Blending generations comes naturally for century-old law firm
In the chic, tastefully styled meeting room/lounge in the basement of a heritage building on Moncton’s Main Street, lawyers Scott Ellsworth and Jonathan Lutes are discussing a project.
Their communication is open and comfortable. They are both focused on aspects of a train of thought they want to explain.
Ellsworth is the Managing Partner of Ellsworth Johnson & Partners, a century-old law firm. A baby boomer, he is working in the practice where his father worked before him, and his son, Jeff, now works with him.
Lutes, on the other hand, is a millennial worker and a non-family member in this firm. Besides his legal credentials, he brought a degree in computer science and one in psychology to the table. He left a larger firm to join this smaller boutique firm as he got married and started a family, because he could see great career options there and a chance to live and work in balance as his generation desires.
In the eyes of many academic researchers studying generational issues in the workplace, the ability of these two to work together is incongruous. It’s not supposed to work this well; blending multi-generations and family and non-family in family businesses is often a recipe for conflict and anxiety.
Ellsworth acknowledges he’s heard about the research (such as PwC’s Next Gen: A global generational study) but he and the other members of the firm have instinctively found a way to cross that bridge by using open communication and the ability to trust.
“For us having many generations work together is a tremendous advantage, not a conflict. We are set up to work as teams and we share files. Working like that, each generation gets the best of each other.”
For Ellsworth, the managing partner is ideally suited to give coaching and guidance to the next generation.
“We older lawyers bring the benefit of experience, and that is very important in a business like ours. We also offer full support so that the younger lawyers don’t feel they are totally on their own. And it is part of our corporate culture to really listen to our younger lawyers and respond to their needs. This is the way we are going to ensure the transition of our business from one generation to the next, and keep our business sustainable. It doesn’t matter if it is a family member or not; we need a blend of both and we strive to keep it that way.”
For Lutes, what he receives in guidance from his mentors in the firm is invaluable as he works to build up his experience and skill. At the same time, he knows he brings something of value to the table as well.
“The younger lawyers in our firm have a good grasp on new technology and we have input and are listened to in this regard. That’s one of the things I love about this firm: it has always stayed current and it has a reputation for that. I knew when I came here that they would provide me with the technological tools I expected. Their openness to new ideas in this area gave me optimism right from the start that my ideas would be heard on other matters as well.”
Lutes says the more senior members of the firm are always open to discussing new approaches and methods, something he knows from colleagues is not the same in many firms.
“It really is all about feeling you are part of the team and that your work has value,” he says.
Is the value of teamwork and open communication reflected throughout the rest of the firm as well?
“We make a real effort to ensure that it is,” says Ellsworth. “We are very careful to make sure that people fit well together and get along well here as part of our hiring process.”
Even though many of the lawyers and paralegals with the firm have made it their lifetime’s work, Ellsworth said the partners are aware that people will come and go and they take pride in ensuring that every lawyer who spends time with them emerges with more knowledge and skill than when they arrived.
“We like to say we have trained and released about 25 really good lawyers into the system,” he says. “We stay on good terms and we are happy when they achieve success. That’s what it’s all about.”
That’s why the firm always has a steady stream of bright, young lawyers lining up to work with it.
“Scott never needs to shout that he needs someone,” says Lutes. “If people hear there is a vacancy, they line up. That says as much about the firm as the stream of clients.”
The attention to new team members is important to a law firm marking its 100th birthday this year because each generation is conscious that the firm must re-invent itself every 20 to 25 years if it is to survive and flourish.
“We are strategic in ensuring that each generation is ready when their time arrives to take the helm,” he says, noting that the number of family firms that fail after the third generation is largely because of a failure to pay attention to succession planning.
The formula obviously holds value as the business now moves into its fifth generation after 100 years of success.
What is also intriguing and tends to go against today’s workplace trends is the fact that not only do the lawyers stay a long time, but so does the paralegal staff.
“When I joined the firm in 1976, I learned more from Norma West, a paralegal who had been hired as a 19-year-old by Tuttle Goodwin in the 1920s and was still working here when I arrived, than I could have from many lawyers,” Ellsworth says.
When Norma West retired, Ellen Steeves-Allen joined the firm and remains there, 38 years later. Pierrette Cormier joined shortly after as a litigation paralegal and she has remained for 36 years. Lauren Fillmore, Bruce Johnson’s legal assistant, has been with him for 40 years. Amanda Stokes, the “newcomer”, with 8 years of service, rounds out the support staff.
“Lauren and the others helped me so much and they still do, every day,” said Lutes. “Their experience is just invaluable.”
“And that loyalty to the firm speaks for itself,” says Ellsworth. “They have grounding in the community and they mentor the younger lawyers very well. They are the backbone of the business.”
Started in 1916 by Tuttle Goodwin, Ellsworth Johnson & Partners now offers services in nine general practice areas: corporate and commercial law, corporate restructuring and insolvency, civil litigation and advocacy, wills and estate planning, real estate and business transactions, labour and employment law, personal injury and insurance claims, family law and collaborative law, and criminal and administrative law.
What is the secret to the long-term survival of a successful boutique law firm?
Ellsworth and Lutes both think for a minute and they simultaneously come up with the same answer.
“People don’t talk very much about trust today as a workplace strategy but it really is the only sound foundation for a business. You have to win the trust of your clients to sustain your business. You have to win the trust of the new generation to grow your business. And you have to have the trust of your current staff to ensure that everything that needs to be done every day gets done,” says Ellsworth.
The firm's motto comes to mind: A Tradition of Trust … A Commitment to Excellence. This is their mission statement 100 years later.