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Law Firms Weigh Retirement Rules as Baby Boomers Keep Practicing

April 3, 2019, 8:51 AM

Baby Boomers are edging near and crossing over customary retirement age, but an expected wave of partner departures has yet to surface since many lawyers are working past 65, and some into their 70s.

Firms are facing choices about how to grapple with the fact that many Baby Boomers—the massive generation born between 1946 and 1964—aren’t looking to leave their practices anytime soon.

“Around 84.3 percent of Big Law attorneys who are age 60 are partners,” said Michael Allen, the principal of legal recruiter Lateral Link, which draws its research from a database of some 300,000 law firm job candidates. When law firm partners reach age 69, the percentage declines but a healthy number, 64 percent, are still firm partners, he noted.

Some firms have mandatory retirement ages and other limits on attorneys’ practices after a certain juncture. But plenty of them don’t.

Whether to mandate retirement is complicated for law firms looking to continue positive relationships with longtime partners, while at the same time ensuring those partners’ client relationships are passed smoothly along to the next generation.

Even broaching the subject of mandatory retirement can be tough for firms since many lawyers entering their 70s are healthier, are capable of working longer and love to practice law.

“Clients tell me all the time—65 is the new 45,” said Thomas Clay, a principal at Altman Weil, a management consulting service for legal organizations. “People do not want to retire.”

Time to Retire

Though Boomer attorneys might want to keep practicing beyond retirement age, some firms simply don’t allow it. It’s difficult to ascertain precisely which Big Law firms are implementing mandatory retirement, since many are reluctant to highlight these requirements due to concerns they’ll disrupt a smooth transition from an older generation of lawyers to younger firm partners.

According to law firm database Leopard Solutions, some Big Law players list relatively few partners in their 60s and older. These include: Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Kirkland & Ellis; and Latham & Watkins.

The most elite firms, with firm-subsidized retirement plans, may find it easier to ease out partners because they leave with a generous retirement package.

Other firms offer financial subsidies to ease transitions of client business to a younger generation, but it’s a negotiation. Some firms make it part of their overall succession, and hire consultants to map out a specific plan for senior partners to sign onto.

Some firms opt to tamp down partners’ leadership responsibilities beyond a certain age.

When Jeffrey Hammes announced recently that he would be leaving his top leadership role at Kirkland & Ellis early next year, the firm said its policy requires that an executive committee member step down in the fiscal year after he or she turns 60 years old.

However, when age-based restrictions kick in, some attorneys will respond by simply finding another firm.

At Mitchell Silverberg & Knupp in Washington, D.C., Mark Bravin, head of its international dispute resolution practice, left his partnership at Winston & Strawn in 2016 when he hit the firm’s prescribed 65-year-old “decompression” mark.

“I’ve been doing this work since 1979 and I love what I do,” said Bravin, 67, who has represented the government of India, plaintiffs suing Iran’s government and Ecuador in a high-profile lawsuit involving oil giant Chevron. “I get a lot of satisfaction in helping people solve complicated problems.”

Holding on to the Baton

Many attorneys aren’t being asked by their firms to retire or wind down their work. At 72, H. Thomas Davis, partner at Wall Street law firm Carter Ledyard & Milburn, is one of them.

“I think I do a good job. I enjoy my colleagues and my clients in the software and technology fields,” said Davis, who chairs the firm’s intellectual property department. “I’m going to practice as long as I feel I’m making a contribution.”

Like about half of the top 200 law firms, Carter Ledyard & Milburn does not have a mandatory retirement policy. Several lawyers at the firm are past the conventional retirement age of 65, and last year the firm hired two lawyers who are in their mid to late 60s.

Another firm without such a policy is Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan where Eric J. Emanuel, 67, a co-founder of litigation powerhouse, announced recently that he would retire. His office confirmed that the 700-lawyer firm does not have a set age to retire.

The absence of a formal retirement age often can be an effort to avoid antagonizing firm rainmakers, who do not want to give up the business they have built up over decades.

“Firms are reluctant to push partners out, especially those with big books of business,” said Clay, at Altman Weil.

“That would be self-destructive; lawyers can take their business elsewhere,” agreed Allen.

Of course, there are some possible downsides to a lack of retirement rules. Failing to smoothly transfer books of business to the next generation is one danger cited by experts, as is letting a focus on older firm leadership deflect attention from new generations that need to be groomed to take over as part of a firm’s succession planning. Then there’s the widely-noted issue of dealing with diseases like dementia at law firms as Boomer attorneys work later and later into life.

But Boomers at law firms are confident that despite the naysayers they’ll take transitions at their own pace and continue contributing to firm success.

Bravin, of Mitchell Silverberg & Knupp, said he has no set retirement date, but has been “happy to build up a practice that didn’t exist when I came here. When I leave, younger lawyers will take over.”

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Elizabeth Olson at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com