Backstory: The Millennial Invasion

Sunday, March 12, 2017 - 18:00

It sounds like a bad science fiction movie. The people of planet Earth are, as usual, blissfully unprepared for the alien invasion. Spindly, big-headed creatures – legions of them – emerge from their improbable flying machines. They are nothing like us. What are their intentions? Are they friend or foe? How will we communicate? Can we work together in peace with this job-hopping, oversharing, disloyal, entitled, itinerant, social media-addicted alien hoard?

Cue the ominous music. Here come the millennials!

Sure, that’s a little over the top. But not by much, and certainly not by the terms of a new report issued by Thomson Reuters called “The Generational Shift in Legal Departments: Working with Millennials and Avoiding Baby Boomer Brain Drain.” Delivered as an interactive infographic, the report is part of Thomson’s Legal Department 2025 project. It is based on a modest survey of 153 in-house lawyers and a not-so-modest ambition of confronting a big issue: how today’s corporate counsel are preparing for the mass exodus of baby boomers and the mass influx of millennials into their law departments. (See “Millennials Are Leading – Is Your Company Following?” p. 31)

It’s a worthy undertaking that raises more questions than it answers. (Of course, that’s the case with most alien invasions – at least until the invaders’ intentions become clear.) Cast in the role of the hapless earthlings are the leaders of today’s corporate law departments. Here’s how the Thomson Reuters report tees up this wake-up call:

“The most alarming survey finding is legal departments’ lack of preparation for this generational shift. . . [T]he vast majority of legal departments are not striking the right balance, or worse, not even acknowledging the challenges facing them,” the report warns before sounding an especially ominous note: “The future of the business world depends on it.”

The balance of the report, however, doesn’t quite bear out the apocalyptic setup. It’s hard to argue with the assertion that the arrival of the aliens comes at an inconvenient time. (Do aliens ever arrive at an opportune moment?) In-house leaders and their teams already are confronted “with more workforce obstacles than ever before” as they struggle to manage a multigenerational workforce even as they deal with the influx of millennials and the outflow of boomers.

Still, most of those surveyed say they are not prepared for this massive generational shift, which requires a “delicate balance” – making the most of millennials’ good traits and skills while capturing the boomers’ extensive experience before they shuffle off to their dotage.

The report leans heavily on perceptions and stereotypes. Consider this quote: “The phrase ‘social media addict’ is often used to describe millennials’ communication preferences – their emails may include emojis that other generations may find unprofessional – alongside their reputation for oversharing and being too candid.”

Let’s unpack that. Your typical millennial is an overly chatty Facebook addict who may include smiley faces on her emails – the dinosaur of workforce communications – that others may find juvenile. That’s the “bad” side. On the “good” side, she is tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative.

It’s hard to argue with the need to prepare for change, but the shifts ahead would seem to have less to do with broad-brush generational stereotypes and more to do with inexorable technological forces already at work across all industries, including law.

No, we don't want the expertise and experience of the boomers to slip away. But it’s worth asking just how relevant this knowledge and experience will be in 2025 and beyond. As the artificial intelligence revolution kicks into full gear, it’s hard to believe the practice of law, any more than the practice of medicine or driving a car, will resemble law (or driving) as today’s lawyers know it. Look no further than this recent Bloomberg headline: “JPMorgan Software Does in Seconds What Took Lawyers 360,000 Hours.”

Talk about a wake-up call.

Kevin Kelly, co-founder and former executive editor of Wired magazine, says in his recent book, “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape our Future,” that the combination of artificial intelligence and robotics will obliterate our understanding of work. AI, after many years as a technology always coming but never arriving, has landed with full force in recent years due to the convergence of three fundamental technical conditions: cheap parallel computation, big data and better algorithms. Given the tech-driven changes underway, lumping lawyers who just happen to be have been born in the same two decades may be a fun parlor game, but is it something a smart in-house leader wants to deploy in putting together a world-class in-house team.

“As more millennials join legal departments,” says the Thomson report, “their preferred way of working will disrupt the status quo. Managing and working with millennials requires senior legal department leaders to understand the perceptions of corporate counsel millennials – and how to make the most of millennials’ skills.”

I guess so. But for my money, I’d focus more on the fundamental advances in technology that Kelly says will render most occupations, including the practice of law, all but unrecognizable in the none-too-distant future. AI and robots already are doing jobs humans once did – and not just simple jobs but highly complex work performed by well-educated professionals.

“A computer brain known as autopilot can fly a 787 jet unaided for all but seven minutes of a typical flight,” Kelly writes. “In the 1990s, computerized mortgage appraisals replaced human appraisals wholesale. Much tax preparation has gone to computers, as well as routine X-ray analysis and pretrial evidence gathering – all once done by highly paid smart people.”

In other words, there are more profound challenges ahead than dealing with a junior in-house lawyer who sticks an emoji in an email. The very nature of what it means to be a lawyer is shifting under our feet. And these aliens, unlike the movie version, are not likely to be stopped.

 “This is not a race against the machines,” Kelly writes. “If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. . . . Robots will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined needing to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are.

“It is,” he concludes, “inevitable.”