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Can the Law Firm Generation Gap Be Bridged?

Can the generational gap between older lawyers, those in the prime of their career and those up and coming ever be bridged? Two recent items address this question. First up, Bruce MacEwen's post, Intergenerational Conflict? In Our Firm?, reminds us that there's another important matter that's sometimes overlooked with all of the attention given to the urgency of associate retention issues -- that matter being how to treat partners nearing retirement. Though the issue of older partners has come up in the United States, what with the debate over forced retirement and the Sidley Austin age discrimination law suit, MacEwen writes that U.K. lawyers are now confronting similar issues with the recent age discrimination case involving the law firm Freshfields, which we blogged about here.

For MacEwen, treatment of older lawyers isn't a purely legal matter but also an economic one and "one of simple humanity." He asks:

* How do we humanely treat individuals who have given, in many cases, their careers, to a firm but who are now on the declining curve of productivity?  What do we owe them?
    * Since few if any firms introduced their senior partners to the new world of 401(k)'s and self-guided defined contribution retirement planning in time for those partners to actually take their own future economic well-being in hand, how do we manage the transition to the inevitable?  How short is that transition?
    * There are senior partners and then there are senior partners.  We have the beloved, inspirational, profoundly respected, wise elders handing down orally and by example the finest traditions of the firm and of the profession; and we have the lingerers, the misty-eyed nostalgic, the rusty practitioners.  We all know the difference.  How do we handle the difference if equity demands disparate treatment and the law may require identical treatment?

In part, humane treatment requires both older and younger lawyers to understand each other. And as this article, Associates Punching the Clock (ABA Journal, August 2007), suggests, older and younger lawyers have different views, even on issues such as the appropriate time to start work. As the article describes, some firms are starting to mandate that lawyers arrive at the office by 9:30 or 10 a.m. Some lawyers -- many of them older - believe that it's important for colleagues to work similar hours to interact, while others feel that empty desks in the morning send a signal that there's not enough work. Other lawyers are starting to recognize that office facetime isn't as important, so long as the work gets done. Still, change is slow in coming:

“It may take 20 or 30 years, but at some point we may not have large groupings of lawyers in center city locations,” Krane says. “And it won’t be necessary for firms like mine to have 13 floors in an office tower.

Still, change in 20 or 30 years may not come quickly enough to help firms figure out how to deal with partners retiring this decade.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 25, 2007 at 07:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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