Here Come the Millennials

Six lawyers talk about the unique challenges of being young in a profession that prizes age

Published in 2020 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Moonloop Photography

The millennials are taking over. Or will, shortly.

In 10 years, the ABA Journal forecasts 75 percent of law firm staff nationwide will be composed of millennials, or people between the ages of 24 to 39 today. They’re the next-gen class of lawyers who are becoming defined by their diversity, tech-fueled efficiency, and, often, their six-figures worth of college debt. 

We chatted with six young lawyers about unique challenges, baby faces and Baby Boomers, and what law school didn’t teach them.

The Path

Julia Wu, Associate, Leech Tishman, Pittsburgh, 32: I can't say I started off as a young kid wanting to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a ballet dancer, an astronaut. My parents are immigrants from China, so I am a first-generation Chinese American. Not only did they have a language barrier, but they also didn't really understand how our legal system and laws worked. That ended up sticking with me and inspiring me.

Oderah C. Nwaeze, Partner, Duane Morris, Wilmington, 34: I was born in Nigeria, and moved to North Carolina when I was 6 or 7. I took part in the Duke Talent Identification Program. We were given a fact pattern about a rapper who was put on trial because he had some lyrics that encouraged violence. I was selected to present our argument in front of this mock Supreme Court. I still remember the feeling and the rush I had up there. That was it for me.

Edmond R. Shinn, Law Offices of Edmond R. Shinn, Wayne, 32: I grew up working with my father, and he and my brother still work in our family roofing company. Later I found a job in Philadelphia in a forensic engineering position, which was basically a bunch of younger people doing the grunt work: analyzing the documents and paper from projects, and preparing experienced engineers to go into court and testify. I enjoyed that. While I was there, I was also studying for the LSAT. After I passed, I pretty much never looked back.

Priscilla E. Jimenez, Associate, Kline & Specter, Philadelphia, 34: I started playing violin when I was three. I studied at Juilliard and I got to play in Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and I loved performing in general. I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life, but I wanted to keep some aspect of the performance part, which has translated into my work as a trial lawyer. I didn’t know I wanted to be a lawyer when I first went to college. I was studying political science and I took a constitutional law class as part of the course requirements. In that class, we had to debate some constitutional law subjects and I decided I loved it. 

Andrew Yang, Associate, Martin Law, Philadelphia, 32: I come from a long line of pastors, so I was always oriented toward a profession that I thought would help people. I've also always been a really analytical person. I've always liked reading, writing and studying, and the idea of being able to combine those skills with a profession that could engage with people on a one-on-one basis was attractive to me.

Megan A. McGovern, Associate, Bayard, Wilmington, 30: I thought about doing journalism and then I realized I didn't want to move to New York City, and I wasn't going to get in with a great fashion magazine by staying in Wilmington. My sophomore year in college I took a juvenile justice class and we had a really compelling guest speaker one day who worked at a local juvenile detention center here. I went home and thought, “I want to be a social worker, or I can go to law school and be a lawyer.” So now here I am, kind of a social worker with a law degree.

Law School

Nwaeze: Law school was both great and the most stressful time in my life. I came straight from college, [where] I was an athlete while doing other things. There was never a period of time where I was doing one thing for eight to 10 hours a day. It was a tough transition.

Jimenez: It’s easy to become overwhelmed. There’s a very competitive atmosphere out there, that’s for sure. It’s easy to become lost in all the noise. I just focused on my studies and honing my skills, keeping my head down and putting my nose to the grindstone. 

Yang: I enjoyed law school and my professors. In terms of preparing me to be an actual attorney, I think in certain ways it did. Temple’s Trial Advocacy Program prepared me well to present a case in court and put things together in a punchy way. But there are things about the process and procedure of the practice of law and the day-to-day tasks that you can only learn by doing.

Wu: As the child of immigrants, when I started thinking about law school, they weren’t able to give me guidance or help me make any sort of connections with people I could talk to about law school. So it was a lot of me doing due diligence. When I got there, I thought law school could do a better job of preparing young lawyers for the business of law. Marketing yourself, understanding client relationships, and building a book of business, those are really fundamental to the business of law. A lot of firms do a great job of mentoring, investing time and resources into the newer attorneys; it would be great to also have that fundamental basis promulgated in law school. 

