Making Work, Work

On 20 November 2019, Obelisk Support joined the first UK edition of Women, Influence & Power in Law UK (WIPL UK), a conference gathering senior female in-house lawyers and private practice lawyers to discuss leadership and legal issues. A topic the event came back to more than once was the challenge of managing multiple generations in a legal team. Lawyers are working longer and as a result, legal teams and corporate teams in general are a more diverse group which creates a relatively new issue – generational diversity.

Generations & Generational Stereotypes

To understand generations in your legal team, it’s important to define them:

  • Baby boomers, also known as Boomers, are the generation that were born mostly following World War II, typically born from 1946 to 1964.
  • Generation X, commonly abbreviated to Gen X, is the generation born from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s.
  • Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the cohort of people born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s to early 2000s.
  • Generation Z, or simply Gen Z, is the cohort of people born after the Millennials. Sometimes known as digital natives as they do not know a world without the internet.

Generational stereotypes could be harmless if they did not get in the way of work.

  • Boomers are perceived as being out of touch and disinterested in learning new skills,
  • Gen X are perceived as cynical loners at work that make poor team members, and
  • Millennials are perceived as snowflakes.

Each of these stereotypes, whether or not based on truth, reveals deep divides that can create real issues when approaching problems. How do you get older people to work with younger ones without being patronising? How do you help younger workers see they have to build up experience before promotion comes? That’s why getting past stereotypes is the only way forward in successful legal teams. In fact, research done at the University of Kentucky and Kutztown University reports that despite the many stereotypes of each generation, there is no real difference when it comes to work ethic or job values.

There are, however, different expectations.

Motivation & Talent Retention

For Mitzi Berberi, Former Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, FOX Networks, age and generation really impacted her team when it came to motivation. Before generational diversity was well understood, the prevailing attitude was that motivating teams was standard. Successful lawyers were rewarded with more (and hopefully, better) work and got promoted to work some more. However that is not the case for newer generations — they don’t perceive rewards the same way as the older generation. They perceive additional workloads as punishments rather than rewards, which begs the question – how do you motivate them?

According to Katherine Thomas, General Counsel, Travelodge, human nature is such that we don’t understand why others are not excited by same things as us. It is important for people to understand what motivates other members of the team. The diversity debate has so far focused largely on gender, orientation and ethnicity but we talk less frequently about age. This was reinforced by Natalie Tan, Global Head Legal Strategic Transactions, Novartis Pharmaceuticals. At large companies, there are women’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, but there are no places for younger and older generations to get together. Age transcends all the other diversity issues and so far, it’s mostly visible in a negative light.

An employment lawyer in the audience mentioned how sexual orientation and age have become huge issues, resulting in a lot of complaints for age discrimination.

Ageism & Industry

Ageism, or any discrimination based on age, depends a lot on the sector and how the issue of age is viewed as discussed by the panel. While people in the pharmaceutical industry are traditional, viewing age and experience as qualifications to take account before promoting people, the media industry skews towards the very young. In that work sphere, the younger generation perceives older people as outdated.

Unconsciously, Gen X lawyers start taking themselves out of some roles and wonder where they are going next. Pushing ageism to the extreme, some professionals wonder if they need to take botox to remain relevant. In the media where professionals feel older much younger, the only way up is to move to HQ but most are in fact too young for HQ where the customer base expects senior executives.

In the legal industry, age is a double-edged sword. In private practice, it’s about how much PQE lawyers have. Age is really valued by clients, to the point that some clients want “grey hair” in leadership positions for their team. It’s the opposite in-house. For their external resourcing, some clients call legal services providers to look for an experienced lawyer (7 years PQE is the magic number) but not someone who is too experienced. Said a member of the audience, “lawyers go stale and are not employable anymore after 8 years PQE.”

How do you re-position the age debate to make it work for all generations?

Age & Work Sustainability

The legal industry needs to innovate and promote work sustainability, acknowledging that some solicitors don’t want to go up the corporate ladder. After a while when their colleagues don’t get promoted to senior positions, people judge and wonder why they are coasting, why they are not partners yet.

