South Africa: Multigenerational Workforce: Mentorship And The Benefits For Law Firms

Last Updated: 9 July 2019
Article by Zinhle Novazi

According to Gallup nearly half or 49% of employees are disengaged while 18% of employees are actively disengaged. For one to solve the issue of disengagement in the workplace, we need to understand what causes employees to be disengaged.

One of the primary issues in the workplace is generational conflict that arises due to having a multigenerational workforce in the workplace. This article aims to provide a brief understanding of what a multigenerational workforce is and what are the possible conflicts that may arise. Moreover, the article seeks to propose that the solution to bridging the generational gap in the workspace is achieved by implementing a mentorship programme.

Multigenerational Workforce

A generation is described as a group of people who shared the same events during a certain point in time such as education systems, parenting styles and music. Thus it is through these formative experiences that a generation develops a collective outlook. There are currently five generations of employees in the workplace and a one-size fits all approach is not an effective approach to manage these generations.

The Five Generations Present in the Workforce

Traditionalists (Founding Partners of the firm)

Traditionalists were born between 1928 and 1945 they are also commonly referred to as the post-war or silent generation. World War II was the seminal event of their childhoods. They are characterised by their dedication, loyalty, focus and perseverance to their work. The wealth of knowledge and experience they possess is difficult to replace. Traditionalists in a law firm are likely to be the founding partners of the firm.

Baby Boomers (Senior Partners)

Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They are motivated by rank, wealth and prestige. Moreover, Baby Boomers are said to be extremely loyal to their employers they are also service and goal-orientated. According to Gallup, Baby Boomers have been the dominant generation in the workplace but Millennials have recently overtaken them. The shift occurs as more Baby Boomers approach retirement and more Millennials find employment. As Baby Boomers exit the work force they leave with valuable knowledge and experience with them. Law firms are forced to either explore more effective retention strategies or they would generally develop knowledge transfer strategies to assist Baby Boomers to share their knowledge with younger generations and to avoid the impending brain drain. Baby Boomers in a law firm are likely to be senior partners of the firm.

Generation X (Junior Partners / Senior Associates)

Generation X is born between 1965 and 1979. This generation is often overlooked because of the larger generations that come before and after them. This generation is result orientated; some authors argue that it is because they entered the workforce during a recession. According to a 2013 Ernest & Young study, Baby Boomers and Millennials view Generation X as the best generation for generating revenue and building teams. Moreover, the study found that Generation X tends to be more inclusive, flexible and possess better communication skills and vision than the Millenials. Generation X is also responsible for promoting the work-life balance. Generation X employees are likely to be junior partners and senior associates in the firm.

Generation Y/ Millennials (Junior Associates /Candidate Attorneys)

Millennials are born between 1980 and 1995. Millennials are the most educated generation and they are digital natives. This generation is the most diverse generation and it will continue to redefine diversity in the workplace. This is because this generation's home life differs from its predecessors, it is a generation born from single-parents and same sex families. According to PWC's 14th Annual Global CEO Survey, the ability to attract and retain millennial talent is a vital step to achieving the company's long term aims. Millennials crave constant feedback, praise and meaningful work as they want to feel part of an organisation's mission. Millennials are also prone to frequent job changes as they seek new opportunities and employment on their own term. Millennials prefer managers who take an educational approach and who take time to understand their personal and professional goals. Millennials are likely to be junior associates and candidate attorneys in a law firm.

Generation Z (Vacation Students)

Generation Z is anyone born after 1996, the oldest of this generation is just entering the workforce. They are said to be more technologically plugged in than Millennials. Generation Z believes that having an impact on the work may be more important than their job itself. Generation Z are likely to be vacation students or legal interns at a law firm.

What issues is the work place currently facing as a result of having a multigenerational workforce?

A 2014 Survey by ASTD, found that over one third of respondents said they wasted five or more hours of work weekly (12 percent of the work week) due to unresolved conflict among generations. According to the survey Baby Boomers and Millennials have the most difficulty working together, Baby Boomers see Millennials as lacking focus and discipline whilst Millennials view Baby Boomers as resistant to change, dogmatic in their thinking, defensive and lacking creativity. It is argued that these negative perceptions are a matter of communication problems and not necessarily an outcome of a generational divide.

Generally the different generations can struggle to understand one another's values and working styles, as a result working together and sharing power for these generations becomes problematic. Knowledge and information sharing becomes difficult to facilitate, knowledge sharing is vital because younger generations lack the experience and knowledge which the older generations have acquired over time.

