When Kelley Drye recently settled the age discrimination complaint that the EEOC had filed on behalf of a seventy-nine-year old former equity partner, the focus turned to whether law firms could adopt mandatory retirement policies. The conventional wisdom is that they’re a bad idea — maybe even unlawful age discrimination. The policy argument is that people live longer; those who are productive should be able to keep working; everyone should be compensated according to the value added.
The legal defense of mandatory retirement policies is that true partners are employers and, therefore, outside the law’s protections afforded employees. The rebuttal is that most partners in today’s big firms have little say over their fate, so should they get whatever benefits the law provides, including compensation based on their contributions.
As framed, the debate is incomplete.
Mandatory retirement is a misnomer. The issue isn’t whether partners can continue practicing law at their firms. Rather, the question is whether they should remain equity partners in a world where achieving that status is increasingly difficult. In other words, the dispute isn’t about any senior attorney’s devotion to the practice of law; it’s about the money he or she should get paid for doing it.
No one told Eugene D’Ablemont that he couldn’t continue working on his client matters. Indeed, he did for more than a decade after reaching Kelley Drye’s equity partner age limit of seventy. He simply wanted compensation appropriate for his economic contribution to the firm.
Salary as a “lifetime partner” (plus a bonus) wasn’t enough for him, even though Kelley Drye reportedly asserted in response to the original complaint that D’Ablemont billed only between 195 and 324 hours a year during the late 2000s. But he’d mustered letters from two clients who said that his personal involvement in their affairs over many years meant that his inability to take the lead on future matters “created a rather difficult situation” for the company.
Ay, there’s the rub.
The problematic dark side
Most big law firms have evolved — or devolved — into short-term bottom-line businesses. An eat-what-you-kill approach to compensation encourages partners to keep client relationships away from others who might claim billing credit when year-end reviews roll around. Likewise, the lateral hiring frenzy makes such behavior even more important to attorneys who want to preserve their options and demonstrate their dollar value.
As a result, aging partners have no reason to institutionalize clients by nurturing relationships with younger lawyers. For those who have little or no desire to confront either their own mortality or the prospect of life after their big firm careers, the incentives of most firms are unambiguous: keep what you have and try to keep anyone else from claiming any part of it.
Who benefits from this system? Equity partners who have already pulled up the ladder on the next generation by promoting fewer lawyers and making them wait longer.
Who suffers? Young attorneys who want opportunities and training. Apart from blockage and embedding economic interests in an aging group that is myopically self-interested, the system offers no reason for senior lawyers to become mentors.
What is collateral damage? The firms themselves. The failure of elders to encourage their clients to trust the firm’s next generation produces long-term institutional instability.
At the heart of the problem is a short-term metrics-driven model that fails to guide aging partners to productive lives after the law. Aric Press suggests ways that firms could do better. Meanwhile, the absence of mandatory retirement rules for equity partners will make existing intergenerational tensions worse as they undermine the fabric of many firms.
Again, no one is saying that such elders can’t continue practicing for as long as they want. But that doesn’t require hanging on to a slice of the equity pie.
As for clients who worry about a “difficult situation” that might result if their long-time counselor will no longer be lead attorney into his or her eighties, consider this: eventually, everyone dies. There’s nothing that even the EEOC can do about that.