Work life balance is changing. Not everybody wants to be promoted and there’s nothing wrong with that. People should be allowed to have a sustainable career and it should not be perceived as “wrong.”

Moving away from PQE

Does the legal profession need to move away from PQE? All attendees agreed that in the UK, PQE is used as a tag to categorise lawyers but it is a bit lazy. Years of experience is relevant but it’s relevant experience that matters – not PQE. Some generalists with a long work experience could be less well-placed to take on an issue than juniors with less but very niche experience. Valuing relevant experience would shift the focus in legal teams from age to skills.

Generational Diversity Tips for General Counsels

Generational diversity means that general counsels need to tailor to the individual a lot more. A few tips suggested by WIPL panel and audience included the following:

  • Understand what motivates your team.
  • Build internal policies with age in mind. Family policies are not just about children. People have siblings, parents who are getting older.
  • Empower the younger generation and help them capitalise on their enthusiasm, embracing who they are and what their individual skills are. If they are too casual, show them how to behave in the job that they want and in the way they want people to perceive them.
  • Give older team members more autonomy and responsibility, praise them for what they is good at. Something as small as a title change can really help how they perceive a job. Indeed if they older, chances are their friends have senior titles. Instead of “senior counsel,” change their title to senior legal counsel.
  • Be sensitive. The general counsel of a large publisher had a very young team that included a person who only qualified recently as a lawyer and was very sensitive to PQE. In their team, they don’t talk about PQE. The general counsel of a large multinational had a baby boomer on the team and wondered if she should approach the retirement conversation or not. When she did mention it, the person hadn’t thought about it so they mutually agreed to develop her in the same way as other members on the team and ignore the retirement issue.
  • Encourage flexible working. Some people want a better life and don’t want to spend two hours a day in commute. Said Thomas, “I don’t care at what time you do your job if you get it done. Ultimately, you know how long have been working for.” In-house have a responsibility to push flexible working on private practice. She went on, “Tell them you don’t want emails at midnight or during weekends. Tell the lawyers who have kids, ‘It’s fine, send it to me tomorrow morning.’ Nobody needs to send an email at midnight to make a point.”
  • Encourage time management best practices. While private practice has long been a stronghold of face time and long hours, in-house culture has shifted away from this. Some European countries actually look unfavourably on long hours. German lawyers are strict about work hours and managing day hours efficiently. They have a very mathematical view of time management: if you work long hours, either you are not able to work efficiently or you’ve got too much work to do and they need to hire another person. Long hours and being online at midnight mean that you’re not able to do your job in your work hours and it makes lawyers look bad. If a team member works long hours, have a conversation about efficiency and best practices.
  • Minimise meetings. Lawyers don’t need to attend all meetings unless they are necessary. If they’re called to a meeting, suggest that they find out what the agenda is and check whether they are needed there. There are only so many hours in a working day and meetings can reduce productivity if not managed efficiently.

Ultimately, GCs are responsible for managing workload but also people which is the way it should be. Age diverse teams mean that GCs need to learn how to develop personally and professionally, strengthening their ability to flex their management style to each individual’s needs.

 

Family & WorkMaking Work, Work

Book the Christmas night out. Arrange the venue. Sort the menu. Organise the free drinks and the bar. Set the dress code. Book taxis. Send invites. Chase numbers. Chase numbers some more. Marshall people. Organise the Secret Santa. Buy extra presents for the Secret Santa when someone doesn’t bring a gift. Agonise over sending cards to the office. Buy cards. Find something to wear. Attend night out.

Book the food delivery slot. Book tickets to see Father Christmas. Book tickets to the panto/ballet/Christmas play. Buy festive jumpers. Plan the menu. Buy the Christmas tree. Get the Christmas tree home. Buy Christmas cards. Write Christmas cards. Organise a family photo. Oversee the making and extremely slow writing of child’s class Christmas cards. Find £1 coins. Send £1 coins to school. Plan advent calendar. Make mince pies. Make more mince pies. Buy mince pies. Locate Christmas decorations. Decorate tree. Decorate house. Buy presents. Buy presents for your family-in-law. Wrap presents. Entertain children. Find ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Be Santa. Get up early. Cook the Christmas dinner. Decorate table. Serve Christmas dinner. Be nice to extended family. Collapse in exhaustion.

