Gender, gender, gender: how firms retain female talent is a board-level discussion point. The born-again evangelism among managing partners isn’t feigned, I grant you, but it’s pretty one-note, as if the rhetoric of anxiety makes up for the distinct lack of solutions. To complicate matters further, other diversity issues are beginning to emerge. Just as law firms articulated gender diversity around five years after the banks and accountants, they’re now showing spectacular underdevelopment of the age issue.
Fixing the gender gap is a long-term project that is partly out of law firms’ control. The undersupply and therefore the exorbitant costs of housing and childcare contribute towards low female retention. But the socio-economic considerations that have fuelled the exodus of thirty-something women from the profession have also midwived the birth of flexible working programmes from which many others will benefit. And one particular demographic that has been under-attended to represents another talent drain: your most senior lawyers.
This isn’t a call for special treatment of fifty-something white, male, wealthy partners, most of whom have benefited from enormous privilege over their careers. But there is a profound disconnect here: for all the organisational interest in alumni and farming individuals’ personal networks, this rarely extends to easing those individuals’ paths to external careers. Anecdotal evidence also underlines how unprepared most partners are to confront retirement.
The Lawyer’s survey shows that 71 per cent of firms agree that both firms and partners nearing retirement could benefit from retirement-related assistance, but that there are serious shortcomings in firms’ programmes. There are, however, pockets of good practice. Back in 2010, when he was at Ashurst, then-senior partner Charlie Geffen put in place a scheme that encouraged partners to have advisory or voluntary interests outside the firm. While not overtly targeted at older partners, there was a clear subtextual prompt: look up from your desks, invest in your own network, and develop your advisory skills.
In investigating retirement policies we also researched the age profile of partnerships in the top 100 firms of The Lawyer’s UK 200. The average age of the partnership at LLPs in the top 100 is 48, with Travers Smith’s the youngest at 44. Gateley’s is an outlier, at 56. One of the most notable findings is that the second-oldest partnership is Keystone, at 52 – a firm that operates on a dispersed model attractive to senior (and junior) City refugees who want more flexibility. Keystone’s model has barely been adopted elsewhere, but its enormous growth leading to its float last year shows considerable confidence.
Clearly, senior lawyers need to dose themselves in reality and accept they will have to shift down financially. But dealing with that cohort in the right way can also be a pilot for reassessing the talents of older employees across the firm; as we’re constantly reminded, the population is getting older and many people want, and need, to keep working. Law firms need to ride that wave.
This article is taken from The Lawyer’s monthly magazine. The March issue focuses on partner retirement and includes the results of a major new survey. To subscribe please click here.
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