A dangerous game: How older lawyers diminish their Gen Y colleagues

by Sophie Schroder25 Aug 2014
Older lawyers discount the talents of younger lawyers at their peril. I hope I will be different,” NSW Young Lawyers president Thomas Spohr told our sister publication, Australasian Lawyer.

In an opinion piece that drew widespread debate, Spohr fought back against the public perception that Generation Y has misplaced feelings of entitlement and competence.

“Maybe that prejudice is why most young lawyers will have heard another practitioner start a sentence with ‘I have been a lawyer for however many years’ and go on to sweep aside as invalid any opinion that junior lawyer might have,” he wrote.

“It is, I am afraid, a common experience. In negotiations: ‘I have been a lawyer for 30 years, and I can tell you that this is a very generous offer’ (it probably isn’t). In correspondence: ‘I have been doing this for a long time, and you should know that you are skating on very thin ice here’ (they probably aren’t). Or in court: ‘I have been doing this much longer than you, and I can tell you that if you make that submission, the court will laugh you out the door’ (it almost certainly won’t).

“Statements such as this attempt to diminish the value of the younger lawyer’s opinion, based on no more than an accident of age. It shows that the speaker is unwilling – or unable – to engage in the merits of the debate. And it risks that young lawyer suspecting that the other lawyer actually doesn’t know what they are talking about and is trying to hide it.”

And although pointing out one’s own level of experience is helpful when speaking to clients, Spohr says when it is applied to colleagues in this way, it can “very nearly” answer the description of bullying.

But don’t get him wrong, the young lawyer says inter-age relations among lawyers are not all bad: He also recalls a number of inspiring encounters he’s had with older colleagues, including a discussion with a very eminent Supreme Court judge where, “the genuineness with which His Honour was willing to engage in a back and forth about the topic has stuck with me”. 

Overall however, Spohr asserts that the disdain with which some practitioners hold young lawyers is not just deeply disappointing; it is dangerous because it risks dismissing perfectly valid opinions and discourages young practitioners from applying intellectual rigour to legal questions simply because they are afraid.

NZ Lawyer asked some young legal professionals here what they thought about Spohr’s comments, and whether or not a similar problem exists in the Kiwi market.

Janine Stewart, a partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, says the comments made are valid, but don’t necessarily apply just to Generation Y or all senior practitioners.

However, there is certainly a tendency for a segment of the senior profession to treat those younger in a “dismissive and condescending” manner, she says.

“I recall one instance where I was told that if I did not agree to a certain request I was going to receive a ‘telling off in front of and by the Court’. Needless to say this did not result in any agreement on my part and there was no such “telling off”. 

“I agree with the comments in the article that approaching younger practitioners in this manner is dangerous. It jeopardises addressing the real issues between the parties, risks valid arguments being dismissed and the younger practitioner treating the views of the senior practitioner in further dialogue with a degree of scepticism.”

But Stewart won’t go as far as to say that the problem is widespread in New Zealand.

In many cases, she says the gap in age and experience can give rise to a healthy and fruitful relationship between practitioners, who can then provide a good representative team for clients.

On a personal level, she says she’s been the recipient of many comments as a result of becoming a partner at age 33.

“Comments range from the complementary to the ‘you can’t be a partner you are far too young’. I assure those that relay the latter that I am in fact older than I look, and that if it is perceived as a problem, they should nevertheless keep the faith because age does not reflect intelligence and in any event, the issue will only get better with time.”

Stewart says that mentoring programmes and support networks are obvious ways to help young lawyers. The most beneficial way of training junior lawyers and achieving the best for the client is to inform and involve the lawyer of the needs of the client, the full range of issues and strategy, and to encourage the open exchange and challenge of ideas, she says.

“It was only when I started working for seniors who engaged me in the broader strategy, and who had a genuine interest in my views on the issue and process, that it all really clicked into place, and I became passionate about my role.”

Another young Kiwi lawyer, a 26-year-old who wishes to remain anonymous, has also come across some difficult senior practicioners.

“At my first job in order to make me believe that I was only worth the low pay they were offering me, [the partners] were more dismissive of my ideas or opinions and would take any opportunity to 'correct' my views. Many other juniors in the firm were facing the same treatment,” she says.

But since then, she’s also met some amazing senior lawyers. In her last job, she was given the “full respect” of her senior who asked for and praised her opinion.

“For me, the respect made me work harder and really enjoy my job and feel valued as a team member.”

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.


  • by Mark 25/08/2014 11:55:18 a.m.

    I have experienced this lack of respect from seniors at times in my career. But generally you just need to see it for what it is. The senior who acts like this is usually very insecure and lacks many abilities. Its just a shame that these people can't see past themselves to do what's good for the long term future of their firms. I would recommend that a younger lawyer consider leaving a firm that tolerates such behaviour. There are other senior lawyers out there who do have the skills, personality and interest to mentor others in a beneficial way.

  • by David Roughan 25/08/2014 12:41:24 p.m.

    When I was admitted at age 25, became a partner in a large firm at 28 and a Notary Public at 30, I really appreciated the encouragement of senior colleagues.
    However, it wasn`t until I was 39 that I had the confidence to start my own firm and until I had been practising 27 years to stand for Law Society office.
    I enjoy working with colleagues, younger & older, who work with me in achieving good outcomes for our clients.
    I am from time to time treated by younger practitioners in a dismissive & condescending manner - I have to say it happens more when I deal with Legal Executives than it does when I deal with lawyers - although that rarely happens in face to face situations.
    There are far less face to face dealings and opportunities for collegiality now than there were in the first 3 decades of my 4 decades (& still counting) of practice to date. Being more removed from colleagues by our dealings means its too easy to be dismissive of others , whatever their age & experience.
    We need to try harder to appreciate and celebrate how each of us working together play invaluable roles in solving our clients problems. We only exacerbate those problems by treating our colleagues -older or younger, men or women, born here or not, city or provincial, big firm or not - without courtesy and respect.