As is the case with other traditional industries, many law firms have struggled with the rise of millennials in the workplace. Many of my law firm clients have shared that their long-time practices – such as billable hours, up-or-out career paths and high expectations for 24/7/365 client service – don’t always match the preferences of today’s generation of associates.
This is why I was particularly impressed when I conducted a workshop this past April for the partners of Reed Smith LLP. The global firm, founded back in 1877, recently implemented a series of changes to improve its associate experience to meet the needs of today’s workforce. The changes include an app-based feedback process, opportunities to temporarily work in different offices around the globe, a reverse mentoring program and more.
Importantly, the firm is not characterizing these initiatives as “for millennials.” Instead, the changes are designed to improve the experience of all current and future attorneys at Reed Smith. As Casey Ryan, the firm’s global head of legal personnel, recently told The American Lawyer, the new initiatives represent “an acknowledgment that there are some creative and inventive ways to do things differently.”
I recently had the chance to speak with Casey about these new initiatives and learn how Reed Smith is “remixing” many other aspects of law firm life as well. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Q: What prompted Reed Smith to invest in improvements to the associate experience? Was there any pushback from partners?
A: We actually haven’t had many skeptics. Our partners know if we are not investing in our future, it will cost us our present.
As with any professional services firm, we are nothing but our people. We don’t make anything; we sell the skill and expertise of our people and their good counsel. So, if there is anything we are going to invest in, it is our people. We spend a lot of time maintaining and caring for our firm’s culture, and that is a big part of the reason people come here and stay here.
Q: One of the initiatives you’ve launched is an app to provide associates with more frequent feedback. I’ve heard some pushback on this general idea from people who are afraid they’ll now spend all day giving feedback on their phones. What has been your firm’s experience so far?
The idea for a feedback app came directly from our associates. We decided to add the app as an addition – not a replacement – to our annual review process, so associates can essentially have the best of both worlds. An annual review is valuable, but it could be about a piece of work from 12 months ago! The goal with the app is to add a way for partners and associates to talk more regularly about development. Particularly in a highly demanding and stressful job, the app is a way to both raise the performance culture and make a big firm feel smaller.
We’ve encouraged partners to just try giving one piece of feedback on the app to see how it goes. I just sent my first piece of feedback. It was timely and detailed and…only took two minutes! I realized I can easily do that a couple times of week. Feedback used to be ad hoc and random. Some partners were great at giving regular feedback and some weren’t. Using this app is actually easier. We just have to get people to try it.
Q: Another somewhat controversial topic surrounding millennials in law is the persistence of the billable hour. How have you changed your billable hours policy to improve the associate experience?
A: We’ve changed the policy by crediting different activities as billable. For example, we’ve added 50 “development hours,” which gives an associate the opportunity to attend depositions or an opening argument in trial, which are really valuable experiences. Another change is crediting up to 50 hours of knowledge management time. This allows attorneys to submit a knowledge management innovation idea. If it is approved, the attorney can work with our knowledge management team to develop the idea. By the way, innovation ideas can come from any attorney, from junior associates to equity partners.
Q: What prompted your internal secondment program, which allows Reed Smith associates to spend several weeks (or longer) at another of the firm’s 28 offices?
A: Internal secondments started because we had an associate in London who made a very compelling argument about why the client needed her to be in Paris. We approved a two-week secondment and that turned into two months.
This helped us realize we did not have as strong a bridge between London and Paris as we could, and this associate’s secondment to Paris strengthened that bridge and helped our London lawyers get closer to our Paris lawyers. Clients told us they appreciated meeting the associate in person, and as a result more work has followed.
That led to the broader program, and it’s clear why: inter-office secondments require a pretty modest investment, they are not hard to implement and they lead to better working relationships and better client results!
Q: Readers might be surprised to learn that Reed Smith doesn’t only hire law school students for its summer associate positions, but also MBAs. Tell us about that.
A: We were one of the first law firms to take summer associate positions and dedicate them to knowledge management. We have three summer associates in three of our offices who came to us from business school or IT programs. The students we hired told us they weren’t expecting law firms to be in the mix of potential employers. That was a happy surprise and gave them another career path to consider.
From the firm’s perspective, these knowledge management associates came to be as a result of our managing partner’s thinking about technology and the future of law. It’s been an interesting experiment.
Q: How will you measure the success of all of these initiatives?
A: From an ROI perspective, some of these things have a cost to them, but some have little to no cost. Some are just a culture change or a change in behavior. For example, our ramp-up policy [which reduces billable hour requirements for attorneys returning from any type of leave, such as for an illness or new baby] will allow people who use it to qualify for bonuses. Those are bonuses we are really happy to pay! It reflects the reality that people might need more time to ramp up after a leave. I’d rather have a realistic model for planning purposes and pay, and reward people on that reality.
Some of the other initiatives are harder to measure. One way to measure success is to look at associate retention, but we don’t believe retention is the only way to measure success with the millennial generation. They are more mobile, so their changing jobs does not necessarily indicate a problem. Our greater goal is to make sure everyone’s experience at Reed Smith is a positive one. They can become future clients or referrals of talent.
Ultimately, success for us means engaging all generations in this shared culture. We are always asking: How do we make the firm a great experience on a day-to-day basis?
View all Remixers of the Month. These people take best practices from one generation and apply them to others.
Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.