Closing the generation gap

June 3, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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New young lawyers have always been able to learn a lot from the old hands, but sometimes the generation gaps are a little too wide between them, and law is one business that can’t ignore communication breakdowns within the team.

Traditionally, it’s been a general communication problem, but more increasingly, it’s an electronic device problem. “It’s a bit of a digital divide, sometimes,” said Nelson Miller, associate dean and professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School campus in Grand Rapids.

He said the mentoring relationships between law students and newly minted lawyers with senior attorneys is an important part of the profession, but now, some new lawyers come with advanced technological expertise they can share with older members of the firm.

“New graduates have the best and most current knowledge, and that’s very important for law firms, but there’s also a technology gap,” added Miller.

Senior lawyers at large firms have traditionally been a major resource for newbies.

“We are very intentional about pairing our older and younger lawyers together. We have a mentoring program here where each associate that comes in the door is paired with a partner,” said David Bevins, a shareholder at Rhoades McKee in Grand Rapids, a firm with about 50 attorneys. Bevins, 43, has been with the firm since 1996 and said its lawyers range from “World War II era” to one who just earned her law degree two years ago.

“I think communication is one of the big factors,” Bevins said of the generation gap. “Email is so easy, and texting is even easier,” he said.

But sometimes face-to-face is better.

“We spend a fair amount of time in our office telling people to get out of their chair” and talk face-to-face with other members of the firm, said Bevins. “For those of us who didn’t grow up with e-mail and texting, it’s a little easier to see that need.”

Bevins readily admits that e-mail and texting are useful, but “sometimes you can lose the context of what you are trying to communicate without seeing somebody, or at least hearing their voice.”

“Some things are certainly different and remarkable about the young,” said Bevins, such as the way they communicate and the way they need to have affirmation. “For some of us that are older, as long as somebody wasn’t yelling at us, you figured you’re doing good.”

“Maybe us older fogies need to be a little more expressive in telling somebody when they did a good job, and maybe young people need to have a little bit thicker skins sometimes. It’s an opportunity for both sides to grow a little bit,” he said.

Bevins said it used to be that a lawyer would prepare foam-core boards mounted with images and enlarged text to display before a jury. “Some people still do that, but what we’re getting now is, most of the courts have these evidence carts where you plug your computer in,” he said. The projected text or images are then made available for the jury to see. “The younger generation is much more comfortable with that than some of the older generation,” he said.

Doug Wagner, managing partner at Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids, said bridging the generation gap has always been a focus there.

“We understand that there are differences in attitudes and, in particular, the way people communicate — not to mention the way they dress,” he said. The differences between the generations can sometimes “result in a strained relationship or a miscommunication.”

Warner, which has 158 attorneys in Grand Rapids, has 17 under the age of 30. The youngest is Corinne Bethune, 26, and the most senior is Donald Veldman, 85.

Warner has a career development director on staff who runs the practice management skills program. Included in that training for new members of the firm is information on “how they should best interface with some of the older baby-boomer-type individuals around the firm, and what their expectations might be,” said Wagner.

“(Baby boomers) don’t necessarily appreciate it if young folks are texting during a meeting, or show up in their office for an assignment and don’t have a yellow pad and pen, which is something most of the partners here would expect them to do,” said Wagner.

But education can go the other way, too. Wagner said the firm has an Associates Committee in which the young attorneys elect representatives and have their own agenda. The Warner Associates Committee recently “has decided they are going to develop a program to educate some of the older folks around here about the ways in which they conduct business. And they think we might benefit from that, so I’m looking forward to being trained, myself,” said Wagner.

Cooley’s Miller said that within firms, conflict stemming from a generation gap is minimal because new lawyers almost universally hold experienced attorneys in high regard. However, the generation gap can sometimes surface in courtrooms.

“Firms are not that conflict ridden, at least between partners and associates. There’s great respect for the roles. But yes, in court, in some instances, a senior lawyer will feel a new lawyer is wet behind the ears and treat them as such, and that can rankle a new lawyer. It can rankle anybody who doesn’t feel they’re being given the respect they are due. That’s certainly traditional, that a senior lawyer will test, even challenge, a new lawyer,” said Miller.

“I would say it’s something a new lawyer should be prepared for and know how to respond to, and that is to respond with respect, turn the other cheek, but show them how good you are,” he added.

Wagner said there are certain techniques a young attorney can learn in dealing with older attorneys in the courtroom.

“The truth is, that sometimes many of these older lawyers are not as familiar with rules of evidence as they should be and have customary ways of doing things that may not be the way that a young lawyer was taught to do it in law school,” said Wagner. “Some will try to be bullies in the presence of a young, nervous person.”

The inexperienced attorneys at Warner are advised of “techniques on how you might deal with a courtroom bully,” added Wagner. Warner even has its own in-house simulated courtroom for training purposes.

“The main thing I would tell them is, don’t get into an argument with the person — maybe don’t even look at the person,” said Wagner. “Always direct your comments to the court or to the jury and not to opposing counsel, and you will look better than the bully if you do that. … Just go in there disciplined, know what you want to do, do it, keep your emotions in check and don’t let anybody push you around,” said Wagner.

Patrick Bowler, who is semi-retired after a 24-year career as a 61st District Court judge, indicated he has rarely seen older attorneys bully young ones.

“My experience with the older lawyers has been that they came from a school where there was quite a bit of civility in legal proceedings,” said Bowler, who also worked as a court bailiff before he went to law school. An attorney who came into a Kent County court with an expectation of a hostile atmosphere and became uncivil was typically not from the region, he said, and would soon be corrected by the judge.

Bowler said there has been a problem when hiring was down and many new lawyers were on their own, coming into court without mentoring at a firm and lacking experience at a legal aid organization or a public defender’s office, “thinking it had to be adversarial and running into one of the more experienced lawyers. That’s where feathers sort of got ruffled.”

“An institutional problem has always been young lawyers who come in and say, ‘Hey, I now know everything because I went to law school.’ They come in the courthouse and find out that the court clerks and bailiffs know 10 times more than they will ever know, and if they ever attempt to be abusive or play Mr. Lawyer, they are most definitely hurting their cases,” said Bowler.

Many larger firms try to bridge the generation gap with social events. Bevins noted that Rhoades McKee sometimes organizes progressive dinners in which newer attorneys are invited to the homes of several other attorneys.

“We have historically gone to Boyne Highlands for a weekend of skiing,” noted Bevins, as well as summer picnics and outings for both attorneys and support staff.”

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