Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

Articles: Multi-Generational Solutions Archives

Bookmark and Share

In Search Of The New Professionalism Through Multi-Generational Lenses

Differences in generational perspectives can bring frustrations, resentments, inefficiencies and threaten professionalism (“collidescope”) – but don’t have to. Handled positively, differences can produce great creativity (kaleidoscope) with productive, engaging, harmonious, career enhancing outcomes. I suggest we pursue sustainable professionalism within a flexible framework that still upholds ethical values. Our model must be dynamic to adjust to changing styles of competency models and leadership that appropriately suit each generation and foster collaboration.

Is your firm experiencing any of these symptoms?

  • Decrease in morale and increased workload with less work/life flexibility?
  • More than usual risk-averse behavior on the part of the attorneys?
  • Cutbacks in the training and coaching that especially the younger professionals need, but also needed by the mid-level through junior partners groups that should be the foundation of the firm in future years?
  • Underlying tension among the generations* regarding approaches to work, roles and facetime?
  • Neglect of succession planning for all critical roles, including all key client relationship leaders?

Exacerbated by recession, these symptoms are not just the result of short-term economic conditions. These are just a few of the signals that standards of professionalism are being sacrificed to short-term and reactive thinking. This should be a major concern today.

Why Now? Have Attitudes Changed?

To steal a phrase from a former vice presidential candidate, “You betcha!”  With three or four generations in most work environments and probably five in the next five to 10 years, we experience a spectrum of views based on typically common intra-generational formational influences, on such elements as communication styles, demeanor, attire, attitudes toward diversity, treatment of junior colleagues, attitudes conveyed toward clients, customers and other stakeholders, naked ambition, work ethic, “consumer mentality,” “entitlement” and more. All of these can impact either or both actual or perceived professional behavior.

Some attitudes or behaviors are unintentionally unprofessional, coming from the younger generations whose formal and informal education neglected to inform on workplace expectations and other interpersonal interactions. The negative outcomes can be just as deleterious as are those coming from people who should know better and should articulate high standards expectations and foster reasonable discipline.

A poll from the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) at York College of Pennsylvania suggests the importance of professionalism to one’s career and by extension to the employers. Professionalism was defined by the business leaders and human resources professionals polled as having five primary characteristics: personal interaction skills, including respect and courtesy; communications skills, including listening; a great work ethic; being motivated and staying on task until the job is finished: and self-confidence, awareness, and professional appearance.

And the verdict from the poll as to whether professionalism has increased or declined in the past five years? One-third of the poll’s respondents believed that fewer than 50% of all new graduates exhibit professionalism in the workplace. The complaints will probably sound familiar; respondents pointed to a sense of entitlement for jobs, lack of work ethic and changes in culture and values.

And the fault lies not just with the youngest generation (Gen Y/Millennials) in the workplace, as I will reference later on. This is not an “us vs. them” issue. Loss of professionalism is a bottom line issue which will have increasingly tangible impact. With the restructuring of the legal profession and legal services to “right-size” in order to fit demand, top-tier professional status is a positioning firms must aspire to regardless of size. There is, and is projected to be, less wiggle room and tolerance for lapses.

Why Saving Professionalism Matters

5 Reasons why leaders and managers should be concerned about multi-generational perspectives on professionalism:

  • Client perceptions of anything unprofessional can reflect on the whole firm and lead to loss of business.
  • Generational/age diversity clashes can lead to substandard work and/or negative behaviors.

And on the positive side:

  • Multi-generational business development success will bring more revenue and bases for long-term client relationships. Clients want continuity of personnel with consistent high standards.
  • Perpetuation of a high quality brand results from a highly professional workforce of all ages and levels. Firms are spending significant amount of time and money on identifying, articulating and building brand recognition. It is all superficial if the firm’s personnel don’t exude the essence of the brand in all their interactions both externally and internally and in the quality of their work product.
  • Top-tier professional talent attracts and wants to stay with similarly professional colleagues. For example, deans at Cornell University say their greatest assets for attracting faculty “stars” are the highly respected current faculty they want to work with and be associated with. A similar attraction applies to a significant degree to lawyers when they consider lateral moves.

Today’s Challenges - Through Generational Lenses

Most organizations, though aware of generational differences to some degree, have not recognized or acknowledged the potential threat to a high level of professionalism, performance, productivity and profits.

What’s at stake?

Aspects of professionalism potentially threatened by generational differences include:

  • Perceived work ethic
  • Appropriateness: demeanor, image, situational solutions that don’t transfer to other situations
  • Sustainable long-term client relations
  • Effective communication in both styles and choice of media
  • Privacy; unintentional breach of confidentiality
  • Successful team management
  • Workable, harmonious reporting relationships

Most of us have observed some of the following factors that can threaten professionalism standards:

  • Time pressures resulting in lack of attention to adequate guidance and prompt reviews, insufficient training, possible corner cutting, cursory work product reviews.
  • High billing rates precluding partner, manager or client patience with on-the-job learning or mistakes.
  • Reluctance to ask for feedback; often young people don’t know how to ask.
  • Attorneys hiding behind technology and missing all-important non-verbal cues in their communications and negotiations.
  • And a factor that often starts in student days: Technology makes plagiarism easy, and people brought up on internet use aren’t always aware of what is plagiarism and what is acceptable use.
Unprofessional behaviors can come from senior as well as junior professionals. Two examples we hear too often about lawyers are: bullying within a work team or firm, in which I include giving last minute assignments that ruin personal plans when they could have been foreseen; and lack of empathy to such stakeholders as juries, junior professionals, and colleagues on the way out of the firm as well as opposing counsel. These behaviors can surface in client relations as well.