McGovern: For me it was a challenge learning the confidence to accept that what I thought was right for me was right for me. When you’re in law school, you’re with a ton of really smart, competitive, outspoken people. I got in there and I might’ve had an idea or a thought and it was really easy to keep it to myself or not want to speak up because you hear all these other people with their ideas.

The Interviews

Nwaeze: I remember going into one interview in a black suit and a black shirt. I had some cultural ignorance, not coming from here or having family members who were professionals, so I didn’t give much thought to what I should wear. The embarrassment of that incident led me to over-prepare for every subsequent interview. I needed to not only know my résumé and some things about the job, but researching the culture and trying to cram information about each and every lawyer I might meet, and their case records. 

Wu: The best thing I learned about job interviews is just be yourself. You’ll come off as someone who’s willing to learn, someone who’s willing to hit the ground running and work hard, because that’s really what they’re looking for from a young associate. They don’t expect you to know everything, but they want someone who has a good attitude and who’s willing to put in the time and effort.

Yang: I’m a very cautious person. I like to know what I’m getting into before I get into it. About six months into starting at Martin Law, one of the associates above me left the practice and I inherited her team. All of a sudden I had all these managerial responsibilities. So I had to learn how to sink or swim fast. It was against my nature, but I’m glad I had that experience. I had to learn how to manage parts of the practice that I never imagined, like staffing, financial aspects and accepting cases.

McGovern: There are days where you’ve just got to sit back and take a deep breath and hope that it’s all going to be OK. At one point in my career I was definitely getting overwhelmed and I had to realize that the problems clients were facing were not my own personal problems. Learning to compartmentalize was a huge challenge in the first couple of years.

The Challenges

Nwaeze: While I love the fact that my colleagues and clients can reach me at any time, and I don’t have to be in one physical space to provide for them, I think that the expectation that you can and always should be working can be a bit unhealthy. I think it’s partially because older generations of lawyers have weaponized it, to suggest that people who want a work-life balance are somehow inherently lazy.

Shinn: There’s a large part of the Baby Boomer generation that’s remaining in the workforce longer than expected. That crowds the workforce. I think the Great Recession certainly played a major impact. It was a disruption.

Wu: I think that the legal field is a little saturated. And with technology, people can market outside of their geographic area. So you’re not only competing against lawyers in your metropolitan area, but you could also be competing with lawyers in other states.

McGovern: Technology is absolutely the next big monster. Our family court still has paper filings. We use wet signatures. There’s nothing done electronically. I’m anxiously awaiting the transition. 

The "Baby Face"

Jimenez: I’ve always turned it into a positive: I’m the youngest, sure, but I’m also usually the only bilingual Hispanic attorney in the room. There is a deficit of bilingual speaking attorneys across the bar, and I’d like to work to increase those numbers.

Yang: At the firm, I think people respect my perspective in general. Out in the world or on committees, I do feel a need to be extra competent at all times. I have clients that think I just got out of high school. I suppose I don’t give the impression of age and wisdom.

McGovern: I’ve often been the only woman and the youngest. I have a lot of cases where I can tell that the other side is not taking me seriously because I’m young, because I’m female, whatever their reason. I’ve learned to capitalize on that, so I’ll say, ‘OK, don’t listen to me, ignore what I’m saying. Think that you’re going to pull one over on me.’ Then it gives you the edge when you’re in the courtroom, and you can catch them off guard. And then it becomes more of a weapon than a weakness.

Nwaeze: I remember going into this meeting with one of the partners, and everyone around the table was a lawyer. One lawyer says to my colleague, ‘Oh, I see you brought your paralegal’ or something to that nature. He looked at the person and said, ‘This is obviously my associate. Why would a paralegal be here?’ I remember that. I doubt that he does.

The Collaborations

Yang: I’ve had great support from the partners. I never felt like they were setting me up for failure. What I tried most to do was make sure that people understood that I was receptive to their ideas, because a lot of the staff had been here longer and had experiences that I didn’t. I wanted them to make sure that they knew I was going to respect that and I was going to need their help for all of us to succeed.

