The Next Gen Levels Up
Six millennials on ageism, navigating two recessions, the debt burden and the rewards of a legal career
Published in 2021 Maryland Super Lawyers Magazine on December 17, 2020
The law is one of the few professions that prizes age—maybe to a fault.
“Clients want somebody with experience and the prerequisite number of gray hairs to prove it,” says Rama Taib-Lopez. “But after they get to know me and hear the same thing from the partners, they quickly realize they shouldn’t have to pay an extra $200 an hour to get the same advice.”
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is the second recession many millennial lawyers have had to navigate. “When I was looking for a job in 2008, it was slim pickings,” says Jose Blanco. “Fast-forward a decade later, when we’re trying to start families or buy our first homes while still paying our student debt—it’s certainly not a recipe for financial security.”
Still, they’ve navigated that path with determination, the help of mentors, and, in the case of Veronica Yu, by being brave enough to bet on themselves.
We recently chatted with six millennial Super Lawyers listees. Here are their stories.
Jose Blanco, Immigration, Law Offices of Jose Blanco, Silver Spring, 37: I was drawn to immigration law because both of my parents are first-generation immigrants. While immigrants may be villainized now more than ever, they have always been marginalized. For me, it was about leveling the playing field and keeping families together. There’s nothing more important.
Alexander Zarzecki, Elder Law, Frank, Frank & Scherr, Baltimore, 33: Law was always in the back of my mind. I was on the CPA track and I talked to a lot of accountants, and many were dual CPA/attorneys. I thought I would advise businesses.
Rama Taib-Lopez, Family Law, Joseph Greenwald & Laake, Rockville, 35: I thought I wanted a career in international trade or international development law. Then I took a course in international law, and it was too theoretical. I participated in an immigration clinic and loved it. I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives.
Sahmra A. Stevenson, Family Law, S.A. Stevenson Law Offices, Columbia, 37: I volunteered with a non-profit that provided mentoring and tutoring to minorities. I then became a paid staffer and started developing after-school programs because kids were getting harassed for anti-loitering laws, but after-school program funding was being cut. I dealt with so much red tape. I wanted to figure out the law, and how to make it work for my passion.
Jamar W. Creech, Business, Diversified Law Group, Laurel, 37: I was an information systems major undergrad and one requirement was a legal environment course. I liked it: good content, a different manner of thinking. Then I took the follow-up business law class and I liked that, too.
Veronica Yu, Employment, Offit Kurman, Baltimore, 32: My dad is a criminal defense attorney in New York. Bring Your Daughter to Work Day was always my favorite day of the year, but I didn’t default to the law. Up until junior year of college, I was debating between psychology or law. Both professions are client-centric and involve problem-solving, but I appreciated that the law had a more direct, active role in working with clients.
THE GENERATION GAP
Stevenson: I never experienced sexism until I got to law school. And then I start practicing, and there’s all this ageism stuff. It’s "Oh, you kiddo.” People would talk over me and not pay attention to me or I’d be given crap cases. “Oh, I don’t want that. Let’s give it over to her. She’ll take anything.”
Yu: It really set in for me when I was in my first year of practice trying a bench trial in state district court as first chair. The opposing counsel had been practicing for 30 or 40 years. There was a moment during opening statements that I realized that this attorney would, right off the bat, receive respect and deference based solely on his age. To counteract that inherent bias, I come extra-prepared. Even if you’re second chair, you need to bring value to the table.
Taib-Lopez: It is easier to speak with younger partners. They remember what it’s like to be an associate. They can guide you through the steppingstones through the firm politics and help navigate the rights of passage that associates have to go through.
Blanco: When I started my own firm, I had a few interns from Generation Z, and the dynamic is a little different. I didn’t know what TikTok was, and they gave me a hard time. But they’re so energetic and ready to listen. It reminds me of my early days—I wanted to know everything, and I wanted to know it all at once.
