Thirty-eight percent of partners at the nation’s top 200 law firms are expected to retire in the next decade. This reality will not only have financial and emotional consequences for individual attorneys, it will also have a financial and emotional impact on legal institutions. How can firms mitigate the potential negative aspects of more than a third of their partners approaching this new stage of life?
Law firms notoriously avoid tending to emotional matters of their lawyers and staff, instinctively focusing on finances instead. We certainly are seeing evidence of that as they try to address the retirement transition. Law firms fret about the upcoming drain on anemic pension plans. They worry that these Boomer partners, who control a large percentage of a firm’s client relationships, are blocking junior partners’ ability to develop deeper client relationships, ultimately inhibiting the firm’s ability to recruit and retain talent. They fear aging partners are not willing or able to keep up with the demands of practice yet firm leadership is reticent to have those uncomfortable conversations with iconic firm figures. As a result, most firms adopt a passive approach to retirement transitions, which does little to serve loyal retiring partners, newer partners, the client or ultimately, the firm itself.
Interestingly, research suggests that the most challenging aspect of retirement for Baby Boomers is not financial but rather, defining a sense of purpose. Yet the vast majority of books, articles and seminars designed to prepare us for retirement focus exclusively on finances. The issue is complicated because for many successful lawyers, they believe their compensation is their sense of purpose because it reflects their level of competency, the strength of their client relationships and ultimately their self-worth. Because compensation has defined their sense of purpose throughout their careers, senior partners cling to their clients because those relationships are the anchor that gives them purpose.
Retirement demands a new way of thinking about and measuring personal success beyond the money-power-status paradigm. While it can be liberating to shed a familiar work identity in order to explore other sides of self, it is mostly terrifying. Retirement is disorienting; it creates a void because what was no longer is. To transition smoothly into retirement, partners must learn how to tap into a different set of skills and competencies than those they relied on to be successful throughout their careers. Only then will they be willing and able to move forward, making room for the next generation of partners.
Like any other transition points throughout the career development of its lawyers, firms ought to consider offering programming regarding retirement. In the same way firms offer new associate orientations, mid-level retreats and new partner programs to prepare its attorneys for the next phases of their careers, they should consider offering an introduction to retirement for firm members over 55 to prepare them for this important career transition. Effective programming should include helping partners:
- imagine what retirement could look like
- explore latent talents and interests
- discover all the possibilities available to them
- consider financial needs
- provide information on the aging process in a nonthreatening way
Most retiring partners have been so busy lawyering over the years that they haven’t had time to pay attention to their talents, interests and abilities. As a result, they may be unaware of the multitude of options available to them and until they can see the possibilities, they are likely to cling to what is familiar. Furthermore, none of us wants to think about getting old. Boomers live differently than prior generations, believing fifty is the new thirty, as if by not acknowledging it, we can avoid getting old. Yet the reality is aging is the greatest gift we are given. (It certainly beats the alternative!) The goal of creating retirement programming is to mitigate the fear of the unknown and reimagine what it means to retire so that lawyers may embrace this new phase of life with excitement rather than fear and dread.
Transitions from “retirement to re-launch” into the next phase of life take time, creativity and a plan of action. By offering emotional, financial and nonpecuniary incentives to retiring partners law firms can provide a great benefit to all the stakeholders within the legal industry.
 (Source: Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2016 Partner Compensation Survey.)
Kathleen Brady, PCC is Director of Coaching at Preferred Transition Resources, a coaching and consulting firm specializing in the legal profession.