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.
  • Mark Dalyell on 29/08/2014 12:34:27 PM

    Comments like "this is a great offer" etc are merely negotiating tactics and if anyone is diminished by such a statement then perhaps they haven't found their niche yet. As an "mature" practitioner , though not longer on experience , what I find objectionable when dealing with some though by no means all Gen Y's etc is the total lack of civility and professional courtesy exhibited - now that is diminishing, to them.

  • Lyn Bennett on 20/08/2014 11:14:10 PM

    As I am a current law student with a B Jurisisprudence I have read these comments with interest. After years of a very successful career, I am now focused on attaining my LLB. I take pride in informing people that I am the same age as Hilary Clinton. I do that deliberately because I think that as a society we are too 'age focussef'. It should not matter how young or how old we may appear. The crux of the matter is how well we can we represent our clients. I respect experience. There is so much that is in my head as a Careers Counsellor that no-one who has completed their post grad qualifications in Career Education could grasp. I think shorthand. It sounds funny but that is what happens with experience. I am now trying to transition into my new career'; as I train a new person as part of the succession plan, I do my best to recall all the finer points that 'I just know' whilst at the same time remembering that they have just been exposed to the latest strategies and theories.
    The bottom line is, regardless of age or seniority, we all have skills, knowledge and experience that we can share.
    I just hope that now that I am looking for clerkships (minimum 30 days) that I will come across like minded spirits.
    By the way, I am really hanging out for Hilary to announce that she will run for President; what a boost for 'Young Lawyers' that will be for the not so young.

  • Thomas Pambris on 20/08/2014 2:37:37 PM

    Dear: Frank S : thank-you for your positive feedback, you are correct in observing I have not fully accepted the groupings [ Gen X and Gen Y] as having any role to play in the accuracy of my factual recollections, FY 2001.

    Frank S, you have indeed raised the most Excellent Point, being Gen X/ Gen Y when on the 'other side of the matter' are always equal. There is no debate on that aspect, its the lawyer on the other side of the matter. Simple.

    As this is the case, the concerns express by most of the commentators (for the large part) appear to be internal management, albeit the dress code and basic standard conduct paramentors required for NSW Supreme Court attendances by those with PQE 30 yrs, 15 Years PQR and 4 years PQE does differ to each lawyers mind, perhaps not for the better.

    As for constructive advice, one aspect that needs to be drawn to the attention of the Younger Lawyer (especially those who are seen to fit the descriptors that Frank S and others have identified = Gen Y) (who for the most part as lawyers are analytical and need to be actually convinced) is a 'simple' matter 'often' contained in the Cost Disclosure being the division between Legal and Non Legal work.

    As I was taught by my Master and other more senior masters [more senior, I dare but with confidence, say than Members of the current House of Lords]:

    If you are a lawyer do no Non Legal work. Nil.

    (Gen Y especially) where you detect the Non Legal work you must review, reflect and conclude for yourself.

    Lawyers with 10,12, 14 and 30 years PQE are indeed in a Superior Position, as they can much better understand not all clients are 'worth serving', some indeed make more money/derive more value from 'the system' by obtaining Non Legal work and/or creating disputes which are not bona fide and extend well beyond the context of a difficult client and/or a bad day at the office.

    What does one make of cases in tribunals where your client or their associates did the building and painting work years back for yet another Government Funded Tribunal, when there are 8 floors at Queens Square Sydney available to hear cases judicially each day.

    Can a Gen Y lawyer understand with sufficient detail to comment on that broader non legal aspect.

    What does one make of certain tribunal members (all funded from consolidated revenue) who [when their reasons are read by 10 senior lawyers and some younger lawyers all of whom agree with you] appear to have misstated basic almost immovable statements of law, necessitating in an almost certain appeal and extra costs.

    Can a Gen Y lawyer understand with sufficient detail to comment on that broader non legal aspect.

    What does one make of certain selling agents and financial intermediaries who send bulk work to certain persons no matter which Sydney CBD law firm they find themselves in and then with proven "vigour" send difficult cases systematically to other law firms.