Zarzecki: I operated as a sponge and tried to learn as much as I could from the more experienced partners. It was definitely a confidence booster when they posed a question and considered your opinion. They were taking into account the thoughts of this 20-something with limited experience.
Stevenson: Older attorneys should reach out more to younger attorneys. Younger attorneys have to realize they may have to try more than once if they’re trying to make an impression. Don’t give up.
Zarzecki: When there was an issue and the exact cause was unclear, my mentor would say, “It comes down to one of two things: sex or money.” He swore that’s the answer to most problems between people. He’s not wrong.
Stevenson: I clerked for a year in a Baltimore courtroom and the judge changed my life. He gave a crap about people. He was an amazing, compassionate, loving person. When I got to him, I’d been engaged, but we’d broken up, and I’d failed the bar. I was so sad. He said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but the sun is going to shine again. You and I are going to pass this bar together.” He made me write essays all day and tutored me on his own time.
Yu: When I was really struggling to decide if I should leave my prior firm, one of my mentors said, “You have to bet on yourself. If you don’t take risks, you’re not going to be able to advance in your career.” That resonated with me. As lawyers, we’re generally risk averse, but you have to step outside your comfort zone.
Blanco: At my first firm, my mentor went above and beyond to make sure I was as comfortable as possible. He made it clear to me that no question was a bad question, and it would be worse to assume than to ask. Now that I have my own practice, I try to instill that same sense of comfort in my employees, making sure they know they can approach me with any question that they have. I don’t always have the answers, either, but if I don’t, we can figure it out.
Creech: I learned what a good lawyer was as a law clerk. I had a two-year clerkship with a U.S. magistrate judge in the District Court of D.C. She would always say, “Persistence is the key.” I learned the value of a good relationship and how to craft a persuasive argument. Lawyers from across the country would come to this court and it felt like I was in a master class. Mentors also help you to see the blind spots. It’s good to have somebody with more experience who knows the ways of the world and can see what’s ahead. Even though I have some experience, I only know what I know.
Zarzecki: During one of my first reviews, I was told I wasn’t as personable as I could be. I needed to make more small talk to help clients feel comfortable. Being a young attorney, I wanted to present a very professional face because I wanted to make sure clients understood that I was worth it, but at the cost of being myself, I guess. That was eye-opening.
Taib-Lopez: No one prepares you for how much variance there is between judges. In family law, we don’t have a jury, just bench trials, and it’s really important for our clients and witnesses to come across well. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and that makes a world of difference. It’s discretionary.
Blanco: One thing that frustrated me is the range of opinions of the judges within the same courthouse. You could have a fact pattern that was very familiar to ones you’ve dealt with before, and yet the result seemed to hinge on the luck of the judicial draw instead of the facts. Still, looking at the different ways a judge interprets the law can provide me with different viewpoints and the insights that allow me to be a more creative litigator.
Stevenson: One state attorney told me, “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you know why you made them.”
Taib-Lopez: I met my husband in law school, and our student loan debt is a big part of our lives. Going out on our own is simply not an option because of the obligation. We initially aspired to do more pro bono work, but we can’t afford to.
Yu: Graduating with debt certainly had a hand in dictating my career path. I wanted to work in a firm setting. Not only does working at a firm quickly teach you the concept that you can maximize your compensation by being profitable, it also teaches you the business of law. At the end of the day, though, I’ve learned to accept the debt and make strategic career decisions based on the career I want, not my student loan debt.
Creech: Student loans have motivated me to grow my practice and to be successful. Even in the earlier years of my firm, I kept that goal in mind. I have tremendous family support, so I could go the route of building my own practice while being able to satisfy that debt.
Taib-Lopez: I focus on one little family in one little town on a case-by-case basis. You can get very emotionally invested in people’s lives and livelihoods, especially when you’re talking about children. How well you do your job can have a big impact on where these children go to school, what resources they receive, who they live with and what relationships they maintain. It’s equally draining and rewarding.
