GenX lawyers seek life beyond the firm

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Sunday, July 01, 2007
JohnRussell0707.jpg John Russell, one of five founding partners at Alleman Hall McCoy Russell & Tuttle.

Photo by Michael G. Halle

Bridging the gap

Work-life balance is key for the next generation of lawyers.

By Christina Williams

John Russell ambles into the conference room in jeans, a faded T-shirt and Birkenstock clogs. The 34-year-old sits down to talk about the intellectual property law firm he founded with four partners, but he’s more eager to give a tour of the offices.

The Portland offices tell the story better than one clean-cut, sloppily dressed lawyer can. There’s the bicycle stashed in Chris Tuttle’s office (Alleman Hall McCoy Russell & Tuttle aims to be a carbon-neutral law firm). In 2005, Tuttle took two months off to ride around Spain while his partners handled the clients.

Down the hall is the office of 38-year-old M. Matthews (Matt) Hall, another of the founding partners who was the first of the five to take time off when his wife had a baby. In the 2½ years since Alleman Hall opened its doors, four of the five partners have taken family leave.

Then there’s the additional 1,100 square feet of office space being refinished for more lawyers to join the firm and everywhere boxes and filing cabinets overflowing with patent work from newly won clients, including Nike and Microsoft.

And did we mention that all of the firm’s partners are under 40? Welcome to the law firm of a new generation. Young lawyers hailing from Generation X, Y and beyond want different things from their careers than their older counterparts — and they’re speaking up about it. Law firms that aren’t addressing the issue risk losing their young associates.    

The Multnomah Bar Association spent most of last year studying a problem they identified as a generation gap after hearing complaints from older lawyers about the slack work ethic of younger lawyers and fielding questions from young lawyers about the burdensome time requirements of their work. In the much-vilified billable hour system, law associates are often required to work 2,000 billable hours per year, which, if you do the math, works out to 50 neat 40-hour workweeks. But the reality is more often marathon stints of 80-hour weeks to meet a deadline.

All about balance

Lawyers hailing from Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, surveyed by the Multnomah Bar Association ranked work/life balance as their top motivator at work. Firm culture came in second among Gen X-ers and supportive leadership was ranked third.

“It’s a concern in the legal world,” says Judy Edwards, executive director of the Multnomah Bar Association. “How do you retain good talent in a law firm? Because it costs a lot of money to invest in a young graduate and you want them to stick around.”

The survey by the bar, conducted with the assistance of Jo Smith, a Portland-based business consultant who specializes in law, found that only 53% of surveyed GenX lawyers, who were born between 1965 and 1980, expected to be working full-time at their current firm in 10 years. Of those who didn’t, nearly 40% said they planned to be out of law and 17% said they planned to be taking extended family or personal leave.

Smith says that turnover is on the increase at most law firms, with industry averages hovering around 20%. “It’s much more commonplace for the younger generation to change firms and change jobs than it was 20 years ago,” Smith says. “The boomers are still puzzled by it and the management is troubled by it.” (Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.)

The study also found that younger lawyers want more mentoring from experienced lawyers, better communication within the firm and more flexibility to work hours that better accommodate a family life. To hold onto their young lawyers, firms across Oregon are wrestling with the question of how best to accommodate these demands.

MENTORING PROGRAMS ARE NOTHING NEW at Oregon law firms, but they’re getting more attention as firms wrestle with high turnover among their young associates.

“We’re failing ourselves if we’re not meeting the needs of those associates,” says Mark Long, managing partner at Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt in Portland. He adds that the effects of high turnover aren’t just financial — though firms do invest a considerable amount in recruiting and training — but morale also flags.

To try to avoid the associate exodus, Schwabe has experimented with an expanded mentorship program for associates at its Seattle office, a program Long says is likely to go firmwide soon. Professional development is front and center and a part-time, or “reduced goal,” track is available to associates who seek it out.

At Stoel Rives in Portland, a decade-old program of matching young lawyers with older coaches has been augmented to include a second matchmaking, pairing a younger associate with an older associate for a more informal mentoring relationship.

“The firm pays for up to two lunches a month per relationship so we encourage people to take advantage of that,” says Barbara Nay, a Stoel Rives partner who’s been active in setting up the program.

Nay says the mentoring program is just one of several ways the firm is trying to reach across the gap. Earlier this year, the firm held a women’s retreat at Skamania Lodge to focus on issues of particular concern to women lawyers. “The younger lawyers are more willing to speak up about what is of concern to them.”

Speaking up is the strategy recommended for firms looking to address the generation gap by 33-year-old Catherine Brinkman, outgoing president of the Multnomah Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Section and an associate at Schwabe. “Firms are definitely in transition,” says Brinkman, who presented the bar’s generation gap study to her firm’s senior partners. “The suggestion I had is: Keep the lines of communication open. It starts with the interview process. Don’t sugarcoat it. You have to encourage people to do soul searching, to ask themselves how much of a personal sacrifice they’re willing to make.”

Brinkman and other young lawyers say they know plenty of colleagues who aren’t willing to make the sacrifices required of them at the other end of law school and are finding other careers. Jobs in government or the corporate world don’t have the stress of the billable-hour culture that so often leads to long hours spent working for clients and little time for other interests.

Kelly Struhs, an associate at Portland-based Stoll Stoll Berne Lokting and Schlachter, estimates that 15% of her law school class has left the profession and she was surprised to see the high numbers of lawyers planning to leave their firm captured by the bar’s survey. But she points out that sometimes when young lawyers rail against the business and swear they’ll get out, they never make good on the threats.

“I probably would have answered that question the same way the first year or two or four out of law school,” says Struhs, 31. “And I’ve heard from other attorneys that they felt sort of the same way when they started. But now they say they wouldn’t have done anything differently. That’s one of the biggest things that the mentoring role serves. It’s not just ‘can you answer my legal questions,’ it’s ‘did you like practicing in the beginning?’ and ‘how did you balance your life?’”

JOHN RUSSELL READILY ADMITS that occasionally he and his young partners wish they had a senior attorney who could offer advice or inspire trust in a client. But he and his colleagues, who left Portland intellectual property firm Kolisch Hartwell en masse to start Alleman Hall, made that tradeoff with eyes wide open.

They traded the mentoring, the established name and the infrastructure for a firm built around their values. “We want to make sure we’re profitable but we also want to make sure that a work-life balance isn’t something we just give lip service to,” Russell says.

To that end, Alleman Hall made the unusual move of establishing a cap on the number of hours a partner can work in a year (an internal figure) as part of the firm’s partnership agreement. At least two partners are assigned to every client to ensure that when someone is taking time off, there’s someone there to cover. The managing partner role rotates between each of the five founding partners every six months.

And the work has been there. Since opening their doors in January 2005, the five founders were joined by four other lawyers, two patent agents and two technical advisers in addition to the firm’s support staff.

The firm’s been so successful that the partners have been challenged of late to keep that balance that they wanted so badly when they popped the champagne bottle and started designing a different kind of law practice “The question we always ask ourselves is: Are we better off?” Russell says.

So far, their answer is yes.

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