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A Multigenerational Approach to Engagement and Retention


A Multigenerational Approach to Engagement and Retention

Some people dwell on the differences among the three or four generations in the workplace and see them as obstacles to productivity and serenity. Others ignore the differences or deny that they are real, saying that we all are individuals. The observed truth lies somewhere in between. We do need to regard each person as an individual, avoid stereotyping and remember that not all behavior is derived from generational factors.

Having said that, there are observable patterns that a large percentage of people (in the U.S. and to a lesser but growing extent in other parts of the world) exhibit related to formative influences while they were growing up. Being aware of these patterns and attitudes is valuable when designing strategies and interacting as team members, mentors/mentees, coaches and supervisors.

I focus on using knowledge of typical generational attributes, differences and similarities to boost motivation and retention. In this article, I specifically concentrate on the three generations—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (or Millennials)—that account for most of the workplace population today, and will for the next five years (see chart below). I discuss what each generation is looking for in work and career that you need to tap into, assumptions to challenge, why and how the typical law firm culture actually plays against what it takes to retain both lawyers and staff, and some strategies to better meet engagement and retention objectives.


Many generational attributes are reflected in workplace behavior. Keep these in mind when developing engagement and retention strategies:

Baby Boomers

  • Like in-person contact and establishing relationships first
  • Are continual learners and want to work for intellectual stimulation
  • Are still competitive and in the game, and most have no concept of themselves as “old”

Generation X

  • Are self-reliant, and want their own piece of the action
  • Are willing to learn as they go
  • Regard time as currency

Generation Y/Millennials

  • Were raised in a transactional world and think in those terms
  • Think and live in the moment
  • Were educated to ask questions and expect the opportunity to express their views


All of these generations rate the following factors among the highest in their work lives according to numerous surveys:

  • Meaningful work
  • The opportunity to learn and grow as a professional, whether as an attorney, paralegal, in an administrative function (marketing, recruiting, professional development, IT, etc.), or as part of an attorney team
  • To feel appreciated and listened to
  • Financial compensation
  • Nonfinancial rewards, such as the time and ability to work some of the time in locations outside the office
  • Relief from intense stress

In addition, particularly for attorneys who aspire to stay at a firm, there is usually a strong desire to interact with clients and to have a degree of control over what work is distributed to them.

While these factors are motivators for all generations, they may play out differently. For example, the generations tend to like to learn differently (with the caveat that people have different listening and learning styles at any age). The older generations are used to attending—and giving—lectures and meeting in person. Generations X and Y want interaction, stimuli from video, contests and games, and immediate feedback. They like to learn on their own time from wherever they choose to be. Gen Yers want a lot of guidance because they want to do everything right the first time, and to work collaboratively. Gen Xers want their own piece of work to handle independently, and they want a path to running a practice or a client team. For some, their patience has been running out.

Gen Y is an impatient generation and doesn’t buy into the paying-your-dues-first concept. The pace of change they have lived through negates the willingness to wait. In assessing their progress, Gen Yers are not interested in achieving the components of career satisfaction cited above in serial fashion. They want to have a check-in on their progress much more frequently than annually or even semi-annually. But the Boomers have experienced a longer time frame for leadership and promotion—and think the younger generations should also have to wait and achieve a series of milestones.

Also significant, the generations have somewhat different perceptions of the concept of professionalism, as indicated by the results of Practice Development Counsel’s fall 2011 survey.


Many of the factors discussed here apply to other professions and industries as well, but typical law firm culture often plays against what it takes to retain lawyers and staff, or even to ensure they haven’t mentally checked out even if they are still physically present.

Firm management teams often delude themselves into thinking that paying more will keep the best talent for the long haul—or as long as they want them.

Increasingly regarded as law firm cultural negatives:

  • Short-term thinking and focus on profits per partner
  • Undervaluing (i.e., not rewarding) attorney mentoring and training
  • Little long-term talent planning and management beyond an obsolete recruitment system
  • An hourly billing and pay-your-dues culture that hinders work/life flexibility and development of the whole person
  • The caste system that fosters an us-versus-them mentality between lawyers and everyone else, and even among the tiers of lawyers

Related: Generation Z May Shake up the World


People of all generations need to challenge their assumptions that everyone has the same motivations and definitions of success in the workplace. Employers often try to improve employee engagement with perks, but studies have shown that a lack of perks is not the initial cause of disengagement. More important is lack of intrinsic motivation, which is often caused by perceptions of favoritism, managers not being held to the same or higher standards as employees, partners or senior associates failing to give credit to associates or staff for their suggestions, and people consistently feeling their concerns are not listened to.

Here is a list of strategies to consider and implement:

  • Learn the triggers that cause people to want to leave, and address them.
  • Institute a more holistic view of the review process.
  • Facilitate dialogues within work teams to surface and address generational issues, and achieve more fairness in assigning roles based on skill and merit.
  • Enhance orientation to clarify expectations, give guidance very early on and involve all generations.
  • Learn the hot buttons of how not to communicate between generations and the keys to building cross-generational rapport.
  • Assess and design mentoring, training, coaching and sponsorship with generational differences in mind.

Referring back to what typically motivates engagement of the generations in their work, leaders and managers can take some specific steps:

  • Train Boomers and Gen Xers who are supervising others to take the time to explain the context of assignments and how each person’s piece of the work is important to clients and to the desired result. Emphasize how even seemingly mundane tasks are meaningful to achieving the overall goal.
  • Keep Boomers learning through mutual (two-way) mentoring without being condescending to either older or younger generations, and give recognition to both. Integrate this into the culture. Both Boomers and Gen Yers, by sheer numbers, are competitive—and they are collaborative too, which may seem like a contradiction. Get them to see the common purpose and to focus on external, rather than internal, competition.
  • In assigning work, give the Gen Xers their own piece of responsibility and trust them to find their own creative ways to complete it. Give recognition, including personal time.
  • Accept that Gen Yers and new entrants to the firm are likely to need more guidance than Gen Xers and Boomers did. With attention up front, they will learn to meet expectations with speed, enthusiasm and technological savvy.
  • All generations want work/life flexibility and integration, and it’s about more than parental need. A flexible, agile culture has proven to boost engagement and retention in many industries.

Whatever the generation, trust in people’s ability to get the job done when they have clear expectations and feel a sense of fair treatment. Trust and respect will engender the same toward the firm, and using a combination of the strategies above will boost productivity and retention of desired talent.

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