Creech: I love the flexibility, the level of freedom to make my own schedule. And it’s very rewarding to work with great entrepreneurs, helping them develop their concepts and bringing their ideas to life. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have been at several client grand openings, and I’ve seen the look on people’s faces as their dreams become reality.
Stevenson: I did not expect to like family law. My dad was in my life as a kid, but once my parents divorced when I was 12, he wasn’t around. We have since reconciled, but for me, there’s something about seeing a father who is being denied access to his child, to the point that he’s sitting in my office and willing to fight, that gets me fired up. I didn’t have somebody doing that for me.
Blanco: I take the most satisfaction from keeping families together. Seeing the joy and jubilation of my clients when we win a case. Seeing a mother hug her son. Just that relief and overwhelming emotion.
Taib-Lopez: Our generation has to learn balance, because our technology means you can work from home or you can have dinner with your family. You’re on 24/7. I once heard a judge speaking about how, when she was a young attorney, she had a cot in her office for her little girl. She couldn’t go home and fire up her laptop after dinner, so the alternative was her daughter sleeping in her office. So some older attorneys might call our “problem” a luxury.
Yu: Firms have changed the way they hire. It used to be you land in a summer program then you’re automatically hired. Now there’s more of an emphasis on hiring experienced attorneys making lateral moves. The competition is very stiff. There are a lot more attorneys and a lot less jobs.
Blanco: Millennials have had the unprecedented challenge of managing two severe recessions. When I was looking for a job in 2008, it was slim pickings. That recession impacted wages for many years to come and many millennials found themselves with debt-to-income ratios that weren’t what we expected when we decided to go to law school. Fast-forward a decade later, when we’re trying to start families or buy our first homes while still paying our student loan debts. It’s certainly not a recipe for financial security.
Creech: The legal industry has changed substantially, especially in marketing. While there are still some remnants of traditional marketing, this generation embraces digital in a new way. We’re starting podcasts, developing websites, making sure the sites are tied to LinkedIn and our personal sites. You have no option but to be present in the digital landscape.
Stevenson: Before COVID, the idea of working remotely or working from home wasn’t given much credit. I trademarked “Office without Walls” [virtual office solutions] in 2017 so I could practice whenever and wherever I wanted. People would laugh at it and challenge its legitimacy. I had to have a brick-and-mortar just to say I did. I’m excited to be part of a generation that’s changing how the law is practiced.
Yu: COVID-19 will change the way firms do business. We’re going to see a lot more remote work and utilizing virtual platforms. On the employment and labor side of things, we’re going to see an influx of claims and litigation related to COVID—potential workers' comp cases, discrimination claims, OSHA claims and people who have been laid off or furloughed.
Creech: Our generation is going to tackle more small-business issues, particularly because of what’s happened with the pandemic and programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. As we continue to progress as a country, we’re going to be more conscious of certain things, so if anything remotely similar happens again, we can represent and advise our clients regarding lease agreements, business contracts and the like.
Taib-Lopez: Family law is constantly evolving, as is the definition of the nuclear family. The law has followed. It shows the court’s commitment to focusing on the child. We’re starting to see more fathers and non-biological parents getting custody. I think that’s a direct result of using a different lens and focusing on the best interest of the children.
Zarzecki: Elder law is an area that’s going to grow as the elder population continues to rise. Right now, estate tax planning impacts a much lower percentage of people but there’s always uncertainty as laws are changed. You can’t let changes in the law pass by you or you’re going to be passed by.
Blanco: An emerging legal issue for future generations is the admissibility of evidence that comes from smart TVs, smartphones, voice-activated technology: technology that has an ability to identify you, understand you and track you at all times, whether you know it or not—or if you consent to it or not.
Creech: The biggest adjustment, and state of constant learning, is continuously working to develop my legal mind. There’s a conventional way to approach problems and then there’s the legal one. There’s issue spotting and going through that whole analysis that gets you to that conclusion. Whenever I think about how problems are solved, I have to put that aside and think like a lawyer. It’s a whole other world.