Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What To Do When You're No Longer Senior Partner

The British legal profession doesn't like older lawyers. Recent anti-age discrimination legislation in the UK hasn't altered this mindset.

Legalweek.com reported that Tim Clark, the former senior partner of Slaughter and May, had moved to a position in Mint Partners, a trading firm (equities, metals, energy, CFD). He'd been a partner for 25 years and senior partner for seven. He was 57 when he quit.

That's not unusual. Most of the large law firms that have had senior and managing partner turnover in the last few years, eg. Linklaters, Allen & Overy, have ensured their exits were earlier than later.

I discussed last year how Freshfields cut its equity partnership by 20% by removing a large number of partners over 55. This resulted in a summer's litigation for the firm which made much of its private world public.

Given what we know about the demographic profiles of the UK and the US, there is something unusual about this. Both populations are aging as the baby boomers reach their "third age". Both countries are afraid of their impending pension crises. Both are considering raising pension access ages. Not law firms: they want to retire people younger.

The legal profession is simply agist. It discriminates on the grounds of age. Does it have good reasons for so doing?

Marc Galanter has discussed how the pressure on partners to be profitable within the context of the law firm has created huge stresses on lawyers in general. Associates who are good must be promoted. New partners squeeze the equity and so to retain the best and to ensure profits, pressure is applied to older partners to go.

This raises further questions about rainmaking and who is responsible for bringing in the valuable work that keeps the associates and junior partners busy. One argument says that individual lawyers are the key finders and are highly valued for that skill. Would then they be threatened?

Another argument suggests that the law firm itself is the responsible entity that brings in the business with partners merely facilitating something that already occurs. What then is needed are "client relationship partners" rather than finders. In this case the firm must constantly refresh itself by flushing out those who are no longer contemporary with firm needs and goals.

Galanter seems to think a move into legal services would be a good second-career strategy for successful, involuntary retired corporate lawyers. While this might be feasible in the US, it isn't going to happen in the UK. Most of these retired corporate lawyers have no clue about legal services. They probably blinked when it was mentioned.

No. It will be a case of finding something in the corporate sector. Trading in Clark's case, investment banking or rating agency work. The trick will be to ensure that you the lawyer actually get elected managing or senior partner in order to parlay that intangible asset into something marketable in the after-market. Law firm elections are destined to become more intense and more contested.

Gentlemen (and ladies), you are under starter's orders......
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