There’s an interesting post up on The Belly of the Beast blog about aging gracefully at a law firm. You can check it out here at http://bit.ly/mnKeJY. The writer contends that, due to the misaligned incentives at a law firm, senior lawyers will jealously guard clients and fail to engage in the standard kind of succession planning that works so well in other parts of the corporate world to ensure long term success for the organization as individuals come and go. The writer notes:
Eventually, everyone loses. Young attorneys resent elders; wealthy equity partners erect futile defenses against their own inevitable decline to an unhappy place; firms lose the stability that comes with loyal clients.
He does add that some of these senior attorneys may be open to proper succession planning if they could ensure their continued relevance at the firm:
For some aging big law partners, greed never retires. But for many others, hanging on isn’t about the money. As mortality rears its head, their real quest is for continuing relevance — the belief that they still have something to offer and are making a difference.
In the end, this writer advocates reassigning these lawyers to non-specific, value added roles that improve the firm’s overall legal culture:
Firms could do a great service — and improve their own long-term stability in the process — if they relieved the stigma of economic decline in ways that encouraged aging colleagues to do the right thing. But it requires thinking beyond today’s metrics that determine a partner’s current year compensation. It requires valuing what can’t be easily measured and embedding it in a firm’s culture so that reaching retirement age isn’t a shock, it’s a blessing. It requires empathy, compassion, and — most of all — leadership.
Early in my career, many mid-level associates would warn me to not work with senior lawyers. There was a widespread belief among the young attorneys that the more seasoned veterans had lost their edge by assigning all the heavy lifting on a deal to attorneys that didn’t generate business for the firm and, as a result, didn’t have the clout to decline this kind of work, even when the senior lawyer would take all the credit for a job well done.
Frankly, I’m leery of this kind of prejudice. I must admit that I have found some highly experienced, older lawyers who match this description, but also many who do not. One of them assigned me a great deal of work without providing any assistance or guidance. I remember being handed a multimillion dollar commercial mortgage deal (I’d never handled one before) and when I asked for help was told, “Just figure it out in the library!” Due to this kind of conduct, most associates would flee from him, and he would be left with sending his work to the lower performing people at the firm, which meant his clients had a less satisfying experience. But no one would challenge him for behaving in this manner because he held onto those clients closely, even though it appeared they sent less work due to the reduced quality of performance. You can quickly see how this kind of conduct erodes the economic position of the firm.
I wonder what roles these kinds of people could transition into; perhaps they could embrace a recruiting role, or advise attorneys or how to network and bring in business? But, one should also ask if they should still be involved with the firm at all. If the power of your role has corrupted you to the point where you compromise quality, is that the kind of person you still want to have in an influential position?
That said, plenty of older, senior attorneys are simply fantastic, and you wouldn’t even want to consider ending their active legal practice. In the end, this seems to be an individualistic evaluation. Regardless, the need for good succession planning is paramount for law firm senior attorneys, even at the price of conflict.