A recent NY Times article revealed the baby boomer’s dilemma: await marginalization or hog opportunities. It has profound implications for big law attorneys of all ages.

“[I]n my experience, it is much harder for older partners to maintain their position if their billable hours decline,” an employment lawyer told the Times.

So a law firm consultant suggested this strategy: “Very few people are so skilled that they can’t be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner. You’ve got to be so connected to important clients that the firm is going to fear your departure.”

That’s unfortunate advice, but not surprising. Most elders don’t mentor talented proteges to assume increasing responsibilities, persuade clients that others can do equally first-rate work, or institutionalize relationships so that the firm weathers senior partner departures and prospers over the long run. Instead, they create silos — self-contained practice groups of clients and attorneys who will give them leverage in the internal battles to retain money, power, and status. (See, e.g., The Partnership) Rather than waste time gaining fellow partners’ respect, the prevailing big law model prefers fear — or, more precisely, fear of a senior partner’s lost billings.

Over time, intergenerational antagonisms result. Older partners become blockage because the leveraged pyramid that pervades big law requires adherence to short-term metrics. Artificial constraints block the promotion of well-qualified candidates who’ve given years of personal sacrifice. If there’s not economic room at equity partner decision time, their efforts will have been for naught; they’re left behind.

Meanwhile, young attorneys learn by example. “Firm” clients cease to exist; they’re absorbed into jealously guarded fiefdoms that become transportable business units. Traditional partnership principles of mutual respect and support yield to unrestrained self-interest.

Eventually, everyone loses. Young attorneys resent elders; wealthy equity partners erect futile defenses against their own inevitable decline to an unhappy place; firms lose the stability that comes with loyal clients.

For some aging big law partners, greed never retires. But for many others, hanging on isn’t about the money. As mortality rears its head, their real quest is for continuing relevance — the belief that they still have something to offer and are making a difference.

Another Times article suggested a possible way out of big law’s conundrum: encouraging partners to redirect their skills. The New York Legal Aid Society program, Second Acts, taps into the growing army of retired lawyers:

“The point is not to have distinct phases of working life and after-working life, but to meld the two by having pro bono work be part of a lawyer’s career. Therefore, when lawyers retire, they can somewhat seamlessly slip into meaningful volunteer work, said Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel at…Weil, Gotshal & Manges.”

The article described 68-year-old Steven B. Rosenfield, a former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner who traded his commercial securities practice for work in juvenile rights.

Behavior follows embedded economic structures and the incentives they create. In big law, the myopic emphasis on a handful of short-term profit-maximizing metics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — has produced blinding wealth for a few. But sometimes those metrics become less satisfying as organizing principles of life.

Firm demands have left all lawyers with little time to reflect on what their lives after big law might be. Someday, most successful big law partners will pay the price and need help finding a path that reshapes self-identity while preserving dignity. The challenge is to permit disengagement with honor.

Firms could do a great service — and improve their own long-term stability in the process — if they relieved the stigma of economic decline in ways that encouraged aging colleagues to do the right thing. But it requires thinking beyond today’s metrics that determine a partner’s current year compensation. It requires valuing what can’t be easily measured and embedding it in a firm’s culture so that reaching retirement age isn’t a shock, it’s a blessing. It requires empathy, compassion, and — most of all — leadership.

In short, it requires things that are, tragically, in very short supply throughout big law.

4 thoughts on “AGING GRACEFULLY — OR NOT

  1. I must, for once, take issue with you, Professor Harper.

    First, I don’t see that mandatory retirements of productive partners by law firms serve the law firm’s economic health.

    Second, I also believe that federal law prohibiting age discrimination extends protection to law firm partners. Some law firms have already paid hefty fines and penalties for continuing this practice which is plainly on the radar screen of the federal EEOC.

    Jerry Kowalski

    • I’m not sure it’s a question of mandatory vs. non-mandatory retirement. Rather, it’s a question of how firms define productive when it comes to aging senior partners. To me, the big issue is whether the current big law model and the culture it creates offer any incentive or encouragement for partners to engage in partner-like behavior that promotes smooth intergenerational transition. After all, no one can live — or practice law — forever.

  2. I think Harper is right to question that. When the firm culture bases not only compensation but in many cases just remaining at the firm on billings/originations/captures, you can plainly see partners paying only lip service to transition. How will it end? Well, I expect that the partners for whom being a partner in a prestigious firm is central to their self-identity will hang on for as long as they can, keeping all the client relationships firmly under their control for as long as they can do so, and probably far longer than is good for the firm. There are a lot of those. It is not always greed. I think in many cases they just have a hard time imagining doing anything else. Others will leave suddenly without preparing the firm, as they could not even signal that they were thinking of a transition without it being like blood in a shark tank. As someone said, “You gotta play the game until you don’t want to play the game anymore.”

  3. I agree with Prof. Harper that the right question is about the culture of the firms and what does a meaningful career exactly mean (assuming that it implies foregoing power, money, etc.). The model should not be greed driven, but rather allow people to phase out gradually over their career (even Warren Buffet acknowledges that one of the greatest management challenges is running an organization after your own death, luckily succession plans, values, and other long-term goals can coexist with a more pure profit-driven model).

    As you said, who really wants to practice forever? and could you do it even if you wanted to?

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