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Partner and Millennial Associates’ Performance Expectations

“They don’t want to work!” It’s an all-too-familiar refrain uttered about associates of the millennial generation. As more and more millennials enter the workforce these generational clashes will continue. What can be done to bridge the gap and why should you care?


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“They don’t want to work!”

It’s an all-too-familiar refrain uttered about associates of the millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000), who have a “work isn’t everything” mentality. The nature of legal work is built on a tradition of 50-60 hour work weeks. Hard work, burn out, and personal sacrifice is the norm. Partners who did pay their dues at a time when being a “workaholic” was expected and respected view those who turn down work or can’t work late as lazy, disloyal, undedicated, disrespectful of authority and unwilling to pay the dues needed to succeed. These partners expect associates to follow in their footsteps and do whatever it takes to get things done, to be loyal firm citizens, and to contribute to the bottom line.

As more and more millennials enter the workforce these generational clashes will continue. What can be done to bridge the gap and why should you care?

It Costs You Money

There is a link between how people feel at work and how long they stay. A 2015 Professional Development Consortium survey found 70% of associates felt that law school didn’t prepare them for the practice of law. When confusion reigns about what’s expected and how work needs to get done, it causes angst. And this breeds dissatisfaction and resentment — and high turnover soon follows. Millennials are used to getting what they want, when they want it. If they aren’t able to work and have a personal life, they won’t stick around for long. “We’ve never had to deal with associate turnover like this — it’s close to 40% by the third year, and its killing us,” a managing partner in one of the largest U.S. law firms reported to Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman, authors of When Generations Collide.

The National Association for Legal Professionals (NALP) Foundation reported that “aside from salaries and bonuses, law firms spend thousands of dollars recruiting and training each associate, often paying for bar exam preparation courses, moving expenses, and continuing legal education. So when a lawyer walks out the door, that investment walks out with him.” First-year lawyers at large firms earned $180,000 in 2016. Turnover is “perhaps as high as three times the annual salary when you figure in mentoring time and other costs associated with training and development,” according to David Bilinsky and Laura Calloway, authors of “Profitability, the Case for Investing in Employee Engagement: How Turnover Affects Growth Rates,” Law Practice, March 2006. That means a $450,000 investment walks out the door when an associate leaves, especially if it’s before he or she starts generating income for you (usually by their third year).

Getting Partners and Millennial Associates on The Same Page

From my experience as a coach, I have come to see that laying down the law doesn’t work. There are 80 million-plus millennials, the largest cohort in history (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Each generation is different. One this big requires working with them differently. Here are three strategies for success:

1. To Retain Associates, Create Real Opportunities for Balance

According to Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman, authors of When Generations Collide, “We’ve found that companies that are the most flexible about helping employees achieve some level of balance seem to have an easier time recruiting, managing and retaining employees. In addition, we believe that these companies have lower turnover, a less stressed workforce, lower absenteeism and better morale.”

For years, firms have offered work/life balance initiatives. Attorneys, for fear of being stigmatized for not being able to keep up, or because “part-time” arrangements required full-time hours with part-time pay, rarely took advantage of those programs. Firms recognize that “there’s been a huge market failure for 20 years where the market is not delivering to lawyers the schedules they want,” says Joan Williams, the Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at U.C. Hastings.

“New model” firms are allowing 40-50 hour workweeks (that’s 40-50 hours of work time, not billing time) or as little as 10 hours per week for attorneys who want to take a break. These new, flexible schedule programs can satisfy millennial needs and with proper planning, oversight and management, can meet partner and business needs as well.

2. To Get the Most Out of Associates, Give Them Helpful and Frequent Feedback

When millennials were in school, they were tested on everything and taught to the test. They are used to knowing what is expected of them, having been measured their entire lives. They crave constant feedback on how they’re doing. This can be frustrating for busy partners who have no time for hand-holding.

As a coach who helps associates meet expectations, I have often heard associates complain that they didn’t discover they were missing the mark until their annual evaluation. In fact, a NALP Foundation survey, “How Lawyer Evaluations Measure Up II,” found a disconnect between what firms think they are accomplishing and what is truly accomplished with evaluations. Associates need to know what they will be evaluated on, how they will be evaluated, what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and how to improve. If an evaluation process doesn’t develop associates, aid them in supporting partners to keep up with client demands, or to attract new clients, what is its purpose?

Providing direct feedback during an assignment, as well as at the annual evaluation, is crucial. Millennials become discouraged if they don’t receive verbal strokes. Silence can be interpreted as disapproval. The same NALP survey found that “a majority of firms do not offer any training to those conducting reviews.” Giving valuable feedback is a skill that partners need to develop along with a clear understanding of the millennial generation. The international human resources firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that “71% of top performers who received regular feedback were likely to stay on the job versus just 43% who didn’t receive it.”

3. To Reduce the Mentoring Burden for Partners, Provide Career Development

In a 2015 Professional Development Consortium survey, 90% of associates said they would be successful if they had a roadmap. My specialty is creating roadmaps that make it easier for associates to meet expectations and reduces the mentoring burden for partners.

Comprehensive programs that integrate training, coaching, feedback and support takes the load off the shoulders of busy partners and creates dedicated law firm citizens.


When millennials know what is expected of them, can see how what they do contributes to a larger goal, and are able to balance their work and life effectively, they are eager, hopeful, dedicated and enthusiastic — qualities that make them a worthwhile investment.

***** Linda L. Hardenstein, PCC, MPA, founder of Hardenstein Consulting, works with partners to turn millennial associates from burdens into assets for her clients. She is A Georgetown University-trained Professional Certified Coach with more than 20 years of experience consulting with legal professionals. Reach her at, 831-233-9186, or

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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