment even as they seek diverse and entrepreneurial opportunities, and they may offer more loyalty to companies that can offer that stability.
Dramatic increases in higher education tuition and student debt have made this generation the most educated and indebted generation to date, which may help explain their gravitation toward a more stable work environment. However, compared to their Gen Y counterparts, Gen Zers appear to place more value on opportunities for advancement and meaningful work and are much less likely to cite more money (28% versus 42% for Gen Y) as incentives to work harder and stay at an employer longer, according to the human resource consulting firm Randstad. This may put them at odds with traditional demands placed by law firms on new associates for billable hours and personal sacrifice in exchange for career advancement and a big paycheck.
Technology: Give me smarter, easier to use, more personalized tools
Not surprisingly, Gen Z digital natives – the first generation to have been born after widespread adoption of the Internet – are drawn toward working in the tech industry. A study by Dell Technologies found that 80% of Gen Z respondents aspire to work with cutting-edge technology, an astonishing 91% say technology would influence job choice among similar employment offers, and 80% believe technology and automation will create a more equitable work environment. But even for those Gen Zers who end up working in other fields, assumptions and attitudes about technology are likely to be very important factors in their adaptation to the workplace.
A 2019 LexisNexis survey that drew responses from more 5,000 law students in the US provides some useful insights about how the next generation of lawyers views technology. When asked about the reasons driving their legal technology preferences, Gen Z law students cited (in order, from most important) ease of use, finding information quickly, attractive appearance and design, searches that return expected results, and depth and breadth of content.
While today’s law students resemble current legal practitioners in citing ease of use (72%) and the ability to find information quickly (62%) as key drivers for their technology preferences, Gen Zers distinguish themselves from older generations in the industry by placing a high value on legal analytics and data visualization tools, with 77% saying that legal analytics tools are extremely or somewhat helpful for performing analysis or drafting legal memoranda, and 77% indicating that visualization tools are helpful for identifying results.
Given the that multiple studies identify personalization as an important value and expectation for Gen Zers – both in the workplace and as consumers – law firms hoping to get a leg-up on recruiting and retaining young talents should also be thinking about deploying technologies that help create a more customized and personalized user experience. In addition to analytics and data visualization tools, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that can “learn” about a user’s behavior over time will likely have a big role to play here. For example, AI-powered voice “assistants” that deploy machine learning and natural language processing will soon be able to anticipate an individual lawyer’s research queries and actually provide verbal answers to complex legal questions, rather than just links to documents. AI-powered assistants will also follow lawyers across devices and platforms, enabling a continuity of work and even accomplishing tasks independently on behalf of the attorney. These are capabilities that are likely to be highly valued by next-generation lawyers.
Education and training: Help me get better
While Gen Zers tend to be deeper in debt from education than their predecessors, they also place a high value on education and job-related training. The LexisNexis survey reveals that, far from being impressed by technology for its own sake, today’s law students are convinced that better training on legal research tools in law school will help them succeed when they graduate, and they are especially enthusiastic about on-demand, self-paced training tools.
Savvy law firms should be looking for ways to provide young attorneys with advanced technologies that enable faster and smarter work, and they should be investigating more flexible, personalized learning tools that new associates can use on their own in ways that are directly relevant to the work they’re doing. Firms would also be well-advised to embrace the digital know-how of the Gen Z associates they hire and immediately engage them in technology initiatives and technology training programs so they can take the lead in contributing to those programs in the future.
Costs and competitive pressures continue to rise as law firms struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing global marketplace. Firms are looking for ways to help new associates become more productive and contribute to the bottom line faster. Understanding the unique characteristics of Gen Z – digital natives who value independence, work-life balance, advanced technologies and personalized tools for working more efficiently and learning faster – is an important first step in building a productive and resilient workforce for the future.