I am always eager to read the reflections of senior lawyers who have been admitted 50 years, which are distributed at our annual dinner. They are a great reflection on how law practice has changed, but also how it somehow remains fundamentally the same. They also are a testament to how many lawyers continue to practice well beyond their normal retirement age.
Our current president-elect of the United States is 70. His opponent was 69. Both were striving for the most powerful and perhaps demanding position in the world. The Supreme Court of the United States has a number of justices over 80. Virtually, all of them are far beyond the required retirement age at some law firms.
The reality is that many senior lawyers and judges are, from a functionality standpoint, far “younger” than their chronological age. Mandatory retirement ages at firms were usually instituted at a time in which there was a desire to make room for an increasing number of younger lawyers pushing up from the bottom looking for the metaphorical light shining through the tree tops. Moreover, some firms found difficult the issue of reducing the compensation of more senior attorneys who were still taking a share of the pie in excess of their current contribution, i.e., based on their contribution of days gone by. And there is always the reality that the capability of some senior lawyers does in fact diminish, and there must be a way of easing those lawyers out. But there are a variety of ways to accomplish this without mandatory retirements.
Some firms have phase-down periods (at least with respect to compensation); others have of counsel programs; others have the right to allow a senior partner to go beyond the firm’s retirement age and to remain with the firm if a predetermined percentage of partners vote to keep them; and others simply allow senior attorneys to continue to practice as long as they want.
The reality is that many senior lawyers are at their peak as a lawyer in practicing the art of personal persuasion (whether it be to a client, a judge, a jury or opposing counsel). They might not be able to put in the hours of their younger selves or be as adept with the latest technology, but they are able to “get the ball across the goal line.” For boxers, it was called ring savvy, acquired only after time and a sufficient number of fights. But acquisition of ring savvy for a boxer was usually accompanied at a certain point by an erosion of the physical skills so necessary for that profession. But our profession is simply different. Mental capacity for a lawyer does not erode the way physical capacity does for an athlete (Tom Brady, unfortunately, excepted!).
Advantages of experience
A lawyer brings to the table at any interaction the wisdom gained from a lifetime of experience and the gravitas earned by a reputation developed over a career; an appreciation for the nuances of the complexities of modern life and conflicting goals and desires; and an ability to navigate those difficult waters by choosing a path that is not only technically right but right from a practical standpoint.
I guess it’s the same analysis by which my wife, when boarding an airplane, always breathes a sigh of relief when the pilot has some gray hair. This is not to suggest that senior lawyers should want to practice forever, even though some of my colleagues wish to do so for reasons ranging from the fact that they love what they do, to the fact some must do so for economic reasons. There are also a wide variety of avenues open to “senior” lawyers after retirement, ranging from doing pro bono work, to volunteering, to traveling, to viewing the next phase of life as “going back to college” with money in your pocket, no tuition and no finals to cram for.
The Monroe County Bar Association has a Senior Lawyers Committee chaired by Joan Brimlow that brings senior lawyers together to share experiences, to listen to great speakers, and to take a position on significant issues facing our profession. If you qualify, please consider joining today!
Mark J. Moretti is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is the leader of Phillips Lytle LLP’s construction litigation practice team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.