Technology and the intergenerational law firm

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Law office technology

January 2012, Volume 48, No. 1

Technology and the intergenerational law firm 

Matthew Malamud

Smartphones, iPads, BlackBerries, Facebook, LinkedIn—they’re revolutionizing the practice of law. But not everyone has cottoned to this technology. There is a technology generation gap, and bridging it requires recognizing and respecting how attorneys young and old use technology to do their jobs.

Ted Schwartz just got an iPhone.

“It’s terrific!” the 66-year-old attorney from Philadelphia exclaimed, ticking off all the ways he uses it: “as a phone, obviously, but also to send and receive e-mails, and for driving directions.” His voice conveys the astonishment of someone who remembers when making a mobile phone call meant stepping into a booth to use a pay phone.

Communications technology has changed since the days when Schwartz clerked in a law office during law school in 1966. Back then, law offices still had rooms with telephone switchboards where operators manually connected calls by switching out and plugging in numerous wires.

“I remember clerking one day,” he said, “and there was no one to operate the switchboard so they asked me to be the telephone operator. I, of course, had all of three minutes of training on this thing. The lawyers were on the phone—some were talking with clients in Hong Kong and California. You can imagine what happened. I pulled the plugs and I had the client in Hong Kong talking to the client in California while the lawyers in one office were talking to the lawyers down the hall. They came out of their offices screaming.”

Today’s attorneys don’t have to rely on a switchboard, and they aren’t tethered to an office. They have cell phones, smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptops, and tablet computers. They e-mail, instant message, text message, blog, tweet, and update their Facebook pages.

In law firms’ attempts to go paperless, they’re relying more on devices like the iPad, which can be used in the office and the courtroom. (For more on the iPad’s many uses in the legal profession, see “Going Mobile” on page 30.) They’re also moving into cloud computing, which requires less information technology infrastructure and frees up office space by moving data storage to Internet-based servers. These technologies also enable lawyers to work from anywhere, not just the office, because they can access files via the Internet (see “Reach for the Cloud” on page 38).

But not everyone feels the same way about the technology at his or her disposal. A generational conflict is at play, and technology is at the center of the fray.

Rather than making things easier, technology sometimes frustrates communication between legal professionals young and old. Instead of being a communication conduit, tools like e-mail and text messages can be an impediment, which is why the different generations need to constantly work to resolve their differences.

For the first time, four generations are working alongside one another. The WWII Generation (or Silent Generation), born before 1945, comprises five percent of today’s workforce. Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, make up the largest share of the workforce at 38 percent. Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, are 32 percent, and Generation Yers (or Millennials), born between 1980 and 2000, are 25 percent.

Members of each generation tend to share common perspectives on workplace issues, including communication,1 and each generation has divergent attitudes toward technology in the workplace. A member of the WWII Generation, for example, may prefer to correspond by memo, letter, or personal note, while a Baby Boomer is more apt to reach out by telephone or personal interaction. Generation Xers and Yers are most likely to send coworkers voicemails, e-mails, instant messages, or text messages.2 These two groups rely heavily on social networking tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, though mostly in their personal lives.

Take Schwartz, for example. His iPhone is the first mobile device he’s owned that is capable of sending and receiving work e-mail. His colleagues, including his Generation X colleague Pamela Lee, had been prodding him to get one for some time. “I can’t live without my iPhone!” Lee said, perplexed by how she ever managed without a smartphone. “Technology has made things easier.”

Schwartz, on the other hand, is a little less enthusiastic. “It is a convenience, I will tell you that, and it keeps me in touch. But it is a curse because it keeps me in touch. Being connected 24/7 has its drawbacks.”

He is a typical Baby Boomer. They weren’t born into a digital world and aren’t as comfortable with today’s gadgetry.3 Boomers tend not to consider ubiquitous technology-related products and services like Facebook.

However, Generation Y member Drew LaFramboise, who is only as old as the Apple Macintosh computer (27, for those who are counting), thinks of today’s technology as an extension of himself. “I just don’t function as well without it,” said the new attorney from Columbus, Ohio.

Natasha Patel, a career adviser with Columbia University Law School, sees a gap between older partners and younger associates when it comes to knowing when to use electronic communication.