    Can a Gen Y lawyer understand with sufficient detail to comment on that broader non legal aspect.

    For reflection especially for Gen Y, how many non legal aspects are going on on your files and with your clients, today.

    Can you answer. I hope you can, I still have some faith in Gen Y.

    Gen Y, Be lawyers.

  • Frank S on 20/08/2014 10:12:27 AM

    Thank you to Thomas for raising this important issue in relation to young lawyers.

    I believe there really is an issue here that needs to be discussed. However firstly I would say that it is important not to put every person born in the generation Y years into the same category. Every person is different - that goes without saying.

    I am a lawyer with 12 years PAE. I am gen X. I have noticed, and all of my friendship group has noticed that there are particular features that seem to be preeminent in a large proportion of gen Y colleagues that create significant challenges for their managers i.e. us. I reiterate that not all gen Y persons have these characteristics.

    I would also point out that Thomas' article seems to have blurred any distinction between gen y lawyers representing opposing parties, and gen y lawyers as colleagues. What an opposing lawyers opinion is should rarely, if ever, cause any difficulties in my conduct of a matter. The system is designed this way - the adversarial system is what it is. The challenges I perceive with gen y lawyers arise when they are my colleagues, and especially in my role as their supervisor. When their opinion on a matter is simply wrong, and manifestly so, and I require them to take a different course of action, or rectify a piece of work accordingly, this 'category' of gen y lawyers finds it very difficult to accept it, and to take the direction. Often I ask, why does the advice still say this, when i have pointed out to you why this is incorrect, and the answer is, sorry but I disagreed with your opinion. I then have to fix the work myself and send the advice myself, or else demand the work be rectified in the face of a very unhappy and beligerent colleague, all the while smiling amiably in an effort to maintain the relationship.

    There appears to be lacking an understanding that the opinion of a lawyer with 12 years more experience, who has addressed this same, simple issue in countless previous advices, and who is their manager, directing them to take a course of action, has no more weight than their own opinion on the matter.

    For some of us older types I expect (and for me, I know) this kind of response can be shocking and difficult to understand. In the ranks we came up through, one would rarely, if ever, directly challenge the direction of a far more senior lawyer, no matter how right we thought we might be.

    My comments are not intended to convey only negativity on this subject. I dont think that earlier generations had it right either. The earlier hierarchical system wasripe to be abused and was so. Bullying, discrimination and unfair treatment were part and parcel of the system back in the day and great progress has been made in recent times adddressing these issues in the workplace. For many older lawyers who suffered under this system, I think it can feel all the worse to them to see these bright new young lawyers coming up through the ranks with a sense of self worth (without having had to 'earn it the hard way'), who are generally happy and hopeful about their future and their careers, and not living and working each day in fear of their bosses.

    I just think that we need to strike a better balance. Obviously there is no easy way to addres this - it is a cultural issue that we each have a small ability to influence in our own corner of the world. Bringing the issue to the fore as Thomas has done is to be commended. For me and some of my friends the challenges have brought us to despair and wanting to give up ever getting any value out of those gen y colleagues displaying the worst of these traits. In some instances we are resigned to this and are left a person short in our teams to address the work load of the team, while the particular colleague continues on oblivious. What we have to do I think, as Thomas has said, is to be careful not to bring a stereotyping generalising attitude to the matter which will bring out only prejudices, resulting in unfair treatment to gen y lawyers. Having a sense of worth and competence is essential to being a good lawyer and we should be harnessing these traits where they are positive and not harmful.

    I and my friends would be grateful to hear any constructive advice as to how we might approach this challenge to managing this particular group of gen y colleagues.

    Best wishes.

  • Simone on 19/08/2014 1:50:57 PM

    Thanks Thomas. I agree with your comments and it is refreshing to see that someone has finally published an article on this.

