Associate evaluations: A pitch for the millennials

December 3, 2021

President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

For many lawyers, the start of December means that there is more to do than holiday shopping and drinking eggnog. In many law firms and companies, December also signifies the end of the fiscal year. Associates hurry to meet billable hour requirements. Partners hurry to get client accounts paid up. Correlatively, many organizations utilize the year-end to evaluate employees, award bonuses and consider salary adjustments.

Since I made partner in my law firm at the end of 2014, thankfully my days of sitting for a year-end review and finding out my raise and bonus are behind me. However, as the first millennial to serve as ACBA President, I humbly use this platform to make a pitch for those of my generation who remain on the other end of the table.

First, it’s important to understand who the millennials are and their importance to our workforce. Most sources define the millennials as those people born between 1981 and 2000. In the United States there are presently around 161 million people who are employed. Of the five generations represented, millennials make up 35% of the workforce, more than any other generation. By 2025, just over three years away, millennials will represent 75% of the workforce.

More than any generation who has come before them, the millennials have developed negative stereotypes. Boomer bosses are often quick to point out that these young people don’t know the meaning of hard work. Their senior peers call them things like “entitled” and “job-hoppers.” So, are these stereotypes true?

The “entitled” label is often used in connection with a young person’s attempts to advocate for increased compensation. Indeed, in a recent study by ManPower Group, 92% of millennials stated that money is their top priority when choosing an employer. They have their nerve, don’t they? Not when you look at their expenses.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Bar Association in April and May of 2021, student loan inquiries were solicited from ABA members who are 36 or younger and who graduated law school or were licensed within the last 10 years. About 90 percent of the survey’s respondents said they took out student loans to finance their undergraduate or legal education, with an average law school debt of around $108,000 and a total amount of debt of $130,000. In other words, your associate’s salary isn’t just going to pay for avocado toast and the Apple store.

Returning to the stereotypes, are the millennials also job-hoppers? Well, sort of. In a recent Gallup poll, 21% of millennials reported that they have changed jobs within one year. This is three times higher than workers who identify as baby boomers or gen X. However, in the same poll, 28% of millennials surveyed stated that they hope to stay with their current company for at least five years.

Why do millennials leave jobs? According to the aforesaid Gallup poll, 75% believe that organizations are focused on their own good rather than the employee’s good. Most millennials leave jobs because, plain and simple, a better opportunity presents itself.

Perhaps the better question is why do millennials stay in jobs? As previously stated, money helps. More than that, millennials value a sense of purpose. In fact, 75% of millennials surveyed by Gallup said that they want their personal values to align with their employer’s values.

Millennials also respect diversity. They are the most urbanized cohort of young adults ever. In a recent survey conducted by Deloitte, 69% of millennials said that working with a diverse team is what motivates and engages them.

For those of you who have a hand in deciding compensation this December, what can you do? For one, be able to demonstrate to the millennials, and all of your employees, that the numbers are not arbitrary. Provide specific, candid feedback about the individual’s performance since the last evaluation. Similarly, provide goals for the year ahead. Let the employee know what factors you will be considering in the future and how they can meet or exceed your expectations.

When it comes to compensation, start by reviewing salary surveys and market research for comparable positions. Then, consider establishing a clear compensation strategy. This means that in advance of your shareholders meeting (or other forum where these decisions are made) you will have identified the manner by which salaries and bonuses will be established. This will help to ensure that all employees are being treated equally and fairly. It will also assist you in delivering compensation news to the individual employee. Make sure that the employee appreciates the total package, not just the salary or bonus. Identify for the employee your out-of-pocket expenses on their behalf for perquisites like medical insurance, parking and retirement plan contributions. Salary is just one component of compensation.

Above all else, the evaluation should be an open dialogue between the employer and employee. Sometimes, what cannot be matched dollar-for-dollar can be offset by other provisions. More than ever, employees, and specifically millennials, value things like flexibility, benefits and growth opportunities. Before you let talent walk out the door, see what you might be able to provide without losing any money. After all, millennials will soon be the vast majority of the work force; if you already have a good one on your team you should try to keep them.