What can canned tuna teach us about law firm management?

Lawyers and writing: do you suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect?
July 11, 2017
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What can canned tuna teach us about law firm management?



Can a Millennial open a can of tuna?

In December 2018, US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel included a segment on his late-night show entitled ‘Can Millennials open a can of tuna?

The premise for the segment was based on US Department of Agriculture research that showed that sales of canned tuna have dropped by 40% over the past three decades. The tuna companies claimed that this was because Millennials don’t know how to use a can opener. In fact, most Millennials don’t even own a can opener.

The punchline of Kimmel’s skit involved stopping Millennials in the street, asking them to open a can of tuna with a can opener, and watching a train wreck unfold on national television.

It was hilarious.

The problem with cheap jokes

Yes, Jimmy Kimmel’s tuna stunt was a good joke. It was also a cheap joke.

Additional research from the large companies that manufacture tuna shows that the consumption of canned tuna has declined because Millennials are turning away from processed food for both health and environmental reasons.

So, maybe, your average Millennial isn’t such a duffer.

Perhaps, the Millennial who sits in the office next to you at work is actually onto something when they insist on eating fresh food. Quite possibly, it is the Baby Boomers and Gen X who are the duffers. After all, they are the generations that agreed to be raised on a diet of Campbell’s tomato soup, tinned fish and soft drink.

Perhaps, there are things Baby Boomers and Gen X can learn from Millennials.

What your law firm can learn from its Millennials

In the same way that Baby Boomers and Gen X can learn from the Millennial diet, I believe that law firms that want to survive and thrive in the digital era can learn a lot from Millennial employees.


The traditional structure of the average law firm, even in the 20th century, is hierarchical. While there are historical reasons for this basic structure, it does mean that the decision-making process in firms can be sluggish. As a result, firms can be slow to respond to systemic change. This is problematic in a profession that is facing increased competition and being rapidly transformed by technology.

One of the key characteristics of the traditional law firm is a command-and-control style of leadership where the partner gives the instructions and everyone else obeys. This is the culture that that Baby Boomer and Gen X lawyers grew up in. When taken too far, it can produce a work culture where bullying is the norm, people are stressed and employee health can suffer.

Interestingly, the average Millennial lawyer is not comfortable with the traditional, hierarchical law firm structure or leaders who use a command-and-control style of leadership. A Millennial won’t tolerate bullying or allow their mental health to be put in jeopardy. Rather than suffer the humiliation of a working life where they are miserable, they’ll leave. This high turnover is expensive for law firms. In the US, it is estimated that it costs law firms around $1 billion per year.

In a law firm, Millennials are looking for someone who has a collaborative or inclusive style of leadership. They want to be heard and to participate in the decision-making process. Their favourite question is ‘Why?’ because they want to understand why things are done in a certain way.

Sadly, a Baby Boomer, and possibly even a Gen X, partner will interpret this as a direct challenge to their authority.

This ‘clash of cultures’ in firms is unfortunate because Millennials have much to contribute to the law firms in which they work, especially when it comes to the way the legal profession is being transformed by digital technology.

Let’s take a closer look at the example of technology.

One thing Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials can agree on is that Millennials are comfortable with technology. They’ve been conditioned or trained to use technology to make themselves as efficient as possible. They also believe that technology leads to better quality work for their clients and, even more significantly, that it will be the key to their professional success.

If we take Australia as an example, the legal market in 2018 was further consolidated and the large commercial firms continued to expand. Three well-established 100-year-old firms (Henry Davis York, DibbsBarker and TressCox) merged with larger firms. The reasons given for these changes included:

  • increased competition for clients
  • continued growth of in-house legal teams
  • higher fixed costs
  • expansion of NewLaw alternatives
  • continued focus on the BigFour in the legal space.

What does this show us?

According to 2018 Australia: State of the Legal Market, compiled by Thomson Reuters and Melbourne Law School, ‘the firms that strategically accounted for these pressures in the previous 3–5 years remained ahead of the curve, while others had to quickly pivot their strategic direction, in some cases successfully, in others less so.’

There is no doubt that both the BigFour and NewLaw firms are placing a lot of emphasis on technology and using it to deliver a better service to their clients.

Is cross-generational collaboration the answer for law firms?

While tapping the Millennial brain isn’t the only approach to navigating an increasingly complex and challenging market for legal services, it should be taken into account when deciding on the specific course a firm is going to chart.

Ideally, law firms should be not only re-thinking their traditional hierarchical structures but also encouraging and nurturing cross-generational collaboration. This involves Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials collaborating to guide their law firms into the future.

Finally, every law firm should be getting ready to welcome Gen Z, the social media generation. Apparently, these guys are like the Millennials but on steroids.

Yes, it may be fun to show that Millennials don’t know how to use a can opener. Nevertheless, before doing it, it may be worth asking them why they refuse to eat canned fish. It may be that they have something sensible to say on the subject that we haven’t yet considered. After all, just because someone has been managing a law firm for years, doesn’t mean they have all the answers.

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