Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life

Millennials and Generation Z: We have to use the phone

Readers, I have been on a journey.  I invite you to join me for a recap. 

I recently gave a talk to senior lawyers about being a human and a manager of lawyers. One of the topics I was anxious to cover was how millennials[1] are people and not some weirdo self-obsessed alien “other” that senior lawyers have to tolerate. I was all ready to go with the fact that millennials are simply humans born in a particular period (fact, although the specifics of the period shift), and that the designation of “millennial” and its stereotypes were dreamt up by marketers so they could sell things to us (fact). I was all fired up to say that we are humans, just like you, and if you would only treat us like fellow humans, and not distasteful others, maybe you’d get us to share our avocado toast (mostly fact).

I, a millennial, gave this talk with a more senior lawyer, not a millennial.  She was previously an employer to millennials and she told me some stories. Her stories muddled my certainty that we’re all the same.

Her stories were of cultural difference. While she grew up with a culture of fear and discipline in education and parenting, she did not raise her children that way, and the younger lawyers she saw coming into her workplace were not raised that way.  So, there was culture shock between people doing things how they were done to them decades ago and people who grew up differently.  She noticed, from hearing her millennial employees talk, that the old way of doing things was one a person “survived”, not one that was necessarily human or effective. She took it on herself to learn a new management style. (She is great.)

But there were other cultural differences, especially around technology, that were of a different character. She said that younger lawyers were exceptionally impatient doing research, because Google had made finding most information instantaneous. She also noticed that when she asked them to give someone a quick call to confirm something, they sent emails.

These are the stereotypes of millennials, right? That we don’t want to work hard and we hate talking on the phone. Speaking for myself, only one of these is true.

But to be a lawyer you need to be patient with messy, uncertain research, and you need to be able to talk on the phone. For generations growing up with Google and texting, that patience for slow information-gathering and the phone conversation skillset are no longer built in. I sound like an old man shaking my fist at the clouds, but I’m not: bear with me.

This phone thing was part of my journey. It is a good example of a cultural difference between generations, and I think how one responds to it is a good example of how to respond to a lot of the intergenerational differences now playing out in the workplace.

I have long believed that there is no great need to talk on the phone to do your job. Technically, this is true.  One can be a perfectly adequate lawyer in 2019 without picking up the phone. But if you can’t talk on the phone, or talking on the phone makes you seriously anxious, that will almost certainly impair your ability to be a good lawyer.

Part of this is because a lot of lawyers are from earlier generations, and they love the phone. In order to do your job you will need to work with and for these lawyers, and they will think it is no big deal to conduct business by phone. 

Another part of this is that you have different conversations by phone than you do by email.  With email you get to craft your wording in your own time, sure, but your recipient knows you crafted your wording. There is less leeway for mistakes or badly-chosen words and the tone naturally hardens.  Emails also bring with them the spectre of potentially being made public in court or otherwise, so there is a tiny bit of threat built into every one you send.

By contrast, phone conversations allow for more humanity. If you misspeak you can correct yourself right away, and people are less precious about what you say anyway. You also get to respond in real time to how the other person is receiving what you say, which makes escalation of conflict less likely (important in litigation and negotiations especially). 

This phone thing is not a universal challenge among millennials, but it’s common enough. I know a lot of people, including me, who are not itching to talk on the phone, even to a good friend. I can do it; I do it a lot, but when the phone rings I rarely want to answer it. And given the choice I would rather send a quick email than make a quick call.

And here’s where my journey links back up with where I was originally headed: we could all do with understanding each other’s experience a bit better, and understanding how our own experience may not be universal. 

The answer here is not for later generations to malign younger ones for skillsets our culture did not embed in us. The answer for younger generations, equally, is not to say “I hate talking on the phone so I won’t do it”.  The answer is to say to ourselves, “This is an area where I feel vulnerable, but it’s a skill required for my job. I will give myself time and patience to learn this skill, having compassion for the discomfort it causes me along the way, just as I would with any other skill I have to learn to do this job well.”

As a millennial or Generation Z-er (a Zed?) going into a law job, you would do well to be mindful of the things you will need to do that you may have less practice at. This includes patience with old-fashioned book-based research, and a fluency and willingness to practise law by phone. Have compassion for your resistance and your fear around it; learning new skills is painful and scary.  Doing things worth doing often is. 

And lest you think I am telling only the millennials to get with the program, you should know that my message for the more senior crowd in my talk was the same: understand that people have different experiences, and then give them the tools and guidance to do what needs to be done in their work for you. It rewards everyone, and makes for much better lawyers all round. 

[1] The audience for this column is mostly millennials and people from Generation Z. I will talk about us all collectively as millennials, since there are no standard designations for which is which, and the issues I’m talking about apply to all of us anyway.