Moving forward from the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants narrative

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Written by Paul Caddy, Head of Insight, with Samantha​​​​ Hope, Emerging Talent Manager, both at Shoosmiths.

Marc Prensky is a writer and speaker on education, credited with popularising the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’. In an article in 2001, he talked about what a digital native is.

As he said: “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text … They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.” Digital immigrants, on the other hand, are ‘old school’, relics from a pre-digital era. To a degree, they always retain, in the words of Prensky, “their foot in the past”.

In a world where, it would seem, our attention spans can only now be measured by an electron microscope it’s tempting to compartmentalise people and generalise things into, say, yes/ no, right/ wrong, digital native/ digital immigrant. This allows us to process an otherwise overwhelming amount of information. And this is why we’re fascinated by simple stories of good against evil, superheroes against villains. Over the years, I’d wager that a fair amount of popcorn has been spilt on cinema floors as moviegoers sit on the edge of their seats fretting about who’ll win such binary battles.

But life is nuanced. Complexity is baked into our world.

Twenty-three years after Prensky’s article, can we truly split the world into just digital natives and digital immigrants?

I write this as a Generation X-er. I’m certainly not a digital native—I’m a few years too old for that—but I don’t feel like a digital immigrant either. So, what does that make me? Does it matter? Does compartmentalising lawyers into such groups help or hinder law firms understand what skills and experience younger lawyers and senior lawyers need to bring with them to the job?

Recent debates and research indicate that terms like ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ may be more fiction than fact.

On the one hand, many digital natives don’t always, contrary to popular discourse, have a ‘natural’ ability to use technology. On the other hand, many digital immigrants can be as technically proficient as their younger peers. The upshot? The differences between the generations may not be as clear cut and stark as they seem.

In 2019, for example, a Harvard Business Review article said that generational differences on all matters (and not just digital ones) were “quite small” and that the real issue in hand wasn’t the differences between generations per se, but a perception that they existed between these groups. And such perceptions can interfere with how we work together, with worrying effects on how people are managed. The HBR article also suggested that personality differences might be more important than generational differences.

Therefore we should be careful of claims like ‘all people joining law firms now are digital experts’. This kind of talk can make the gap between the generations seem bigger than it is. The pandemic, for example, showed how, in the main, the old and the young stood together in solidarity, even though COVID tended to hurt the former more and the measures to protect society, such as lockdown, hurt the latter more.

But there are some areas, we think, where younger lawyers can bring their experiences to the table. They are, for example, the first cohort in history to grow up with social media. Keen to find out what this means for law firms now, I had a chat with my colleague, Samantha Hope, Emerging Talent Manager at Shoosmiths.

“Smart Gen Z’ers are working to reduce screentime, but many still spend time on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok”, she told me. The downside to social media use is well known: it “often comes with a bad reputation for mindless scrolling”. But the upside is that “these platforms hold immense potential for legal research, outreach, and education”.

Take accounts like @TheTikTokLawyer. These types of accounts “share a mix of content, raising awareness of current legal trends, careers advice and entertaining memes seeing them gaining views upwards of 2 million on each post”. She noted, “from a personal and professional profile-raising perspective, you can’t argue that their ability to adapt to using technology in this way gives young lawyers bigger networks in real life too that can and will open doors”.

But these accounts are for more than networking. Samantha told me that, “many younger lawyers use them to uncover relevant information, track industry trends, and even connect with potential employers and clients”. The result? “Their understanding of online communication strategies can enhance a firm’s digital presence and marketing efforts”. “Could this be a law firm’s secret weapon?”, she asked. 

Samantha pointed to research by TBD Marketing, reported in The Lawyer in May 2024, which underscores her point: “leading law firms were ranked based on trainee solicitor activity on LinkedIn, revealing a clear correlation between digital engagement and networking success”. Many mid-tier UK firms, who actively embrace digital tools like LinkedIn, “understand the power of networking, and the importance of embracing these strengths in junior lawyers”. “Social media, often demonised for its frivolous nature, holds real potential for the legal sphere”.

Pairing seasoned lawyers with younger associates could allow for knowledge transfer where the latter could introduce their insights and experience to the former. (NB. This is the point where I put my Gen-X hand up and ask for help). 

Samantha concluded by saying, “such a two-way exchange fosters a culture that reveres both tradition and innovation. In this new legal landscape, experience and ingenuity won’t clash, but intertwine.” 

It’s clear to me that to build the law firms of the future, we need to focus on our shared experiences like we did during the pandemic, rather than our occasional differences. If we emphasise the ‘us’ and ‘our’ instead of the ‘we’ and ‘them’, then we’ll create law firms which are ready for the digital future; a future where all generations can bring their unique experiences to the table.

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