Several studies over the last decade or two have confirmed what many people observe or personally experience – that incivility is rampant in the workplace. Some examples are consistently ignoring a colleague, gossiping behind colleagues’ backs, ignoring requests for help and borrowing supplies without asking. Interestingly, the studies found that 60% of bad behavior came from supervisors or levels above, 20% from people on the same level and 20% from people below.

There are direct economic costs from this behavior: decreased effort on the job after experiencing ongoing rude behavior, slacking off or sticking only to the narrow definition of their tasks as well as exit of valuable talent. Apparently there is a sort of double-standard in many organizations. Employees are expected to treat clients/customers with respect, but there is typically less concern about how colleagues treat each other. When the economy rebounds, turnover surges traced to these causes, though it’s infrequently admitted in interviews.

Will the gap widen through the generational lens of Gen Y/Millennials and those that follow? To a large extent that depends on whether current Boomer leaders and managers and Gen X emerging leaders are cognizant and concerned enough to mount a professional “renaissance.” It needs to be a multi-generational effort by educational institutions and employers. A few colleges and universities have recognized the need and have developed a student professionalism curriculum. But this movement is only in its early stages. Firms will have to address the revival of professionalism as they re-think competency models.

Professional services continuing education providers offer courses for professionalism credit, but that’s not enough. Our surveys of experienced lawyers confirm that view. One-shot lectures and even more engaging sessions rarely change habits and behaviors. The effort needs to be multi-faceted and ongoing in order to inform and influence attitudes and behaviors. Each firm and corporate or government legal department needs to clearly define its professionalism standards as part of its culture and ensure that they are integrated into training, coaching, mentoring and performance metrics as well as feedback teaching moments.

The Solutions

As a long-term intentional strategy, an organization and individuals within it can raise the overall level of professionalism through cross-generational conversation in work teams, with mentor partners (a two-way process), and from various layers of management to those being managed. Expectations, client/customer/stakeholder needs and wants can be addressed, desired behaviors can be modeled, and the best practice solutions can be agreed upon, bought into, and implemented.

Looking to the Generations

In today’s work world we continue the shift from primarily top-down leadership to more collaborative styles. Collaboration is more to the liking of the younger generations who typically were raised by Boomer parents and educated to collaborate and have a say in issues that affect them. (In some cases that has gone too far, but that’s an issue for another article.) In revisiting professionalism standards and practices, all the generations should be part of the conversation in order to gather their viewpoints, share experiences and expectations, and obtain buy-in. With the older generations desiring to stay active professionally, there will need to be role shifts, and untraditional reporting relationships need to gain acceptance as they become more common.

Though having older workers report to younger managers can be challenging, in fact it is one of the inter-generational challenges that is becoming more prevalent. It can actually result in happy and productive outcomes. Jean Erickson Walker, Ed.D, author of The Age Advantage: Making the Most of Your Midlife Career Transition, says that the relationship between someone with experience and someone who is ready to experiment and take risks can be outstanding. "Once they get over the initial adjustment, they often develop a relationship based solidly on mutual respect and each learns from the other,`  `" she says. "The key is a leadership philosophy based on collaboration rather than top-down authority." Also crucial are willingness to put ego and assumptions aside.

Summary of The Business Case

Professionalism encompasses attitudes and standards both perceived and actual. The definition needs to make room for reasonable changes that have occurred up till now and as appropriate for the future work and client relations environment. An obvious example is that the definition in the 1952 Webster’s Dictionary referred to “professional men” specifically and only –  whereas professionals as gender neutral is a change almost universally accepted and welcome. And we have loosened up about acceptably professional attire, working from outside the office and permitted marketing and business development activities. Diversity is now proclaimed to be both a positive value and an asset in business.

What are seen as “changes” to the older generations are an integral part of the younger generations’ world view. The latter group never knew a different world. Viewing professionalism through generational lenses and incorporating multi-generational approaches with openness and collaboration will give firms a boost in their competitiveness and esteem in clients’ eyes.

To summarize the business case, this approach to a professionalism renaissance will result in:

  • More productivity
  • Less turnover
  • More new ideas with collaborative teams to make sure they are actually executed, and
  • Better work for and stronger relationships with clients and other stakeholders.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2011.

* The generational chronology for easy reference: Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists:                                          born 1925-1942   

Baby Boomers                                           born 1943-1962

Generation X                                             born 1963-1978

Generation Y/Millennials                           born 1979-1998

©   Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2011.


Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm working with law firms for over 20 years, A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and succession/transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners/executives and their firms ( ). Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine" and “The Marketer’s Handbook of Tips & Checklists” (both West 2009). URL: