Many, many United States males were engaged in World War II. About nine months after the war ended, more babies were born in 1946 than ever before, some 20% more than in 1945. This baby growth continued each year until it finally tapered off around 1964. By then this group of 76.4 million births was referred to as the baby boomers, the largest generation of Americans born in U.S. history.
My home state, which has a lot of public employees, has realized they need to immediately attract some younger workers. Currently 42% of all state employees are baby boomers. Only 17% were born between 1981-2000 (so-called millennials). The rate of retirements in state government has increased 50% over the last ten years. So the state is suddenly trying to change its approach when it realized the effect of the baby boomer employees’ ages.
So, time marches on and this huge span of people has cycled through the normal progression of school, marriage, jobs, children and now retirement. Lawyers, being an independent lot, do not necessarily follow the traditional idea of retirement. In fact, many never plan to retire and some say “You cannot make me”. Therein lies an issue for all law offices to consider and to plan ahead.
Perhaps lawyers employed in government or business enterprises might fit more into the traditional retirement view. However, I see the lawyers in independent practices less likely to be willing to hang it up. But, like Kenny Rogers sings: “You have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” An emeritus law professor friend of mine says the key thing is to know when it is time for you to retire from the practice of law. I have noted in other articles aging issues as new risks for law firms (September 2, 2014) and alternative work arrangements being readily available (August 2, 2013). When I started in the practice, lawyers did not have pension plans and, most often, worked until they keeled over. By the 1974 enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), lawyers started paying into plans and can now, and do, retire.
In recent years there has been litigation by large firm lawyers as to whether they were true partners or not and whether the mandatory retirement ages in firms were valid. Some argued age discrimination in the process based upon their facts unique to their status whether they were owners or just employees.
The well-known law firm advisors of Altman Weil, Inc. recently wrote in a copyright 2015 article that firms needed to do more succession and transition planning for this aging lawyer group. My law firm had consulted with them even back to the days when Mary Ann Altman was an original principal. I refer you to the Altman Weil, Inc. author Alan R. Olson for more on their views. (Transition Assets: A Foundation for Succession Planning and Lawyer Development).
The fact remains that many firms, both large and small, have their head in the sand on this subject. You see smaller firms with people who built the practice and view it still as their firm, despite other owners they have made over time. In larger firms, the “boomers” are often now the rainmakers, practice leaders, or managers and younger members sometimes grumble, but may be afraid to force the issue. Some lawyers were just such poor managers of their money they say they cannot retire. Others feel vibrant and want to continue their practice as long as possible. Many are very valuable assets to the firms and need to be used and encouraged to continue in some way. Again, determining that way needs to be discussed.
All well and good, but for the good of a firm, there needs to be a fair plan. You may have to crack a few eggs to get scrambled eggs and toast out of the process. Reasonable arrangements can be made for those who want to practice on. There can be fair compensation in that arrangement, but not necessarily ownership after a certain point, again for the good of the firm. Sunset dates on management service or as practice group leaders may be needed in order to train up and bring on the next generation of successful firm lawyers. For those who do want to hang it up, it should be a very positive experience which allows them to stay as close to the firm as they might wish, as opposed to the litigation mentioned above.
The point here is that you cannot put this off and avoid the subject. Statistically a very big group of lawyers is now hitting the general age of retirement and you need to openly discuss how they (the boomers) and you (the younger lawyers) will effectively deal with the subject. It just has to be done and should not be an unpleasant topic if done openly and fairly. This generational change is going to happen. Firms need to quit ignoring it.