Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Ms. JD Millennial Lawyer Survey Results

Associates feel welcome, want more feedback and are split on partnership. And many don’t record all their time. 

By Grover E. Cleveland

Despite regular admonitions from firms, many millennial lawyers cut their own time. That was a key finding from a recent survey of millennial lawyers.

Partners and firm finance officers regularly lament that new lawyers don’t record all their time. The survey results won’t help those folks sleep at night.

In response to the statement: “I always record all of my time on every project,” 37% of millennial lawyers disagreed. That’s a lot of lawyers and a lot of money.

Survey Background

The results are from an online survey I developed in partnership with Katherine Larkin-Wong, Ms. JD, Above the Law, and the Professional Development Consortium.

Recent grads often struggle with business aspects of practicing law, understanding the perspective of partners and building relationships within firms. In our survey, many new lawyers did not think law school prepared them for practice. Many also said they don’t know how to advance in their careers.

The survey was open to lawyers who were born in 1980 or later and asked respondents to agree or disagree on a wide range of topics relating to new lawyer careers and perspectives on work. Thanks to all the Ms JD blog readers who participated!

Although 880 participants began the survey, the age question disqualified 46 lawyers. Hmmm.

Most questions received about 655 responses. More than one-third of the respondents worked at firms with more than 500 lawyers. This was the largest single group of respondents.

To compare the perspectives of law firm Professional Development professionals, we gave a similar survey to members of the Professional Development Consortium. Katherine Larkin-Wong, Darien Fleming, Manager of Professional Development for K&L Gates, and I presented highlights of the findings at the Professional Development Consortium Conference in San Francisco on July 9.

Firm Finances

While 37% of the millennial associates cut their own time, the PD professionals uniformly panned the practice. Ninety-six percent said that associates should always record all their time on every project.

New lawyers can sabotage their careers in many ways, but cutting their own time is one of the most insidious. Time spent counseling new lawyers on that issue is time well spent.

With respect to overall firm finances, 60% percent of the millennial respondents said that contributing to their firm’s financial success was a high priority for them. This is similar to the number who said they always record all their hours.

But associates aren’t demonstrating their commitment to the financial success of firms. Only 20% of PD professionals thought that associates considered contributing to the firm’s financial success to be a high priority.

Building Relationships

Understanding how to build relationships with senior lawyers is another challenge for new lawyers. A question on that topic revealed a huge disconnect between PD professionals and their associates. In responding to the statement: “Associates should treat senior lawyers as their clients,” 93% of PD professionals agreed. Only 54% of millennial lawyers agreed.

Why the gap? Some new lawyers view senior lawyers primarily as mentors – or their backup. There is a common misconception among new lawyers that the role of more senior lawyers is to fix the work of junior lawyers. Senior lawyers do not want to do that. Supervising attorneys will perform a quality-control function, but they want junior lawyers to do their own work and do it well. Clients won’t pay for work and rework.

To succeed, millennial lawyers must provide value to senior lawyers, just as those lawyers provide value to external clients. Providing value is generally not a skill that law schools teach or require. Thus, the concept of providing value can seem foreign to new grads.

Preparation for Practice

Although the skills lawyers learn in school are critical, millennial associates understand they have much more to master. In recent years law schools have made significant strides in providing more practical skills training. But despite this progress, 72% of the millennial lawyers disagreed with the statement: “Law school prepared me to practice law.”

The PD professionals disagreed even more. In that group, 87% responded that law school had not prepared associates for practice. Only 13% of the PD professionals agreed that law school had prepared associates to practice law.

By contrast, when BARBRI surveyed third-year law students earlier this year, it found that 71% believe they "possess sufficient practice skills." Why the disparate results? Until law students begin practice, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Learning and Advancement

Both the millennials and the PD professionals agreed that associates need more feedback about their work. Among the associates, 61% disagreed that they get enough feedback. In the PD professionals’ survey, 85% disagreed that associates get enough feedback on projects.

Millennial lawyers also want more mentoring and training. Fifty-nine percent of millennial lawyers disagreed that: “The firm provides enough mentoring, programming and career direction for me.” Results from the PD professionals were similar with 62% disagreeing that firms provide enough mentoring, programming and career direction.

The desire for more feedback and training likely reflects the uncertainty many lawyers feel about how to advance in their careers. In responding to the statement: “I know what I need to do to advance in my career,” 46% of millennial associates disagreed. PD professionals were even less sanguine. On that issue, 78% disagreed that associates know what to do to advance in their careers.

Although millennials want a roadmap for career advancement, they know they must do the driving. Of the millennial lawyers, 89% agreed with the statement: “I am primarily responsible for my own career.” On this issue, millennials and PD professionals had a mind meld. 89% of PD professionals also agreed associates should be primarily responsible for their own career.

By a large margin, millennial associates also agree that the more they work, the more they learn. In responding to the statement: “The more I work, the more I learn,” 67% agreed. Of the PD professionals, 64% agreed that the more associates work the more they learn.


Millennials are often popularly portrayed as slackers. Yet 92% of millennial associates said they make sacrifices in their personal lives to accommodate work. In the PD group, 67% agreed: “Associates should make sacrifices in their personal life to accommodate their work.”

And what about working not just on weekends, but also on holidays and vacations? Of the millennial lawyers, 53% agreed that: “It is normal and expected for me to need to be available for work over holidays and while on vacation.” Among the PD professionals, 63% agreed that associates need to be available for work during those times.

Desire for Partnership

Finally, firms and their associates get off to a strong start. Overall, firms do an excellent job making new lawyers feel welcome and included when they start work. Of the millennial lawyers, 88% agreed. In responding to the statement: “New lawyers feel welcome and included when they start at your firm,” 93% of PD professionals agreed.

But do associates ultimately believe that becoming a partner is worth the effort? Millennial lawyers split on that issue: 45% thought making partner was worth the effort, while 55% disagreed. In responding to the statement, “Associates believe that becoming a partner is worth the effort,” 27% of PD professionals agreed and 73% disagreed.


Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Readers may follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.



Thank you for this survey!!  This is the major disconnect I see, which I believe drives a ton of stress, anxiety and other health issues for so many lawyers:  The majority of law school graduates don’t feel prepared to practice law (which they are not) yet a majority of senior lawyers don’t view their role as having much of a training or mentoring component.  So, what exactly is a junior associate supposed to do?  I practiced law for 7 years and I completely understand the importance of junior lawyers needing to do good work, etc, but they also need some help!  What would happen if a new doctor was thrown into the operating room and told by the senior attending or another MD, “Hey, we expect you to do good work, but we’re not going to fix any errors you make - we’ll just stand over here and make sure something catastrophic doesn’t happen.”  And then firms wonder why lawyers leave.  There are lots of reasons for departures, I understand, but firms can’t have it both ways - wanting to hire the best talent (and spending lots of money to do so in salary, benefits, etc), doing very little to foster their development (much of which comes from working and learning from senior lawyers) and then expecting loyalty and longevity in return.

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