Exaggerated perhaps, and possibly only for those with school-age children, but pretty overwhelming. And if any of it sounds familiar, it is likely that you shoulder the mental load – that is the task of orchestration and project management – of Christmas. At work, or at home.

Now of course not everyone celebrates Christmas but the point remains. To facilitate ‘a nice time’, be that Christmas or any other occasion, the burden usually falls on one person. Despite the situation improving in recent years in terms of gender balance, research still shows that the mental load falls disproportionality on women.

you should have asked cartoon

There is a reason that cartoons like this one, and the excerpt from the book below, get thousands of likes within minutes. They’re funny. But they’re also pretty real.

christmas to do list

In 2017, a report commissioned by a US nonprofit care organisation Bright Horizons, but which is still no doubt applicable to the UK, found that mothers are “responsible not just for their half of household duties and childcare, but also for organising, reminding and planning virtually all family matters”. The more the woman earnt, the worse it was. Even just looking at holidays and family gatherings, the study found that primary breadwinning women are 30% more likely to organise them.

The reports might show improvement, and the United Nations has done its bit by launching the Unstereotype Alliance to eradicate all harmful gender-based stereotypes from advertising, but none of that is any good if you’re in the thick of it.

So, some suggestions on managing the mental load this Christmas:

Start talking now

Have a conversation now with all the relevant people in your household/wider family with whom you usually celebrate as to what they would like the next six weeks to look like.

Sure, there may be some traditions that you all agree on keeping, but don’t adhere to the well, we always do that. If it is time to find a new tradition, move on.

Set boundaries early

If there is any year to abandon wasteful presents that no-one enjoys receiving or buying and the pressure to reciprocate, this is surely it.

Agree now what gifting/cards and so on that your team at work / family as a whole will participate in, communicate said decision clearly, and then divide up the tasks. At home, every adult in the family buys (and wraps) their own presents – no excuses. You are all busy.

If you have a significant other, you can also take that moment to make it clear what, if anything, you are buying, and reciprocally. I don’t mean tell them precisely (although that might be better) but more a general agreement on budget / type of expectations. Emma Thompson might have realised her husband was a slimy *** in Love Actually but women everywhere also felt her pain in hoping for one thing and receiving something totally …. other.

Divide and conquer

One of the most telling things about the cartoon above is the line “you should have asked”. That’s the mental load right there – the person bearing it doesn’t want to have to ask. They want each person to be clear about what they need to deliver, and to do that without letting the side down, and without imposing on the other party.

If you’ve agreed to organise the Secret Santa for the team, that means actually doing it. Not just picking the names or sending the first email. It means checking that everyone has a name, sorting the drop off location, deciding when the presents will be handed out, making sure you have a couple of neutral back up options, and then actually checking every one has a present.

If you’ve agreed to sort the Christmas jumpers for school, that means doing it all, including working out what size you need, what the theme is, what else they will wear with it, and when you need to do it by.

Likewise, if you’re in charge of laundry, it doesn’t mean putting a load on and shrinking it all in the dryer. It means making sure no-one runs out of clean clothes, that specific kit is clean on the days that it is needed, and that nothing changes size.

Credit for what already happens

Chances are, your colleagues/ partner / support network already does a fair amount and that there is plenty of teamwork already happening. Acknowledge this, give credit where it is due and work out how to move to the next stage.

Trust people

If you don’t want to shoulder the mental load, you need to let go. Remember that “done” is better than “perfect” and by perfect I mean your idea of perfect. Accepting that another person will have a different perspective and will achieve things differently is part of managing the mental load.

If you’ve discussed generally what is important to the outcome, what values need to be taken into account, and the budget, let others get on with achieving their parts of the task in their own way.

Just as it would be infuriating to be micromanaged in a more professional context, remember that the objective is to have to do and remember less, not treat others like they did it wrong just because it wasn’t how you’d have done it.

On this note, best wishes for the festive season and remember to spread some good cheer!