What You Can Learn From a Millennial's Work Ethic

Attorney and blogger Heather Hansen, author of The Elegant Warrior: How to Win Life’s Trials Without Losing Yourself, shares what she has learned from millennials in the office — and what they could stand to learn from her.

By Heather Hansen
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“OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR!”

I learned to object in the courtroom.

You’d think I’d have learned to object during my three years of law school, but there’s a big difference between reading and writing about objections and saying the words out loud in a court of law. The first time I had to stand up, use my voice and set my boundary in the courtroom, I was scared. 

It happened during my first real trial. It was a small case, as a trial lawyer's first trial should be. I represented a surgeon who had performed a hernia repair surgery on a patient. The patient sued, claiming that the scar was too wide and too long. Our defense was simple: The scar was as wide and long as it had to be.

The trial was almost over, and I had done all of the lawyerly things — I had opened and performed direct examinations of my client and my expert. I had cross-examined their witnesses, going toe to toe with a well-known hernia surgeon with relative ease. But any objections I’d needed to make were minor, made under my breath with no real conviction. I hadn’t stood and yelled out “objection!” loud and proud. 

We were in the closing arguments. I knew from my studies and my experience as the “second chair” (backup attorney) on many cases that you rarely object during closings. Closings are an attorney’s opportunity to argue.

To be honest, I was barely paying attention to the patient’s attorney’s closing, using the time to silently prepare my own. But then, I heard him say something that I knew was wrong — I had to object. I knew it in my head, my heart, and my gut. I glanced at him and then back down. I was afraid. What if I was wrong? What if the judge yelled at me, the attorney laughed at me and the jurors thought I was difficult or whiny?

But I knew I was right. I stood. Then I sat. Half up, half down. Anyone watching would think that I was playing some deranged game of “Whack-A-Lawyer.” Finally, I looked up at the Judge, and he gave me a look that said, “object already!” So, I did. 

Why Gen X has problems saying no at work

The Judge sustained the objection and I won the case, but I still had a lot of work to do: I had to learn to object without permission or validation. Sometimes even now, 20 years later, I still get scared when I have to object — especially when the objection is outside of the courtroom. 

I’m not alone: Gen X women like me tend to struggle with challenging or disagreeing with something because we were raised to agree and to be agreeable. Many baby boomer women suffer the same affliction, so they can’t teach us to learn to object. Hence, I contend that we need to learn from millennials. 

A 2011 MTV study found that 90% of millennials want senior leadership to listen to their input, and 76% believe their boss could learn a lot from them. They are not afraid to challenge authority because they don’t see authority figures the same way we did growing up: as people to defer to on all matters — or worse yet, to please. When I need to stand up for myself and set boundaries, I try to summon behaviors I’ve seen my millennial colleagues use. I unabashedly ask for what I need; I assume my opinions are worth airing, and I act with self-assurance. Millennials do it all the time, unafraid. And that is worth emulating.

And yet, maybe they can learn from us as well. In the courtroom, there is danger in always looking for objections. If you spend all of your time looking for objections, you miss other, important things. Young lawyers often fall into this trap: They spend so much time and energy looking for the objectionable question or argument that they may miss the piece of evidence that may win the case. They may miss the tone of voice that could signal a weakness or body language that might hide a lie.

The answer lies in a happy medium. Us Gen Xers need to learn to object when we feel we’ve been wronged in our head, heart, and gut. But millennials could also use a dose of our less-aggressive attitude. Because when you’re looking for objections, you’ll always find them — but in the process, you might also miss reasons to laugh, to celebrate and to love. 

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