  • Older and Wiser New Lawyer on 13/08/2014 12:37:05 PM

    The article just goes to prove that older does not necessarily mean wiser. It is sad that any practitioner would attempt to denigrate another regardless of their age or their years of post-admission experience. Professional courtesy and respect cuts both ways and therefore I'd like to suggest a change of name from "Young Lawyers Committee" to something more inclusive of all practitioners within their first 5 years of practice. I commenced practice as a youthful 46 year old woman and feel rather alienated by the title of "Young Lawyers". The LIV has a "Later Lawyers" subcomittee and look forward to the day when all law societies do more to look after the increasing number of new practitioners who are aged 35+.

  • Thomas Pambris on 13/08/2014 11:43:40 AM

    Gen Y Lawyer: Post 13/08/2014 11:08 AM

    With reference to the article, your comment and my previous comment. I should like to add that even in my scenario the Performance Management of myself as then 'a young lawyer' (in the context of judicial praise) was then and more so over the years demonstrably proved that I received more expert guidance and skill than I deserved, from senior lawyers (along with judicial praise). It was not a matter of 'grin and bear it' but was correctly seen as instructive then to a large degree but as the years get on more so now.

  • Odie on 13/08/2014 11:39:52 AM

    Funny thing: when I was prosecuting a discipline matter in one particular jurisdiction, my opponent was both a very experienced middle-aged Sydney SC as well as a uniformed officer. His tactic during my examination in chief, cross, submissions and generally any time I stood to address the bench was to quite loudly feign his disbelief, including on a number of occasions to derisively throw down his pen. At that point I had only a couple of years law experience, however, came into legal practice later in life, and so had a fair bit of life experience. Ironically I was only about five years younger than him at the time but he assumed I was much younger.

    After a few days of this, I decided to use a few tactics of my own, including at one point stopping mid sentence to pick up his pen for him, which had dropped to the floor following another little outburst. My final tactic was the killer; I stopped talking and sat down. When the Judge Advocate, perplexed, looked at me, I simply said, "I do believe the defending officer may wish to offer an objection." At which point the court's attention turned to my now visibly uncomfortable tormenter. Which goes to show, in my opinion, that regardless of the silliness some of your "betters" may dress up as experienced advocacy, your own professionalism and courtesy will always keep you grounded. Now, ten years on, I'll repeat to young lawyers some good early advocacy advice I received and have never forgotten: regardless of your opponent's experience, your opponent is only as good as his or her brief.

  • Gen Y Lawyer on 13/08/2014 11:08:04 AM

    With respect to the writer, I fail to understand the motive for this article.

    If a young lawyer really is so affected by the indifference or disdain he/she may be subject to, then I would contend the fault lies with the young lawyer and not the (more often than not) senior practitioner.

    If the point of this article is to suggest young lawyers are the ones who will bring bright, new and exciting ideas to the legal profession in the future (which I wholeheartedly agree with) then the scorn of those whose ideas they are replacing should galvanize them, rather than the opposite.

  • Simon Munslow on 11/08/2014 2:36:26 PM

    I agree with Sandra, it is just a tactic, albeit a discourteous one.

    I would sadly have to say, as an older practitioner (31 yrs pae), that lack of courtesy is now an issue in all age groups in our profession, and I would not single out any one group as being worse, or better than any other.

  • Simon Munslow on 11/08/2014 2:35:18 PM

    I agree with Sandra, it is just a tactic, albeit a discourteous one.

    I would sadly have to say, as an older practitioner (31 yrs pae), that lack of courtesy is now an issue in all age groups in our profession, and I would not single out any one group as being worse, or better than any other.

  • Tom May on 11/08/2014 1:40:57 PM

    I have recently worked with a number of Gen Y lawyers and I am very impressed by them. They are articulate, informed and hardworking. I have nothing but praise for them based on my experience.

    The fact that they know their worth is simply another plus for them.

  • Ken Shepherd on 11/08/2014 1:21:22 PM

    I'm a baby boomer and I had virtually identical comments made to and about me and my friends when we were starting out in the early 1970s. I was even told by a senior partner in a major national firm that I could never be considered for professional employment because I went to the wrong schools and had the wrong family background.

