Why Role-Based Thinking Improves Your Practice and Your Teams (and moves beyond generation-based stereotyping)

Do you know what they say about statements containing “always” and “never”? They’re always wrong and never right.

In over a decade of coaching attorneys, I’ve been struck by how often I hear people say “always” or “never,” especially when discussing difficult professional relationships. When my clients reflect on the challenges they experience working with attorneys at levels of seniority different from their own, this kind of categorical thinking can often focus on common assumptions about generations. It’s a classic logical category error — assuming the properties ascribed to a certain category (in this case, a generation) are inherently properties of any part of that category (in this case, an individual).

When I hear “always” or “never” from a client, what often follows are a set of assumptions about someone’s attitude or intentions based on the generation of which they’re a part. And when attorneys are operating based on conventions drawn from generational stereotypes, all sorts of problems arise — misunderstandings, difficulties collaborating, and entrenched viewpoints that can hamper productivity and dampen morale.

We’re all prone to making generation-based assumptions. Luckily, it’s an easy problem to correct: simply shift your point of view from assessing your colleagues’ generational categories to their respective roles within your firm.

The problem: assumptions based in generational stereotypes

A career in law often spans an individual’s entire adult life, which means law firms tend to be multigenerational workplaces. This can lead to invigorating cultural exchange and ongoing learning — or to generational stereotyping that stymies progress. It’s all a matter of perspective.

How often do you notice people in your firm (or even yourself) falling into this kind of categorical thinking?

  • Baby boomers are hardworking and loyal, but stubborn and stuck in their ways.
  • Gen-Xers are great problem-solvers who generate revenue, but they’re too cynical.
  • Millennials are tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, but they’re entitled and self-centered.

Those stereotypes are deeply culturally ingrained, so much so that it can be hard to even realize that they’re shaping one’s view of the world. But when team members are operating under these presumptions — placing colleagues into predetermined categories, and ascribing character traits based on their generational category — collaboration, productivity and morale suffer.

Making assumptions (whether consciously or not) about your colleagues’ intentions and attitudes based on their generation gets in the way of real listening, understanding and communication. If you want to cultivate a positive and productive firm culture, a perspective shift is in order.

The solution: shift to a role-based perspective

If you think of your firm as an ecosystem, you’ll see that every part of that ecosystem plays a crucial role in its overall health. For instance, trees in the forest might have certain categorical traits (they’re tall, they block light, they create debris), but what matters to the health of the ecosystem is the role the trees play: creating oxygen, reducing carbon dioxide and providing animals with shelter. The same is true for the other parts of a forest’s ecosystem — the ferns that filter toxins and provide microhabitats, the mosses that provide food and regulate soil conditions, and so on. The role of each bit of flora and fauna is what matters to ecosystem health.

And so it is in your firm’s “ecosystem.” Each attorney plays an important role, unrelated to that person’s generational category. When you understand that role, you can focus on the individual’s positive contributions to the whole, while finding productive ways to adapt to any negatives that may (or may not) be attributable to how someone embodies a common generational attribute.

  • Partner. This person’s senior-level role is to develop strategies, focus on client needs, maintain and cultivate client relationships, and generate business. Partners must hold themselves accountable for their entire team. Becoming a partner takes time — and very hard work — so people in this role are likely to have invaluable experience and wisdom to share with others.
  • Senior associate. This person’s crucial role is to facilitate successful outcomes for any given matter by managing the flow of work and dynamics of teams. Senior associates not only perform substantive work and assume responsibility for the quality of the work product done by those who work with them, but also manage day-to-day tasks and coordinate teams to help the firm work efficiently. Senior associates are responsible for delivering work on deadline, empowering other team members and effectuating the strategy set by the partner.
  • Junior associate. This person’s role is essential to the success of the team. The junior associate is responsible for effective ground-level operations, delivery of superior work product and focusing on details essential to producing excellent work. Junior associates must proactively and continuously develop new skills and seek new learning opportunities.

Although you may find that these roles often correspond to a particular generation, the fact is that an attorney’s age is irrelevant. It’s their role in the firm that matters to the organization’s success.

The impact: role-based collaboration leads to a more productive environment

When each attorney focuses on their role in the organization, and interacts with other team members with their respective roles in mind, teams develop a sense of cohesion and a collaborative attitude — all pulling together for the sake of the larger purpose. Whatever your position, these tips for focusing on role-based (rather than generational) attributes will help you make the most impact for your firm.

  • Partner. In your role, you have the power — and the opportunity — to set the tone for the whole team and, by extension, the firm. By leading with a role-based perspective toward your employees and peers, you can cultivate a positive work environment. Building your team’s culture is critical: listen to, engage with, and invest time and effort in the people around you.
  • Senior associate. You act as the bridge between partners and junior associates, giving you the power to build a high-functioning team through thoughtful interactions between the two roles. As a senior associate, it falls to you to ask for what you need — whether it’s for your role or for those in positions less established than yours — so that the needs of the team are properly met.
  • Junior associate. Without the individuals operating at this level, the firm simply wouldn’t function — and a group of highly motivated team members can transform a firm into a well-oiled machine. In addition to delivering excellent work, it’s incumbent on you to ask for assistance when needed and follow through on commitments to create an environment of goodwill from the ground up.

When you identify your role and understand what’s needed from you, you make positive contributions that your team will highly value. And when you relate to your colleagues based on their roles, not their generational category, you enhance your own empathy and help to avoid the misunderstandings and congestion that come from assumptions. Cultivate a role-based perspective and discover how much more effective your team can become.