Thought leadership from our experts

Gen X hits its stride

Just as we're seeing in global politics – Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau – we have been witnessing the emergence of Generation X leaders in the IP arena – Etienne Saez de Acedo (the INTA chief executive), Sarah Matheson (AIPPI Reporter General) and Alexander Ramsay (Chair of the Unified Patent Court Preparatory Committee) are just a few prominent examples.

So far, however, I have yet to read much about Generation X management in law firms. We have all heard stories about the "baby boomers" not wanting to retire, the ones whose clients will have to be pried "out of my cold dead hands". We also hear about how firms are learning to manage Generations Y and Z, not to mention the Millennials.

But in recent years, it seems evident that the arrival of Generation X leadership in law firms is affecting the workplace, and much of this is the result of having more women taking management roles in their companies or firms.

Obviously, there are fewer women in our domain, but I think you only have to look around you to see how they are contributing to both notable and subtle changes that are shaping how we work.

Yes, there are fewer women but look around you – the ones who reached leadership positions are making a difference. I remember working with a General Counsel who completely changed the shape of a case she was in charge of by putting together a collaborative team that nobody had considered. Her idea was the exact opposite of proposing a single leader hoping to impress and intimidate, an approach I associate with the stories about the Old Boys' networks. Instead, she brought together an unusual team of people from various backgrounds while requiring hands-on collaboration from everyone, a strategy that made a drastic change in the outcome of the case.

There has also been a marked shift in how IP specialists are advising clients and colleagues, which I also attribute to the arrival of Generation X women: Often, we see highly efficient, bullet-point presentations of a case's complexities and potential outcomes, whereas before, a lawyer's advice might consist of an overly cautious 20-page summary on luxury letterhead – after hours of teleconferencing and 'facetime.'

In large part, these shifts reflect the growing demands from all stakeholders – not just us in the legal profession, but our clients as well – for an improved work-life balance, as Generation X comes to the fore.

We see this in our own associations: More young, highly motivated practitioners are getting involved, thanks to targeted efforts to bring them on board. Behind many of these efforts are Gen X leaders – including more women – coming into their own either within the association or in their own firms.

What else has changed? As millennials – both male and female – increasingly demand support in their legal careers, more Gen X leaders are choosing to support them.

I can remember that just a few years ago, it felt that you had to earn the right to join IP associations, let alone to actively participate. It was a little like trying to get yourself initiated to knighthood: years and years of hard apprenticeship. The founder of my own firm, along with many other talented practitioners of his generation, set out on his own only after remaining an associate for more than a decade, paying for any commitments, travel expenses and association fees out of his own pocket.

The old path of being shephered into an Old Boys club – despite the appearance of a highly defined path for moving up, including a longtime boss and tightknit collaborations with a small group of fellow initiates – is at odds with the flexibility required to work efficiently, in a spirit of collaboration.

And let's face it, providing support for our colleagues also creates a nicer work environment, something that comes to feel more of a necessity than a luxury in our fast-paced, high-pressure world.

Even as things change, I still hear regularly about women from around the world who give up before hitting the prime of their legal careers (In my own backyard, the Paris Bar statistics in this regard are sobering). And with fewer women reaching the leadership track, there are naturally fewer that make it to partnership.

But you hear far less a Gen X partner being derided as 'hysterical' – a favorite critique against Baby Boomer women – and their teams are built on collaboration, with younger partners actively involved in helping clients chart their strategies, including acting as co-counsel.

These teams are also remarkable for their inclusiveness, which might simply reflect the fact that Gen X has generally traveled more and are used to working in multicultural teams. Thinking about this always reminds me of the French hit "L'Auberge Espagnole" (The Spanish Apartment), about the foreign exchange students, or "Before Sunset" and it sequels.

As an example, our firm is a French IP boutique, but our trainees regularly come from Asia or the Americas. And dealing with colleagues and competitors from around the world is our stock in trade: Yesterday I had a call with Uganda, before that it was Japan and Australia.

And this international cooperation is not limited to dealings with our largest multinational clients. Even smaller firms now deal with government officials, suppliers, legal professionals, engineers, designers and SMEs on all continents.

So Gen X leaders are perfectly ready, for example, to handle the Unified Patent Court or the pan-European Trademark: They've grown up being immersed in all sorts of backgrounds.

In many ways, the efforts to create more collaborative structures reflect the search for balance in modern life, and the growing belief that success as a legal expert shouldn't require sacrifices that had long been required, both of men and women. Is that a feminist attitude? Maybe, but if so, it's one that I know a lot of men would champion.