    So, I suggest that the issue is more the perennial disapproval of the young by some of their elders that has been a factor in our society for countless generations. Socrates was reputed to have said : “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

    Does that make disrespecting our youth right? No, of course not, but like so many other undesirable aspects of human behaviour it may be very hard to eradicate.

    On the other side of the coin, I have received many comments since turning 40 that I am a "dinosaur", or that I have "nothing further to offer" or that my generation has "caused enough damage and should move aside" or that "what is really needed (for this firm) is a young dynamic team and not a team of tired old has-beens."

    So, from my perspective it cuts both ways with both some in the younger and older generations lacking due respect for their colleagues.

  • Anonymous on 11/08/2014 1:03:47 PM

    Well said! Not long ago I spoke to a senior lawyer who said to me, "Don't try to lecturer me about the law society protocol. I started practising law before you were even born." (Obviously she wanted to make a point that the law society protocol does not apply to her, as her seniority provides her with some sort of "immunity".) She even went back to my client and said to him, "Your lawyer just came fresh out of the university!" Although I do respect her as a senior memeber of our profession, I did find her behaviour the most appalling. This is plain bullying and must be stopped.

  • Thomas Pambris on 11/08/2014 12:10:56 PM

    In my capacity as director of Pambris Law I make comment that having previously been a young lawyer depending on the factum and nature of the legal transaction experience does indeed count. That said for Young Lawyers I would recommend using self reflection to guard yourself from overwork and labour duress. As a Young Lawyer I would counsel to begin internally as I did when in the past I contended that I was worth the wage of a social science teacher (if not more but not less) and then thank myself for not taking such long annual leave. I would acknowledge the Law worked differently and our work demands required higher levels of performance sometimes extraordinarily higher levels of performance for some reward as it went. Where that reward was allocated in some form of fair wage, performance was then to be seen to be at the hands of myself as 'the young lawyer'. Where work was not being paid up by clients each month was separately assessed internally by myself. At one stage I fondly recall as 'a young lawyer' receiving informal Judicial Praise for being in the observed top 5 young solicitor advocates in the NSW Supreme Court based on 10 cases running thru the system and at the same time being performanced managed by Senior Lawyers, who were at that time responsible for cost recoveries from their clients. Law is indeed a business but it ought not be politics, that is different again and should reserved for another stage in life.

  • Commentator on 11/08/2014 12:08:29 PM

    I agree with Mr Spohr that a lot of solicitors try the tactics he has described and not just on young lawyers. I am a senior lawyer and just smile when any of the above is tried on me. Usually it's a bluff and quite frankly I consider that if someone does try something like this it then gives me an edge since to a large extent I've read their "hand." At a time when I did a large number of PI cases,often my opponent would ridicule the offer I had put instead of just going and getting instructions. On more than one occasion I had to gently remind them that since I was acting for a plaintiff that I was supplying them with work and without "us there was no them"

  • Kirsten on 11/08/2014 11:41:58 AM

    Dear Thomas

    Your experiences as relayed in your article are not comparable with my own. I too have a substantial number of years of experience as a lawyer and now manage a team of Gen Xs, Gen Ys and at least one teetering on the baby boomer brink.

    My experience as a young lawyer was not dissimilar to that you portray for the Gen Y's of today. Perhaps that was a symptom of my environment at the time, but I don't see too much has changed since my days as a graduate laywer that would be unique in relation to the treatment of young lawyers. In fact, I would suggest that the advances in IR/employment law has meant that the "initiation" of young lawyers into the profession today is perhaps a more pleasant experience than that faced by their older counterparts.

    Much more of a challenge would seem to be the uncertain market pressures and the employment challenges faced by young graduates today.

  • Sandra on 11/08/2014 11:21:52 AM

    It's got nothing to do with Gen Y but is simply the old game played often by experienced counsel and solicitors trying to bluff their less experienced opponents. I wager it's happened in every generation, for ever, and will continue to happen. Dare I suggest that only a Gen Y person, however, would consider it in any way special?

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