Baby-boomer attorneys have options other than retirement

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by David R. French

There is a reality to law firms, one that everyone knows about but that is often ignored, in hopes it won’t happen to them. It is the obligatory phasing out of senior attorneys as they enter the sunset of their careers.

Law firms by nature are Darwinian, and older attorneys who in many cases require higher salaries and a corner office may sometimes be viewed only as valuable as the money they bring in. At the same time, retirement and grandchildren beckon, and health problems can begin to escalate, so it is understandable when a senior attorney’s billing begins to fade. When this happens, a firm pragmatically must begin to look to younger, fresher, hungrier lawyers who will work longer hours. But what to do about those loyal senior attorneys who gave many years of their lives to build up the firm?

This group of senior attorneys is growing steadily as life expectancy rates of baby boomers rise, and they may feel slighted when firms push them to give up their practice. Law firms sometimes offer healthy retirement packages, but lawyers are a breed of workaholics and the idea of being phased out from a full-time schedule to full retirement is often a scary notion. Law firms, however, risk losing a valuable resource when they show these senior attorneys the door. Instead, firms might consider finding new opportunities to retain the wisdom and knowledge gained from a lifetime of practice, while giving the attorney a renewed sense of purpose and loyalty.

Not every senior attorney or firm will be able to find an agreeable solution for both sides, which may require the senior attorney to find a new home or simply retire, but for those willing and able to maintain a relationship, repurposing a senior attorney may be a beneficial solution for everyone.

Repurposing a senior attorney does not mean finding busywork to make them feel useful, but it can be as simple as inviting them to participate in mentorship programs or help young attorneys to network with clients and colleagues. After discussing options with these senior attorneys, repurposing may include internal development, external relations, or a combination of both, depending on ability and desire.

A senior attorney who turns to internal development can become the ideal person to help coach young attorneys in specific skillsets, such as writing or research. They could also mentor these young attorneys. Often, a senior attorney’s biggest strength is client relationships developed over the years. Young attorneys may benefit from being coached on the particulars of internal client relationships and on how to build a book of business, both from business development and community association levels. Senior attorneys may also be skilled at cross-selling the firm to represent a client on multiple issues, which is a vital business skill for young attorneys.

Additionally, because senior attorneys may have more time available, they can free up the highest-potential earning partners by assisting with training and draft reviews for junior attorneys. Finally, a senior attorney might consider participating in or managing a firm’s pro bono program or Continuing Legal Education initiatives.

Not every senior attorney is well-suited to or interested in mentoring younger lawyers, but they may excel at external relations. This may include tasks like setting several meetings a week with people listed in their “rolodex” and inviting firm attorneys who may benefit from networking with those connections. These network contacts do not even have to be specific to the senior attorney’s industry or clientele, nor need it only be younger attorneys invited to the meeting; one never knows when it will come in handy to have a relationship with a business or industry leader.

Externally-focused senior attorneys may also fulfill the traditional role of transitioning clients to younger lawyers, with the added benefit of having more time than top-billing attorneys to coach the younger attorney on particular issues or preferences of a client.

For senior attorneys uninterested in being repurposed, they still may play an important role as a figurehead or ambassador for the firm, protecting the reputation and provision of connections for firm clients.

Firms that retain senior attorneys instead of forcing them to retirement may be better able to maximize the potential of both the oldest and youngest attorneys in the firm. This enables a firm to receive a return on its investment in a long term employee, while also increasing income and work quality from young attorneys.