As Baby boomers delay their retirement younger such as millennials generations are of the opinion that their opportunities for career advancement are being restricted. Practically speaking senior partners of a law firm may value personal communication (e.g. telephone calls, speaking directly to the individual concerned) and they may have a strong belief that one must work until the task is completed whilst Millennials may value electronic communication (e.g. sending WhatsApp messages to the partner as opposed to a phone call and emailing instead of talking directly to the person concerned) and they strongly believe in a work life balance.

The older generations have built networks both within the law firm and outside of it and younger generations need an opportunity to tap into those networks. The long term effect of unresolved conflict is transformation issues, a low retention rate, low morale and poor team performance in the workplace.

How can the generational divide be solved so that it best benefits the company and its employees?

Solution proposed is mentorship

While law firms can rely on solutions that are aimed at targeting a specific generation, I would recommend a more individualised approach in the form of mentorship. In order to resolve intergenerational conflicts in the workplace we need to understand people as individuals and not confine them to their generational group. It is only when we meet people in their oneness that we truly begin to understand them.

According to Suzanne Faure, "Mentoring is a long term relationship that meets a development need, helps develop full potential, and benefits all partners, mentor, mentee and the organisation". Mike Turner puts it more simply and states that it is a movement from where they are, ('here'), to where they want to be ('there').

Issues with Mentorship Programmes in Law firms

In some cases mentorship is not formally recognised within the law firm thus not enough resources and funding go into ensuring that the mentorship programme runs effectively. In some cases the mentorship programs are given formal recognition but they are made compulsory and as result create feelings of resentment for those involved. Furthermore, the pairing of a mentor and mentee may prove to be difficult especially taking into account that a failed mentorship programme does more harm to the organisation than not having a mentorship at all as it creates great distrust. Lastly and most importantly most mentorship programmes fail to empathise human connection in the programme which is really the heart of mentorship.

Potential Benefits for the Mentee

The mentee is given an opportunity to elevate professional capabilities, set and achieve career goals. Overtime they learn new skills and the ability to overcome workplace challenges. Moreover, the mentee acquires skills that are crucial for their legal career such as the ability to identify and mitigate risks to the firm, client relationship management and strategic business management. This means that overtime the mentee will develop legal, analytical and reflective skills. Furthermore, a mentorship relationship reinforces the mentee's self-confidence, their willingness to take risks and increases their job satisfaction.

Potential Benefits for the Mentor

According to a 2013 study, "Career Benefits Associated with Mentoring for Mentors," published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, mentors versus non-mentors were more satisfied with their jobs and had a stronger sense of commitment to the organisation as a whole.

The mentor is given an opportunity to improve his awareness of his own learning gaps and the ability to give and take criticism. Moreover, it gives the mentor the opportunity to analyse and develop trends affecting practical legal training and legal practice and this may result in the mentor increasing his profile in the firm. The mentor is able to improve leadership, organisational and communication skills and this may result in career advancement opportunities arising. Lastly, the mentor develops problem solving skills and has the opportunity to pass on knowledge and experience

Benefits for the Firm

According to a study by the American Society for Training and Development 70% of Fortune 500 companies have formal and informal mentorship opportunities; this includes companies such as Apple, Facebook, and JP Morgan .Mentorship programmes generally have the potential to produce a more satisfied workforce, higher staff retention, increase profitability and boost the company's reputation. This results in higher quality relationship being developed and employees developing a stronger commitment to the firm and the facilitation of knowledge transfer within a multi-generational workforce become easier.

According to a study conducted by Deloitte millennials who say they want to stay with a company more than 5 years are twice likely to have a mentor than not. Mentorship programs create a learning culture for law firms and a company culture that values learning and development whilst reducing the cost of learning and improving communication across levels.

Transformation-Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labour Relations found that mentoring programs boosted minority representation at management level by 9% to 24%. Furthermore, the study found that mentoring programs improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women from 15% to 38% as compared to non-mentored employees.


Whilst we do have five generations present in the workplace, one of the most effective ways to solve intergenerational conflicts is do individualise the solution by getting more Baby Boomers to mentor Millennials. Firms ought to invest in their mentorship programmes because mentoring is one of the most critical and effective ways of preparing candidate attorneys for a tough and challenging legal industry; and the production of highly competent and skilled candidate attorneys is a shared responsibility among various stakeholders in the legal profession.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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