Senior lawyers slam ‘entitled’ millennial training contract hopefuls

Avatar photo

By Katie King on

But they admit that corporate law is a different beast to when they were growing up


With all their fancy brochures and often extravagant recruitment stunts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that City law firms love millennials.

But all may not be as it seems, as a new exploration of the subject has revealed that senior lawyers often grapple with ambivalent feelings towards young would-be lawyers.

A lengthy feature by City law firm partner bible Legal Business (£) describes millennials as a new “breed” of aspiring lawyers, and attributes them with “qualities making it difficult for hierarchy-driven businesses to manage”.

And just what are these “qualities”?

In an open letter penned to a fictitious partner, Legal Business editor-in-chief Alex Novarese reports that this “new generation of associates” is regularly described as “entitled and short term”. Other buzzwords used in the feature include tech-savvy, demanding and narcissistic.

It’s hardly very complimentary, and this new wave of, at best, different and, at worst, undesirable candidates proves quite a sticking point for recruiters. With an unfavourable stereotype planting a seed of doubt in their minds, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the full feature is littered with recruiters and lawyers bashing a whole generation of potential employees.

Maggie Stilwell — managing partner for talent at accountancy firm EY, which has a sizeable legal arm — refers to millennials as “the sticker brigade”. She explains:

They have grown up in an environment where they have been praised and given a sticker for doing well, and this is an expectation.

Reed Smith partner Perry Yam was even more scathing in his attack. He says:

My daughter is at university and they talk now about a work/life balance. I am sure that is healthy [but] I find it a complete anathema.

An anathema, by the way, is something you really, really dislike.

Yam continues:

The CVs are phenomenal. They have all climbed Kilimanjaro, raised £20m and have straight As, which is fantastic. Once they get into the workplace, they do not have that hunger.

Throughout the article, however, there is a growing understanding that millennials aren’t all bad, they’re just very different to the baby boomers and Generation X cohort making up the profession’s top ranks. In a generation that has grown up in a world increasingly dependent on technology, this isn’t all that surprising. There is also an implicit admission that the older generations haven’t been the best custodians of the legal profession.

Indeed, three top corporate lawyers, including Yam, are quoted reflecting on how City law has changed for the worst during their time in the job.

Shearman & Sterling partner Nick Buckworth suggests that “a level of cynicism among partners and maybe a lack of ownership” has contributed to a deteriorating relationship between generations at some big firms. Although he uses different terminology, Milbank’s Mark Stamp echoes Buckworth’s sentiment, when he states:

I do not think that it is cynicism; it is disinterest. Today, partners in larger firms think: ‘That is not my responsibility. That is HR’s responsibility.’ I grew up with a mentor. I suspect that most of us did have mentors — somebody you looked up to, who brought you along and was responsible for your personal development, who looked after you. That does not exist in the same way. It is all to do with the size.

And Yam sums up the changes when he explains:

The reason I chose SJ Berwin was I did the interview. They made a decision, and gave me the job there and then. There were 30 partners in the law firm; it was 15 years old. It was exciting. This point is key. Today, there are so many law firms where very few partners are home-grown talent who can say: ‘This is my firm.’ You are just guns for hire in some sense and there is some cynicism because of that.

So maybe firms’ morale problems are not the fault of the millennials after all. This seems to be what Novarese is hinting at when he advises:

[H]ire bright ones; give them good training; offer decent work they can handle soon enough to push them; provide them with partner mentors; and treat those that do well as valued staff and partners of the future.

It seems like common sense. So why aren’t more firms behaving this way?