As baby boomers continue to push past 65, firms are faced with the dilemma succinctly posed by Paul McCartney, “Will they still need [them], will they still feed [them], when [they’re] 64?” Partners are invaluable contributors to law firms. Their experience and business generation are the pillars that support the behemoth of Biglaw, but concerns about mandatory retirement center around two key questions: how do we safeguard ourselves against the inevitable decline of acuity, and how do we ensure that junior partners don’t pile up on the ladder to business succession if partners postpone retirement?
For the former, a plethora of research has shown that cognitive decline is slowed by mental stimulation, which law provides in spades. Pegging the retirement age to a national standard assumes uniform decline which may not be the case. That being said, the higher incidences of alcohol abuse and inadequate sleep among attorneys likely diminishes some of these gains.
For the latter, later retirements mean a logjam at the top of the business succession chain. Though the baby boomer generation opened up the ranks for a lot more partner positions, Biglaw could face a lost generation of partners who are being crowded out of clients by the late-retiring baby boomers.
Firms risk potentially alienating their junior attorneys by catering to the tried and proven. The long-term impact of such policies could be disastrous, which is why many firms are turning to succession plans to keep all parties happy.
Roughly half of Am Law 200 firms have some mandatory retirement policy. Not all stipulate retirement at 65 — most range roughly from 63-68, with different protocols as to how to deal with retiring attorneys. Some firms will transition partners into counsel positions where they can practice while transferring their clients and work to younger partners with longer runways, and others broach the topic of the impending retirement a year or two in advance to ease the partner’s transition out of the law firm.
Not all policies are made equal. Some firms advertise a mandatory retirement age but are willing to skirt it for rainmakers or make other “special exceptions.” That being said, many firms openly embrace lateral partners beyond the mandatory retirement age.
The drop-off in practicing attorneys from age 65 to age 70 is precipitous, especially compared to the U.S. overall population. One slightly confounding variable is the fact that 91.4 percent of partners over the age of 65 are male, who represent a lower percentage of the 65+ population.
Major Am Law 200 firms vary in their commitment to enforce mandatory retirement ages. Some firms take a strict approach to mandatory retirement, like Bradley Arant and Knobbe Martens, who have almost no attorneys over 65 years of age. On the other hand, Holland & Knight, Greenberg Traurig, Duane Morris, and K&L Gates tend to eschew the mandatory retirement requirement.
Promoting partners and associates to create a path to leadership positions, or rewarding them with lucrative client relationships, are efficient ways to seamlessly transfer responsibility to younger lawyers. At the same time, moving client relationships to younger partners also puts the firm at risk. Unless the firm feels the partner is loyal, or at least loyal enough, the firm may not want to transition the relationships too early in a partner’s career.
While the distribution of aging lawyers is trending upwards, firms may have to rethink their insistence on mandatory retirement and succession planning. Relying on a firm mandatory retirement deadline hurts both the lawyer and the firm, especially if there is no succession plan in place. Firms are wiser to ease the severity of the rule and instead impose a soft transition period on a case-by-case basis during which the lawyer could operate in a mentoring capacity to facilitate a smoother transfer of responsibility and relationships.
Executing a proper plan easily solves the dilemmas brought about by mandatory retirement. While identifying an aging leadership problem is helpful, creating and executing an actual plan is a necessity. If your firm needs to benchmark their leadership, or wishes to learn practices to cope with mandatory retirement, my colleagues at Lateral Link are happy to share their suggestions and help you craft a game plan based on their real experience with and knowledge of the Am Law 200 law firm market.