Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Bridging the Bar’s Generation Gap

Is the Minnesota State Bar Association prepared for the rise of the “millennial generation” in the legal workplace? This year millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are projected to surpass baby boomers as the largest generation in the US workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast to aging baby boomers, the millennial generation continues to grow as young immigrants expand their ranks. This tech-savvy group of young people coming through the bar association’s doors is markedly different from previous generations. They are more racially and ethnically diverse and used to being connected anywhere, anytime. They grew up with the internet, always owned a cell or smart phone, share photographs via Instagram, and communicate with friends via Facebook and Twitter. And they have less patience for the hierarchical structure of traditional organizations. So what do these young lawyers expect from the bar, and is the bar ready for them?

Last year the Ohio State Bar Association attempted to answer this very question by conducting a major market research project surveying new lawyers. One of the main findings was that the bar needs to be much more approachable and offer a real connection to its newer members. Young lawyers want practical information on how to run a law practice, manage their school debt, and achieve some semblance of work-life balance. They want to customize their membership experience by controlling the frequency and delivery of content they receive from the bar. Oh, did I mention the information must also be readily available?

These findings are not new to leaders outside the bar. “The smart organizations are putting their content wherever their members, prospects, and other stakeholders are likely to be,” John T. Adams III, executive director of Association Media and Publishing, has said. “If their members are on Facebook, they should go to Facebook. If they can find members on YouTube, they may want to consider doing videos. . . . Associations have to adapt and be multipurpose.”

For its part, the MSBA is in the process of implementing the recommendations of a recently completed communications audit, which advises expanding controls over email delivery to our members, reimagining the MSBA’s use of social media channels, and redesigning the Bench & Bar and Legal News Digest. Our new director of communications and marketing, Steve Perry, a former editor at City Pages and Politics in Minnesota/Capitol Report, will oversee this important effort.

Technology Matters

The Ohio bar study also found that young lawyers want to be active participants at the bar—right now. They are interested in doing substantive work and don’t want to sit on the sidelines listening to their elders and waiting their turn. Typically bar association boards are composed of individuals, like me, who have spent years climbing the leadership ladder and “paying their dues.” The bar needs to think of better ways to involve and train our newer lawyers in association business. Our New Lawyer Section provides participation opportunities, but it can also isolate young members from the rest of the association.

Given our younger members’ affinity for technology, it follows that the MSBA needs to continue investing in technology. This past year the MSBA moved its computer systems to the cloud. And the Council recently approved a Capital and Technology Budget that includes $170,000 in one-time technology expenses. Historically this budget has averaged $100,000 per year. This large investment in technology is a huge shift in association priorities from just five years ago.

What ‘Mentoring’ Means Now

The Ohio study also addressed young lawyers’ interest in having mentors. They want someone who has been in practice less than 10 years but has been successful. Rather than formal, committed mentor relationships, young lawyers just want a list of lawyers they can contact for brief advice about a case. The MSBA’s new Colleague Directory might be just what many young—and perhaps even older—lawyers are looking for. Launched in January, the Colleague Directory is designed to facilitate referrals and sharing of contract work between member attorneys.

The MSBA is also restructuring its relationship with law students in an effort to welcome them as members from their first day of school. Our goal is to work with local law schools by offering the bar’s resources to develop young lawyers. We hope to focus on different aspects of the MSBA during each year in law school. For example, we might engage first-year students in the bar’s efforts to uphold the high standards of learning and professionalism so they understand what it means to be a lawyer. In the second year we could introduce students to our substantive sections. In their final year we would ask them to look ahead to later stages of their careers, not just the first five years out.

I have a growing sense that the future of the bar rests with these young lawyers. If we really want to reimagine the bar, much of the energy must come from the next generation of lawyers. The current leadership (myself included) does not have the answers. I suspect that our younger members do—if we just give them the chance.

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Richard H. Kyle Jr.

Richard H. Kyle Jr. was the 2014-15 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A shareholder with Fredrikson & Byron PA in Minneapolis, he is a criminal defense lawyer who has practiced law in both solo and large firm settings since being admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1990.