The recession of 2007-8 from which we never really recovered has exacerbated a dynamic that already existed in the practice of law, people don’t when to say enough of law practice it is time to retire. Many lost savings in the economic downturn, many lost jobs, many who held real estate investments lost the equity they counted on to cash out and fund some type of pension. On top of this the Baby Boom generation is turning the statistics on their c
ollective heads as it concerns the graying of the center of the legal profession. According to The Lawyer Statistical Report, American Bar Foundation, (2012 edition) the average age of a practicing attorney has risen from 39 to 49 from 1980-2005. This survey data was before the great recession. So the question is are we heading to work until dead? If so can we get off of the train before we involuntarily join the new paradigm?
Everyone in his or her practice has seen this firsthand. The ninety year old estate attorney who slowly read deeds and talked very softly to a couple of clients a week who knew him forever and didn’t realize how his skills had eroded because their cognition eroded along with it. He caught a ride to work because he had not driven in years, really didn’t do much work and what he did do had to reviewed by another attorney before it went out.
The civil litigator past their prime, filing no pleadings other than a complaint answering little to no discovery, showing up in court and expecting his hearsay reports to be admitted into evidence or being patiently explained to by the trial judge that the evidence they sought to admit is not admissible in the fashion they anticipated and their case does not get over motion. The explanation to the client in the hallway of the courthouse is simply too painful to watch.
The criminal attorney who does not really try cases any longer, accepts the offer of the state on each occasion is not current on the case law and really does not seem familiar with the facts of the case or their client some of whom the attorney is meeting for the first time thanks to mass mailing.
How can we as an Association help avoid this from happening to our Association’s members and if the answer to that is there is nothing we can do our members are responsible for their own actions, then how can we avoid it from happening to us?
Early discipline in the business of the practice of law pays large dividends later. New attorneys are already saddled with student loan debt, which hopefully they borrowed the least amount possible to survive, as being in law school isn’t supposed to be glamorous so having extra loan money to throw at socializing in law school is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. After admission to the bar whatever career path is chosen by the new attorney they must have the self-discipline to avoid the keeping up with the Joneses mentality. Accept the fact that all of their college buddies who took other career paths have more funds (and travel better and eat in fancier restaurants, drive fancier cars) then the new attorney does. Making large sums of money quickly is not the reason (hopefully) the new attorney chose this career, so trying to jump into a lot of short term debt (car leases and loans, and credit card debt) to glamourize the arrival of a newly minted attorney is a mistake that will preclude the things attorneys need to do in mid practice years because they will be busy paying off the debts they incurred in their initial practice. What the new attorney must do even though it seems wholly impractical is to begin retirement savings now. The early saved dollars are where all of the long-term growth is. If a 401k is offered at work, take it.
In mid practice the attorney must examine their respective income stream and figure out how they can make the funds they pay out to others somehow come back to them. Instead of rent to the landlord, can they get some ownership of their building by condo or moving into a smaller freestanding building and practice out of that? If the attorney shows financial discipline, are the clients coming to the firm to see the particular attorney associate rather than the partner who the associate answers to? This is the time of an attorney’s career where they must take some risks in an effort to get an equity interest in their practice. A word of caution, please document your efforts in practice building when in a firm environment thoroughly and have a plan B in place before engaging in any type of negotiation in an effort to get ownership of what is really your practice, its your practice in that your work is reaping financial benefit and you just want a greater say over it.
So now you are on top, you own some type of interest in your physical plant so the rent isn’t totally lost money, you have some retirement saving, the fees generated by your efforts are coming back to you as there is a profit taking structure in place from the mid practice efforts. Your kids are in school and there is a new pressure upon you, do I pay private school tuition? What about college? The answer to that question is based on the individual, but if you are borrowing on the items you accumulated in midpractice to do fund tuitions the answer is no you cannot afford this. Your child must pick up some of the tuition or attend public school no matter where your coworker’s children go to school.
In other states there are recertification and mandatory CLE to weed out the attorney who has been at the bar too long. The Maryland Judiciary has the age of mandatory senility of 70. Does an attorney have to retire at 70? The answer is clearly no, each person is different and the age when attorney’s skills erode to the point where he should not practice any longer is just as varied. Further as one age, the concept of comfort is ones own skin is really a huge benefit to the attorney; they don’t let some things rattle them even though it would have in the past. So there is a balance in aging benefit vs. detriment but when the detriment starts really getting the upper hand on the senior attorney it always seems like they are the last to know. And that is sad.