Wu: Our firm is very collegial. If I’m working on a matter and an issue comes up that maybe I’m not familiar with, I’m not afraid to go down the hall to a more senior lawyer and get their take, and they’re willing to take the time to do that. There are lawyers here who have a great book of business and are willing to mentor younger lawyers in marketing and how to build their own book. We have such a wide range: Baby Boomers, millennials; I’m not even the youngest person at the firm anymore, which is weird to me.

One of the challenges of being a Millennial—if I have to dub myself as one in the workplace—is that you’re working with people across generations. So the Baby Boomers are going to have completely different values and mindsets than Millennials or anyone in between. Being able to tailor your goals or message to attract a good response from somebody who’s not necessarily going to view it the same way is important. 

Nwaeze: When I would talk to older lawyers, and they were telling me about this trial that they were working on in the ‘90s, everybody would get in a room and they would talk about the task. Assignments would be doled out, deadlines given, and deadlines frontloaded in a way that the junior folks could get their work in to senior folks as early as possible. A challenge that our generation has now is the view that it’s so easy to get things done because of the technological tools at hand. Because of that, I’ve seen a lot more senior lawyers thinking, ‘Here’s an assignment they can just push out,’ rather than thinking critically about what needs to be done and organizing tasks in a way that everyone has time to do it right. There are more and more fire drills now. I’m lucky that the older lawyers I work with don’t do this.

The Surprises

Jimenez: The need to market yourself and build your brand. I don’t really think law schools put enough emphasis on this—and by enough, I mean any. They put you into the working world and, as a student who has always been told what to do next, you assume that’s what’s going to happen. But you realize, ‘Oh no, this is it.’ So if you want more money, better cases, to be a rainmaker and make a difference, you have to advocate for yourself. You can’t wait for permission. 

Wu: What surprised me the most about practicing law is that, not only do lawyers assist their clients with legal issues, but oftentimes lawyers are counselors for business and even personal issues. Often you’ll become a sounding board for your client on various issues.

Yang: I’ve always had to push myself to remember the importance of building social business connections. And a lot of lawyering is building your contacts, having a network of referral sources, and being out there and making sure you go to the meetings and the cocktail meet-and-greets and that sort of thing.

The Student Debt

Nwaeze: I remember during my 3L year, there being a lot of angst. For a lot of us [during The Great Recession], we didn’t have the family money to underwrite our education. People were just panicking. You’ve done everything that you were told to do as a child to succeed in America and be part of this so-called American dream. Then you didn’t have a job. What were you going to do? I know that there are a lot of people who to this day struggle with depression and anxiety from it, and are paranoid that any moment, that nightmare’s going to relive itself.

McGovern: I knew that going into law school I would come out with debt, but I viewed it as the investment I needed to make to get to where I wanted to go. You want to buy a house, you’re going to need to put money in the bank. I don’t think that my student loans are controlling my destiny. I’ve been able to make decisions and sure, going to private practice, you’re going to make more money than if you go to a nonprofit. Our firm supports pro bono work, so I’ve been able to have plenty of that.

Shinn: Our generation was told that if you want a good job, if you want to succeed, you have to go to college. I think that’s something that we’re asking questions about now. Trade schools are an awesome thing. There’s going to be a huge demand for skilled tradespeople moving forward because it’s been neglected. People look down their nose at a welder, but these guys are making over $100,000. And when they turn off that torch, they go home and their mind is clear. That’s a beautiful thing.

What's Next?

Nwaeze: Getting rid of the billable hour. I’ve seen clients far more interested in alternative-fee arrangements: flat-fee, capped-fee, fixed-fee, even success-fee structures. I think that that’s likely going to change the profession.

Shinn: I think there’s a lot more DIY legal work being done. I think the internet, much like when you go to your doctor, a lot of people say, ‘I think I have this,’ because they’ve gone on WebMD and Googled their symptoms.

Jimenez: Recognizing that diversity equals money, because you have people with different viewpoints and who see things you don’t. Leaders of firms and companies need to embrace the concept that having more people who don’t look like you and think like you will help you reach conclusions and solutions that you might not have otherwise. 

Yang: Information is much more accessible, and folks have the tools and resources to understand things that would have been inaccessible in the past. I think it’s the lawyer’s job to help people digest the information they have as an advisor, and not just convey information as an authority. I think it’s a healthier relationship between people and the law when the law is comprehensible and accessible, so we should embrace that.

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