An age-old problem

Being a lawyer these days is rather like being in the iconic, late 1970s film Logan’s Run. For those of you too young (or not nerdy enough) to know, the premise was that in the utopic, post-apocalyptic society of the future, resources were so scarce that everyone was summarily ‘offed’ at age 30. Your proximity to impending doom was measured by a colour-changing jewel stuck to your palm at birth. One minute, you’re young and ok; the next it’s ‘happy birthday, you’re 30’ and you’re vapourised.

In today’s legal profession, there are various stages of crisis, admittedly not resulting in fee-earners being vapourised (though that might make de-equitisation easier), but there is the same sense of impending doom and fear of ageing.

The first hurdle is partnership. Start thinking about it at four years, start worrying about it if you’re not on track at six, push the large red panic button at eight and, unless you’re definitely on track, pretty much forget it by 10 unless you can find some way of getting some clients of your own.

Retirement is at the other end of the spectrum. Many partners have it in their sights from 50. In the US it is different. US firm websites are resplendent with pictures of venerable senior partners who look like extras from The Dark Crystal (Google it).

Then there’s the middle. Women who have several kids and want to return to work. Fee-earners made redundant at 15 or 16 years’ post-qualification experience (PQE). In-house lawyers (particularly heads of legal) ‘restructured’ out of a job. Even the mature trainee trying to find a job as a newly qualified.

This is a profession which has a problem with age. Most candidates over the age of 50 have been given short shrift by law firms. Over 60, bluntly, forget it. Age is never cited as the reason, but you know that in most cases it is.

Older candidates, particularly those returning to work after having a family or downshifting from a high-powered City partner or general counsel role can be an amazingly flexible resource, can help steady a ship and provide guidance and training to younger lawyers. Getting partners to treat them with respect may be tricky sometimes, but they can be a steadier resource than the fickle, ambitious three-year PQE.

As the profession enters something of a recruitment crisis with pockets of intense demand in areas such as finance, corporate and property, tapping into a latent resource, however senior it happens to be, must surely be an attractive option.

True, there are management challenges. Partners may need a degree of re-education, or departments may need to be restructured to take account of more senior fee-earners. Flexible working and job sharing may pose structural problems throughout a firm, but these challenges are in fact opportunities that can be seized, as some forward-thinking firms are doing. Output does not necessarily have to be measured by input.

It is interesting that US firms – with a greater preponderance of truly senior partners and the use of the ‘counsel’ tag to reward and retain senior fee-earners who, for one reason or another, either do not want or are not going to be making partner – may have an answer for UK firms struggling with the pressures of ‘up or out’ traditional law firm structuring.

Impending age discrimination legislation may have some small effect on law firm behaviour, but if firms seize the opportunity now to look at how older candidates can be encouraged to join and used effectively, they may be able to steal a march and bring some unloved talent back to the profession.

Mark Brandon is a consultant with recruitment consultant First Counsel