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There is no doubt that the priorities of the Gen Z lawyer are different from those of previous generations. A term generally used to refer to those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, Gen Z covers a cohort of young lawyers now entering the workforce and predicted to account for 27 percent of the global employee base by 2025. They bring with them some unique attributes that employers cannot afford to overlook.

Gen Z values

Given there will soon be more Gen Zers than Baby Boomers working full-time, general counsel and heads of legal need to understand their different sets of values, behaviours and expectations. Data from LinkedIn shows 63% of Gen Z employees think working for a company that shares their values is important, while a further 32% hope to work with an employer that invests in responsible and sustainable business.

“There is no doubt that principles and values are playing a bigger role in employment decisions for the younger generation,” says Simon Edwards, partner in the commercial team at Trowers & Hamlins. “The question for leaders of legal departments is how can they best cater to the demands of Gen Z to continue to attract and retain top talent.”

Simon recently hosted an insightful panel session at the Enterprise GC Conference discussing this issue with an assistant general counsel and three aspiring young lawyers. Speaking to those starting out in the profession, it is clear that ESG, ethics and values are something they want future employers to pay more than just lip-service to.

Jasmin Chiu, a recently qualified solicitor working in-house at McArthurGlen Group, says: “For me personally, the environmental aspects of ESG were important when I was applying for roles. ESG is not new, so when I was looking at companies and law firms I was looking to see the results of what companies had actually achieved. It is no longer about just setting net zero targets and aspirational goals, but showing results.”

Lucy Gun, a legal graduate working in-house at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, says: “Gen Z are really curious and we like to ask a lot of questions. It is okay not to have all the answers, but we do like to know what companies are investing in and whether they are looking creatively at better ways of doing business.”

There is a growing emphasis from new entrants to the profession on not just what they can do for an employer, but what the employer can do for them and for their community. Gen Z have a sharper eye for organisations that prioritise not only profits, but also people and planet.

“From a recruitment perspective, this is often a question that comes up,” says Natalie Hunt, Assistant General Counsel, Group at Johnson Matthey. “I’m very lucky to work for a company that is one of the global leaders in sustainable technologies, so we have a strong story and a good set of values around ethics, compliance, sustainability and the environment. But this is certainly something we need to be increasingly aware of as employers, as it is something that potential employees will check out.”

The exciting thing for young lawyers is that in-house legal teams are often playing a key role in the ESG initiatives of their businesses, whether that is driving the agenda on corporate ethics, environmental compliance or reporting to shareholders on these topics.

Career development and wellbeing

In a highly competitive recruitment market, it is true to say that ESG will not be the only thing that a Gen Z candidate is focused on, and it may not even be the deal-breaker. Demonstrating commitment in the balance with other factors will, however, make a big difference when it comes to holding on to bright people.

Phoebe Clements, a commercial paralegal currently completing her Legal Practice Certificate at McArthurGlen Group, says: “In reality, when looking for a first job, ESG is important but we are also looking for work-life balance, work from home options, financial stability, job security and career opportunities.”

Jasmin adds: “When we first start a job, we don’t necessarily feel the only way to advance career-wise is by climbing up the ladder in the same company for 15-20 years. That is quite uncommon in the mentality of Gen Z. So in terms of retaining Gen Z talent, businesses that really focus on wellbeing and ESG are going to be the ones that do well by encouraging our generation to want to stay and progress internally.”

Natalie notes that many next-gen lawyers are attracted to in-house roles because of the variety of opportunities for career development on offer. “A legal career in a law firm can be a bit more traditional,” she says. “Many in-house legal teams are quite small, with flatter structures, so we are looking to develop the talent coming in in different ways. We like to give our young lawyers different opportunities, working closely alongside the business on a variety of projects, to give them that space to learn and develop.”

All those on the panel championed the importance of wellbeing and mental health, with new recruits spending time on social media trying to gauge how well potential employers treat their teams, and wanting to see proper initiatives in action when they arrive.

“It is not enough to just be reactive as an employer,” says Lucy. “Investing money into projects, wellbeing initiatives and diversity networks is one thing, but if you are not evaluating them and making sure they are bringing benefits to people in your business, then they won’t make a difference.”

Actions speak louder

“This is all really positive progress,” says Simon. “Many of these conversations are new to legal teams, where there has not always been a history of talking about looking after ourselves and prioritising our values.  Although embracing new ways of working can be challenging, it poses an exciting opportunity for employers to look at how they can best nurture and develop talent coming through the ranks”

So what are the key takeaways for employers looking to hire the brightest, idealistic young legal minds?

  • Engaging aspirational, principled new lawyers requires walking the walk, not just talking the talk - companies should make sure they can show their initiatives are authentic and demonstrate impact. Topics like ESG and diversity, equity and inclusion are not new, so young lawyers are looking to see evidence of action and results now, not just ambitions for the future.
  • Embrace social media - Gen Z lawyers are checking social media, and not corporate websites, to understand a business culture and what is really happening on the ground.
  • Look for career development opportunities for your young lawyers – Gen Zers are keen to learn new skills and develop themselves, so be open to what wider opportunities there may be in the business.
  • Prioritise open, two-way communication – Gen Zers are used to sharing their views, so look to engage with them whenever you can. And don't forget other generations in these conversations as it is important to make sure you continue to meet the needs of your whole team working alongside each other in the profession.

Gen Z may be thinking differently, but their voices are not ones any legal team can or should overlook in this fast-changing market.

First published in The In-House Lawyer publication – June 2024