Millennial Expectations

Dilbert on Sunday reminded me of too many projects I’ve been given over the years. The ones where you’re supposed to be a mind-reader and guess what the partner wants you to do, because she or he can’t be bothered to tell you. In other words, they’re just too busy to give useful instructions, but they somehow find the time to chew your butt about it when you (predictably) screw it up.

I’ve already groused about this particular tendency among lawyers, but in a weird way it reminded me of a run-in a few years ago with a Millennial employee I quasi supervised. She was the 24-year old editorial assistant. I was the Gen X editor. Yet for reasons of organizational history, I did not directly supervise her. And therein lay the problem.

I would ask — let’s call her Linda — to do things I would ask any editorial assistant to do, such as find author addresses, keep track of submissions, write some fairly mindless copy, edit copy and features, the usual.

Linda didn’t impress me with how well she did most of it. Despite my taking precious time to review her edits with her, she missed the same type of stuff all the time. Even after the third time telling her how to find attorney names and addresses on the firm’s website, she would tell me she couldn’t figure out which office they were in. She drove me nuts, in short, but I couldn’t fire her.

One day, we got into a conversation in my office, which ended up with the door shut and the two of us almost yelling. At one point, I said, “Linda, I don’t get why you’re so unhappy with me. I don’t treat you badly — it’s not like I make mistakes and blame you for them!” Having had precisely this type of behavior inflicted upon me when I was a young associate, I thought I knew what made a bad boss.

To which she said: “But all you ever give me is scut work! You wouldn’t do that if I weren’t so young!”

I imagine my mouth gaped open.

Obviously, Linda and I were laboring under some vastly different assumptions. I thought partners who gave me faulty instructions and then blamed me for the resulting mistakes treated me shabbily. Linda couldn’t even envision that kind of treatment because thus far, boredom had been the worst treatment she had suffered.

There isn’t a nice, neat insight to this story. It would be easy to bash Millennials for their need to be constantly entertained, but that oversimplifies. To be sure, Linda could be portrayed as the stereotypical Millennial with a sense of entitlement. After all, she took a quintessential entry-level job knowing it involved a lot of rote tasks. I mean, come on, pay some dues!

But at the same time, I myself loathed the boredom of first- and second-year (and third- and fourth-year, come to think of it) associate work more than just about anything; I could certainly relate to Linda’s distaste for it. The perceived necessity of doing boring work before getting rewarded with more challenging work comes at least as much from Boomers’ and Gen X’ers discomfort with automating some tasks and really utilizing technology as the actual need to have a warm body doing tedious tasks.

Sure, partners say they’re all for using technology to be efficient. But when nitty comes to gritty, most are like one company where I worked, at which management talked endlessly about appealing to younger readers, but have yet to embrace podcasts because their (older) readers haven’t demanded them. I’m sure many Millennial lawyers work for firms of the same ilk.

What partners do notice, of course, is money. Particularly when they lose it. My advice to Millennial-age lawyers is to listen carefully to what partner expectations are, and for the more ridiculous and repugnant ones, work out a monetary explanation of why the expectation is pure rot. And remember something that my torts professor used to say: Human beings cannot remember information unless they hear it at least five times. In other words, lather, rinse, repeat. Five times.

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