“You’ve got a generation that communicates everything online and a generation that doesn’t rely on electronic communication as its sole method to communicate,” said Patel. If associates want to advance, they’ll need to “meet the partners at their level,” she advises young lawyers. This means forging relationships the old-fashioned way, by regularly meeting with partners and speaking to them in person when issues arise, not just shooting off an e-mail, according to Patel.

Patel also sees a problem with young associates feeling isolated in the work environment, which may be attributable in part to electronic communication. This isolation in turn affects retention. “They are behind a computer in their offices most of the day. And though e-mail is the easiest mode of communication, they should feel comfortable enough to go knock on the partner’s door and strike up a conversation,” she said.

Generation X member Sonia Chaisson of Los Angeles said she is more likely to pick up the phone to speak with an older colleague than to send an e-mail or a text. She also said she sometimes forgets that older people aren’t as hip to the various language shortcuts that younger people use in e-mail and text messages, such as TTYL (talk to you later) or BTW (by the way). “I have to remind myself to write everything out in full sentences when I’m communicating to older adults,” she said.

Betty Barrett, an associate professor of sociotechnical systems with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees with Patel. “I advise my students to be aware of the fact that they are working in a world where the authority figures have different expectations and different sets of behavior patterns,” she said.

But that is not to say Baby Boomers are off the hook. Barrett thinks that each generation needs to recognize and respect that there are differences among them. Baby Boomers need to understand that younger generations think of mobile communications technology as an extension of who they are and what they do; multitasking is second nature to them, Barrett contended.

“I’m of an older generation that was brought up to pay attention to whoever was speaking to you and that a sign of respect was putting your work down when being spoken to,” she said. “Young people increasingly don’t have those values, and that is where we’re seeing conflict.”

Barrett spoke of a manager who hired several young workers. “They were on their cell phones all the time, this manager told me,” she recounted. “He wanted to know how bad it would be to take away the use of their cell phones during the workday.” She warned against it. “It’s something they’ve grown up with. They’re going to panic—they’re going to have a physical reaction to not having that cell phone. Students are coming out of college today with their phones in their hands all the time—it’s part of them.”

Baby Boomers also should recognize that younger generations expect feedback instantaneously. “I will get frustrated if I e-mail someone and they don’t get back to me right away,” Lee admitted.

By the numbers

Just because older generations are less likely to depend on technology the way younger generations do doesn’t mean they eschew technology altogether. Let’s dispense with a stereotype: Most veteran legal professionals today know how to use a computer. Yes, they may still remember the days of typewriters and mimeographs, but they’ve kept up with the changing technology. Still, there is a clear generation gap when it comes to adopting and using new technology and applications.4

For example, although just two-fifths of all legal professionals say they use mobile devices in the courtroom, almost three-quarters of Generation Yers do.5 About half of Generation Xers and just 23 percent of Baby Boomers use mobile devices in the courtroom.

The generations also diverge in their attitudes toward using technology. Compare Schwartz and LaFramboise: Schwartz sees technology as helpful, while LaFramboise sees it as something that’s necessary.

“In the legal profession, we are always trying to find ways to be more efficient and as competitive as possible in the market,” said LaFramboise. “Keeping up with developing technology and infusing it in your firm is absolutely essential to accomplishing that.”

While two-thirds of Baby Boomers think it’s impolite or distracting to use a laptop or PDA during a meeting, just 57 percent of Generation Yers think it’s impolite and even fewer (49 percent) think it’s distracting.

Not surprisingly, the percentage of adults who use electronic tools, such as laptop computers and iPads, trails off with age. For example, 70 percent of Generation Yers own a laptop, while just 46 percent of Baby Boomers do.6

There’s also a marked difference in the proportion by generation of people using social networking Web sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. While 83 percent of Generation Yers use them, just 70 percent of Generation Xers use them. Just over half of Baby Boomers use social networking sites, and even fewer—33 percent—of people age 65 and older do. However, the number of older people using them is quickly increasing.7

Common ground

It’s not all discord. The generations recognize that technology has improved many aspects of the practice of law. This is especially true when it comes to meeting court deadlines, which, as in the “old days,” can be inflexible.

