A dangerous game: How older lawyers diminish their Gen Y colleagues

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NSW Young Lawyers president Thomas Spohr tells Australasian Lawyer how older lawyers are discounting the talents of their young counterparts at their peril and explains why it’s a dangerous game:

You might be forgiven for suspecting that Generation Y, or any person who is close enough in age to be perceived as having remotely similar characteristics, is the worst generation of lawyers ever.

One certainly reads sufficiently often about their misplaced feelings of entitlement and competence, and about how much easier they have it. Entrusted as I am with the responsibility of representing them, as president of NSW Young Lawyers – an organisation which represents nearly 40% of the profession and all law students – you will forgive me if I disagree with that prejudice with a certain fervour.

But maybe that prejudice is why most young lawyers will have heard another practitioner start a sentence with “I have been a lawyer for however many years” and go on to sweep aside as invalid any opinion that junior lawyer might have.

It is, I am afraid, a common experience. In negotiations: “I have been a lawyer for 30 years, and I can tell you that this is a very generous offer” (it probably isn’t). In correspondence: “I have been doing this for a long time, and you should know that you are skating on very thin ice here” (they probably aren’t). Or in court: “I have been doing this much longer than you, and I can tell you that if you make that submission, the court will laugh you out the door” (it almost certainly won’t).

Statements such as this attempt to diminish the value of the younger lawyer’s opinion, based on no more than an accident of age. It shows that the speaker is unwilling – or unable – to engage in the merits of the debate. And it risks that young lawyer suspecting that the other lawyer actually doesn’t know what they are talking about and is trying to hide it.

This is not to discount the value of experience. Plainly, experience enables us all to rely on past mistakes or successes in order to make better decisions in the future.

But there is nothing inherent in experience that makes, for example, a legal submission made by a younger person inherently any less legally valid. And if there is, then would it not be more effective to use the experience gained over however many years in order to argue the merits of the debate, rather than just pointing to the experience as some kind of ‘Get Out of Arguments Free’ card?

It is also obvious that exclaiming about one’s own level of experience is helpful when speaking to clients. Clients want – indeed deserve – to feel confident in the quality of their lawyer, and nothing in this article should be seen to suggest that discussing or using one’s experience is universally (or even generally) bad.

But when it is applied to one’s colleagues in this way, it can very nearly answer the description of bullying.

But inter-age relations among lawyers are not all bad. I have a very clear memory of a matter, now a comparatively long time ago, from the first months of my career. I appeared opposite an extremely experienced advocate who approached me before court to ask my position on a particular topic in the case. It transpired that we were at odds, to which he replied, with sincere respect, “No, of course – please don’t let me influence your decision. You, with respect, should absolutely make the submission that you think is correct.” I don’t recall the outcome of the matter, but if my submission was not accepted, I don’t think it would have bothered me very much that day.

I have a similar memory of a social occasion upon which I discussed the effect of a particularly vague (but important) High Court judgment with a very eminent Supreme Court judge. He had, it has to be said, no good reason to particularly care what my views were about the judgment – quite literally, his word would become law on the issue only about three months later.

But the genuineness with which His Honour was willing to engage in a back and forth about the topic has stuck with me. I cannot speak to whether His Honour gained anything at all from my views on the topic, and in a way that isn’t to the point – rather, the fact was that he was willing to offer me the respect of considering my views on their merits without even a hint of prejudgment.

The disdain with which some practitioners hold young lawyers is not just deeply disappointing; it is dangerous.

It risks dismissing perfectly valid opinions, and it discourages young practitioners from applying intellectual rigour to legal questions simply because they are afraid. It risks a cycle in which young lawyers will doubt the competence of those who use age against them but will, in the fullness of time, use the same tactics against those below them.

Older lawyers discount the talents of younger lawyers at their peril. I hope I will be different.
 
-    Thomas Spohr,
NSW Young Lawyers president 


This article appeared in Australasian Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 1.3. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.