Facebook, Small Law Firms, Social Networking Websites, Technology

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Don’t Trust Your Young Associates!

Over the 13 years I ran Shepherd Law Group, I employed lawyers of varying ages. I had fortysomethings (full disclosure: I’m 43, although I really don’t look a day over 42), I had thirtysomethings, and I had twentysomethings. This last group, the so-called Millennials, were almost a completely different species. For example, in law school, these newbies click-clacked on laptops in the classroom — even during exams. They communicated with law professors using the email. And they had no idea what a mix tape was.

In practice, it turns out that they work differently, too. I remember walking into the office of one of my newer Millennials when she was working on a summary-judgment brief. Her desk looked like the desk of any brief-writing lawyer, with files and cases and books all over it. But what really struck me was her computer desktop. It must have had 20 windows open, many with tabs hiding other screens.

But at least one of the screens was Facebook, and another was an instant-messaging client. I could see that the IM screen was showing an active conversation. Another screen showed Pandora, which was streaming music I didn’t recognize (it was Portishead) at a reasonably low volume.

I was stunned. How could she get the brief done with all these distractions?

So what did I do about it?

Absolutely nothing.

I myself could never get a brief written — or anything else done — with all those distractions. But she could. In fact, she turned in a draft much sooner than I expected, and it was really quite good. Over the years, she turned out to be my best associate, despite all the distractions emanating from her Mac.

The lesson for me was that not everybody works the same way that I do, and people of a younger generation are used to doing things differently from their bosses.

I could have instructed her to eighty-six the IM’ing and the Facebook and the music streaming. And she would have. But she wouldn’t have been happy about it, and I have no reason to think that she would have turned in the brief any earlier, or in any better condition. Plus, what message would I have been giving her?

That I don’t trust her to do the work.

Lawyers tend to worry, and older lawyers tend to worry more. We worry that assignments won’t get done in time, or well enough, and that that will lead to Very Bad Things happening. But just because we grew up in a different era — I once had to explain to this associate what a 12-inch extended-play vinyl single was — doesn’t mean that the way we learned to do things is the only way to do them.

Over at Real Lawyers Have Blogs, my friend Kevin O’Keefe reported on the number of law firms and other employers that are restricting and blocking the use of social-media sites. In his post, “Why law firms need to stop blocking the use of social media,” Kevin cites the research of digital consultant Arik Hanson, who showed that 54% of employers are currently blocking social-media usage in the workplace. Kevin also point us to a study that my colleagues Steve Matthews and Doug Cornelius conducted, revealing that 45% of law firms do the same. To be sure, Steve and Doug did their survey in 2009, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of censoring law firms has gone up since then, not down.

Arik lists five reasons why this is a terrible idea:

  1. Almost all companies now use social media for their own marketing. What message are they sending about the value of social media if they don’t trust their own employees to use it themselves?
  2. Lawyers, especially younger lawyers, use social media to better do their jobs. (“Does anyone out there know of a case that …?”)
  3. Some Millennials won’t work somewhere that has such Luddite rules.
  4. Everyone has a smartphone, so they’re going to use social media anyway.
  5. Short breaks make employees more productive.

To this, Kevin adds a sixth reason: Lawyers bring in more work through word-of-mouth marketing, and social media can enhance their reputations.

These are all excellent reasons. But to me, the most important concept is that firms that restrict or censor their lawyers’ computer activities are telling them that they don’t trust these professionals to do their work. Rules like this end up replacing actual management, where partners actually pay attention to whether work gets done well and timely.

Imagine if a firm banned the use of everything that its lawyers could use to chat with family and friends, check movie times, or shop for clothes or airline tickets. In other words, the lawyers couldn’t have freakin’ telephones on their desks. (I flat-out stole this notion from a Golden Practices blog post.)

Small-firm owners: If you trust your younger lawyers to have a telephone, then you also need to trust them with social media. It’s 2011 (pronounced “twenty-eleven“). Who cares what they listen to if they get their work done?

Note: I ended up downloading the Portishead album (“Dummy”). It’s pretty good, but now I just need a Millennial to explain it to me.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at js@shepherdlawgroup.com.

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