Chaisson is an attorney who’s witnessed firsthand how technology has changed the practice of law. “I remember volunteering at the Harvard Legal Clinic when I was younger,” said the Generation Xer, “and to meet a deadline you had to jump in the car and race to the courtroom, hoping to get there before the door slammed in your face. The Internet’s made filing paperwork a whole lot easier.”

The Internet even allowed Chaisson to work the better part of last year from Valencia, Spain. She used Skype to conduct video conference calls over the Internet with other attorneys who she said had no idea she was on the other side of the planet.

The generations also come together in their concern that mobile technology is leading to the erosion of work-life balance.8

“I think the practice has become more demanding” because of the ease of accessibility, said Chaisson. “You don’t have the space to check out of law or refresh for a little bit like you had before. It has become 24/7.”

Tomorrow’s firm

Technology affects the physical space where people work together. Today’s law office is changing, in some ways due to technology changes.

Rob Moylan, an interior designer with SmithGroupJJR in Washington, D.C., an architecture firm that designs commercial spaces including law firms, says that factors such as the amount of floor space needed to accommodate today’s technology and the cost of real estate are directly affecting the way law firms look and feel.

For example, the law firm’s in-house library may go the way of the dodo, Moylan suggested. “The more that is available electronically, the less of a physical library I think you need,” he said. “A smaller library also means less square footage, which means you are paying less rent.”

Law offices are not evolving smoothly. Moylan said his clients, who are typically older senior executives, are reluctant to let go of old ways of doing things.

“They have grown up with having their position and their title represented through their office space,” he said. “They feel they’ve earned an office whether they need it or not. On the other hand, Generation Xers and Millennials don’t care as much about an office.”

The most forward-thinking of Moylan’s clients are giving the coveted corner office space to multiple staff rather than saving it for one high-level employee, often turning it into a recreational space, Moylan said. “The loyalty of the Baby Boomer generation doesn’t exist with Generation Xers and even less with Millennials. I think that the corner office space, that best space in the office, is part of what needs to be given over to younger staff for the attraction and retention of their services.”

Interior designers attempt to seamlessly incorporate technology into office design. For example, offices increasingly feature Wi-Fi for wireless Internet access and touch-screen displays. However, Moylan said Baby Boomers and even some older Generation Xers struggle with how to use the new office technology. Millennials, on the other hand, take to the technology right away. “They grew up with this technology, it’s really innate in them, and there’s no learning curve,” he explained.

We’ve entered a new era in which the lines between technology and biology, virtual and reality, are blurring, Barrett believes. She points to technology like cochlear implants, which are electronic devices implanted in the brains of deaf people that allow them to hear, as an example of a blurring of biology and technology. “We’re also seeing shifts in the physical construction and operation of the brain based on exposure to different kinds of electronic stimuli.”

Whereas present-day law firms are confronting technology and social media, the law firms of the future will have to confront this new dynamic.

“Young people in many ways, especially the very young,” Barrett said, “are developing earlier and earlier this capability to multitask and interact in an electronic environment, and that’s changing how they are. But that evolutionary change is going to be much slower than the change in technology, so that imbalance is going to always cause some serious dynamics in how the generations perceive each other and their interaction with technology.”

Matthew Malamud is an associate editor of Trial. He can be reached at matthew.malamud@justice.org.

Notes:

  1. AARP, Leading a Multigenerational Workforce (2007), assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/cs/misc/leading_a_multigenerational_workforce.pdf.
  2. Id.
  3. Sara J. Czaja et al., Factors Predicting the Use of Technology: Findings from the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement, 21 Psychol. and Aging, 333 (2006).
  4. LexisNexis, LexisNexis Technology Gap Survey (2008), www.lexisnexis.com/media/pdfs/LexisNexis-Technology-Gap-Survey-4-09.pdf.
  5. Id.
  6. Pew Research Center, Generations and Their Gadgets (Feb. 3, 2011), www.pewinternet.org/reports/2011/generations-and-gadgets.aspx. The authors separated younger Baby Boomers, age 47–56, from older Baby Boomers, age 57–65; the 46 percent of Baby Boomers who own a laptop is an average of the two segments’ proportions.
  7. Pew Research Center, 65% of Online Adults Use Social Networking Sites (Aug. 26, 2011), http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/2011/generations-and-gadgets.aspx.
  8. Id.


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