Older Attys Face Unique Hurdles In Late-Career Lateral Moves

After more than 35 years at the same law firm, Stephen Younger was ready for a change. Isolated and restless from the pandemic and counting down the days until his 65th birthday this May, Younger started looking for a new firm last summer for the first time in decades.

"To me, it's about having challenges in life. We all want something to work toward," Younger, the former president of the New York State Bar Association, told Law360 Pulse. "Just because you turn a certain age doesn't mean that you turn that switch off."

Younger joined Foley Hoag LLP as a litigation partner in March from Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, where he worked his way up since the mid-'80s. Patterson Belknap wouldn't have forced him to retire, according to Younger, but none of the inducements it offered him to stay would have guaranteed him a job past 67.

"I don't think the day after my 65th birthday I'm going to become magically some lousy lawyer," Younger said.

Older attorneys like Younger face unique issues when making late-career lateral moves or finding new jobs after decades at the same law firms, according to industry recruiters. Many law firms still have mandatory retirement ages and succession plans for when senior partners are expected to transition their business to their younger colleagues. And while some firms welcome the depth of experience and expertise of so-called gray hair attorneys, others are hesitant to hire and invest time in someone who may not be working in 10 years.

"Firms are not necessarily looking for someone who's trying to find a cozy spot to retire in place, but rather people who will be active contributors to the enterprise," said Jon Lindsey, New York founding partner of recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa.

Ned Bassen, a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, left the firm in January after 24 years to become a shareholder at Becker & Poliakoff LLP. While Bassen said some of his peers couldn't understand his changing firms at 72 years old, he was itching to leave BigLaw so he could offer more competitive billing rates to existing clients and attract even more business and work.

"Shaking things up is a good thing," Bassen said. "You're a lot less complacent, and you have to rise to challenges."

Law firms want job prospects to have a self-sustaining book of business like Bassen if they don't have decades left in their careers, recruiters said.

"But that's a challenge, as attorneys get older and older," said Chris Batz, a legal recruiter and founder of The Lion Group LLC who often works with older attorneys. "Some attorneys can retain that client business, but it depends on the culture of the law firm they're currently at."

Attorneys can typically bring clients with them to new jobs if their old firms have more of an "eat what you kill" environment, Batz said.

But other law shops may integrate clients into the firm and have succession plans in place for them. Mandatory retirement ages baked into partnership agreements also force attorneys to let go of their clients and to de-equitize.

"When partners institutionalize their clients more, it's harder to take them with them," Batz said. "So if they're trying to lateral to another firm, they tend to have less options."

Finding a spot at a new law firm as an older attorney can also depend on the internal politics at play, recruiters said. In addition to mandatory retirement ages, firms may have incentives for partners to step aside by a certain time.

"For them to bring someone in who's either going to be bumping up against that limit very quickly or is already over it, makes it more difficult for them to deal with their own more senior partners," Lindsey said.

But those same retirement guidelines often spur an older attorney to enter the job market.

"When the retirement age is approaching, and they're not ready to stop practicing, partners will approach us as recruiters to help them find a new firm where they can continue to practice without feeling like they've got to wind it down in the next year or two," said Lauren Drake, a partner at legal recruiting firm Macrae.

Recruiters said finding a new job for an older partner is usually harder than securing a spot for a younger attorney.

"Typically, firms want somebody who still has a lot of runway left in their career," Drake said. "It's easier to hire someone if you can say this person is going to be with our firm for the next 10 to 20 years."

Recruiters said older attorneys on the job hunt should talk to career consultants to help update their resumes and LinkedIn profiles and get a sense of how to market themselves and their brands. They should also invest time in networking and consider seeking professional help from a recruiter to get their foot in the door.

Firms considering older candidates want to understand if there's a succession plan, Lindsey added.

"Do you have a lieutenant who can one day take over the practice, who is familiar with the clients and their issues and can seamlessly transition?" he said.

It also helps to articulate a timetable to firms, like if an attorney wants to transition their clients and practice to someone else after 10 years.

"It's important for senior partners, as it is for every lateral, to try to integrate with the rest of the partnership and not simply be another standalone entity or group, so that you're part of the larger enterprise," Lindsey said.

Batz said he was able to find a lateral placement for an 83-year-old attorney because he had millions in business — as well as a younger partner who could come with him who billed 3,000 hours himself.

Other law firms are looking for attorneys with deep experience to impress clients.

"Sometimes clients want to see the gray hair," Batz said.

Younger said many of his new colleagues at Foley Hoag came from firms with mandatory retirements. He said he's committed to serve as a full-time partner at Foley Hoag until he's at least 70, and after that he may reduce his hours.

"Mandatory retirement makes sense at some firms that have institutional clients," Younger said. "But when you're someone who gets clients because of the name you've built up over 35 years of practicing, you can't just take that resume and put it on the forehead of a junior partner."

Even so, many law firms assume older attorneys are slowing down.

When Lindsey was trying to find a job for a partner in his late 60s, he had to explain to reluctant firms the attorney was playing rugby every Saturday with cops in Central Park "beating the dickens out of them."

"Conversely, there are some 40-year-olds shuffling down the hall in their slippers who should have retired years ago," Lindsey said. "Age is relative. The notion of retiring at 65 was invented in the 1930s when they passed the Social Security Act and the average life expectancy was 65."

But the coronavirus pandemic has also led to a wave of early retirements, recruiters said.

"Because of the buyer's market we're in right now, it gives options for some senior attorneys but there's definitely challenges," Batz said.

Bassen, Younger and recruiters said older attorneys should think about what they're looking for in a new position before starting their search.

Moving to Becker from BigLaw was appealing to Bassen, he said, because the firm lacked a stand-alone labor and employment practice, giving him a chance to grow one. He could also offer new and old clients billing rates 50% less than at Hughes Hubbard.

"If you're considering switching firms after working at a firm for a long time, it is essential that you enjoy your work and you enjoy working," Bassen said.

Younger said he now has more flexibility and is in a unique position to help Boston-based Foley Hoag grow its 6-year-old New York office — not to mention the chance to further develop his practice instead of transitioning work to his more junior colleagues, as he would have had to do at Patterson Belknap.

"I may be getting older, but I'll always be Younger," he joked with a laugh. "At some point I'll start looking at doing other things, but not until I have a '7' in front of my age."

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.


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