Old Lawyers – Not Fade Away

For reasons we can discuss at another time, I’ve been reading materials about retirement lately.

Most recently, I’ve read: Aging Well, by George Vaillant, which somebody told me is the best book about its subject (it presents Vaillant’s conclusions arising out of the Harvard Study of Adult Development); and Managing Oneself, by Peter Drucker, which is Drucker’s celebrated article on knowledge workers, a big chunk of which is titled “The Second Half of Your Life”; and a recent article that appeared in the NY Times. The Times article is “Asked About Retiring, They Have a Simple Answer: Why?

Each piece advises: stay engaged, keep up connections to others, sustain a sense of purpose, exercise, and don’t drink too much. These are the keys to aging well.

And each of those pieces points to selected lawyers as their best examples of persons who are aging well.

One is amused.

Lawyers themselves at this moment are identifying aging and the retirement (or non-retirement) of the Baby Boom Generation as great challenges facing the legal profession.  Lawyers who stay too long are seen as a growing problem. Bar institutions are beginning to examine age-related infirmities, to offer programs on aging, and to form support agencies to counsel with lawyers about retiring, transitioning their practices, and managing disabilities. In law firms, many are more direct: they want advice about how to get older lawyers out of the way. And consultants are queuing up to meet the demand.

So, what are lawyers: models or problems?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The lawyers cited by the Times and in Aging Well are really judges. The Times poster-senior-citizen is Judge Jack Weinstein. Judge Weinstein is 96 years old. “I’ve never thought of retiring,” he says. He is a senior Federal District Judge for the Eastern District of New York. After he exercises, he goes to work every day at 7 AM. He hears motions in the morning and tries cases in the afternoon.

No doubt about it, the picture of going full bore to 96 is a great image.

But the guy is a Federal District Court Judge. He has a lifetime appointment. It’s guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s bound to affect how you retire. And remember, judging is unique. It’s one of the few jobs that is commonly done by sitting in an upholstered chair, often with your eyes closed, listening to other people talk. And it’s a job best performed by experienced, deliberate practitioners who are adept at recognizing patterns of behavior and applying time-tested responses to them. It’s the perfect old-guy job.

And remember too, this guy is Judge Jack Weinstein. For Judge Weinstein, if he’s limited himself to hearing motions and trying cases, then he has retired. Years ago, he was Chief Judge, he was handling a huge load of the most complex litigation in the country, and he was writing one book and article after another – including a major, multi-volume treatise on civil procedure. If what he’s doing now is limited to motions and trials, then, for him, that’s cutting way back.

Maybe the best lesson here is that Judge Weinstein is still engaged, still connected with other people, and still grounded in a sense of purpose. And he exercises every morning at 5:30 AM.

Well, the rest of us are not Weinsteins and we’re not judges.

Our energy, stamina and mental fluidity begin their decline in our 20’s. In our 60’s, susceptibilities to disability, cognitive impairment and mortality become statistically significant. But the fund of our experience and relationships, our ability to recognize patterns, and the wisdom of our judgments continue to grow – up to a point. Troublesomely, that point is different for every person.

Traditionally, lawyers have had many choices and good options for navigating these waters. Practicing law was never a job. It was a career. And lawyer’s careers have had an arc that corresponds in large measure with commonly recognized stages of adult development.

In broad terms those stages can be characterized as (i) developing mastery of the profession, (ii) connecting developed skills with purposeful work, (iii) making a contribution (Vaillant: “generativity”), (iv) playing a role in conserving cultural and institutional values (Vaillant: “keeping meaning”), and ultimately (v) growing into an integrated and meaningful life (Vaillant: “integrity”).

Peter Drucker characterized the careers of knowledge workers in parallel ways. He observed that “knowledge workers are not ‘finished’ after 40 years on the job, they are merely bored.” He said,

At 45, most executives have reached the peak of their business careers, and they know it. After 20 years of doing very much the same kind of work, they are very good at their jobs. But they are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job. And yet they are still likely to face another 20 if not 25 years of work.

Drucker envisioned these accomplished, but bored executives as either developing a second career, or parallel career or becoming “social entrepreneurs.” And, like Vaillant and the Times, Drucker pointed to lawyers as examples of professionals who do this well.

For Drucker and Vaillant and the Times to lift up lawyers was no mere coincidence. Unlike business executives, lawyers in the 20th Century were not, like organization men or women, trapped in “jobs.” Their productivity was not (at least, not entirely) measured in terms of narrow productivity metrics. And, as lawyers’ careers developed, they moved naturally through those development stages, from mastery to purpose to generativity. Many lawyers became leading conservers of cultural and professional values. For many, their continuous transition through those different roles was baked into careers at a single firm. Over their careers, they evolved in place, and there was room to do that. Ultimately, rather than retire, lawyers could gradually “cut back.”

In effect, lawyers could retire in place. They continued to inhabit their identities as lawyers but reduced the levels of their engagement apace with their personal circumstances.

That alternative was not open to people with jobs. People with jobs can’t cut back. Jobs are cogs in organizations. They are measured by productivity. More is better and less is rarely a choice. The job extends beyond an individual’s career and the organizations must provide for the continuation of the job. So, after holders of jobs reach a certain point, they must go so the job can stay. Their organizations think of productivity and succession and transition.

Until the advent of large firms and practice groups and specialization, practicing law was not fraught with these concerns. Lawyers shaped their work to their lives.

Today though, lawyers are much more likely to have jobs. Lawyers in private practice are likely to be members of firms. And most firms are intent on surviving as organizations beyond the careers of their current members. So the context in which today’s lawyers are aging is changing.

For those lawyers who have jobs, they must plan for retirement like other knowledge workers who have jobs.

Lawyers in firms must accommodate their firms’ larger concerns. As lawyers age, their firms will be focussed on client demands, which are more likely to run to responsiveness and efficiency (even youth) than to deliberation and professionalism.

Internally in firms, the interests of senior members must be balanced against the expectations of younger ones. Firms must manage the advancement and retention of younger lawyers. They must provide training, experience, client development, and compensation for younger members. They must grapple with a changing profession.

All this means that choices are narrowing for older lawyers. Increasingly, traditional career patterns no longer suit. Latitude to align law practice with personal circumstances is shrinking.

But, like all Americans, lawyers today are remaining active and living longer than in the past. And lawyers are no more interested in retirement now than before.

So new models are needed, new ways of cutting back. The best of lawyers in the best of firms are not yet entirely job holders.

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