THANK YOU AND GOODBYE: Mandatory Retirement Policies Cut Careers Short, But Proponents Say It's for the Best

By Joan E. Lisante


From the January 2005 ABA Journal page 31:


WILL SOGG COULD SPEND a lot of time riding his beloved horse, Monte. But you won't find him hanging around the stables any weekday soon.

The 69-year-old tax and estate attorney is hard at work at McCarthy Lebit, the Cleveland firm where he's been of counsel for almost five years--since he was asked to leave his former firm because of a mandatory retirement policy.

Management at that firm, which asks partners to retire at 65, decided that if they gave Sogg a pass, they'd have to do so for everyone. So Sogg left at their request, taking much of his business with him to his new firm.

Mandatory retirement policies are a controversial part of law firm management, particularly as the gigantic baby boom population ages. Yet about 40 percent of large law firms have one, according to a 2004 survey by Edge International, a legal management consulting firm. Of those firms, most seemed pleased with the results: Seventy-nine percent were not considering changing their current policy.

Such policies have a proponent in Thomas R. Wildman, a partner in the Hartford office of Day, Berry & Howard. "Mandatory retirement policies both promote the orderly transitioning of client relationships and encourage lawyers to think positively about their lives beyond the practice of law--at least the practice of law as they have known it for much of their legal careers," he says.

That argument isn't persuasive at Nossaman Guthner Knox Elliott, a Los Angeles-based firm with an 80-year-old general counsel and no mandatory retirement policy. "There are many extremely capable attorneys who remain at the top of their games into their 70s and even 80s," says managing partner Scott De Vries of the firm's San Francisco office. "Knocking them out on an artificial basis is unfair to our clients, our attorneys and them."

Forcing attorneys to leave at a specific age can hamstring a business, too. Lawyer and former Sen. George Mitchell, named chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Co. after a contentious board meeting last March, will bump up against Disney's inflexible mandatory retirement age (72) next August, and he could be barred from solving the corporate problems he was tapped to fix.

Finances are often cited as a compelling reason for such policies. They can allow a firm to avoid having to reduce the compensation of senior partners or asking less productive older partners to leave the firm, says Los Angeles employment lawyer Joe Markowitz. "It's also a way of spreading the wealth to younger partners and requiring clients to be passed along to them as well," he says.
THE DECISION ULTIMATELY DEPENDS ON A FIRM'S NEEDS. But passion for the law and good health can allow an attorney to practice indefinitely. Some lawyers, like Larry Levin, fault the legal profession itself for forcing out its golden geese. "We as a profession have lost our way with regard to using our imagination and intuition in running our business," says Levin, a partner at Shor, Levin & DeRita in Jenkintown , Pa. "People don't retire from what they like. If a lawyer loves what he does, never let someone like that go."

Of course, being forced to retire from the practice of law doesn't necessarily mean a lawyer is being put out to pasture. Lawyers over 50 can still look forward to 20 to 30 years of vitality, says Melanie Abbott, a professor at Quinnipiac Law School in Connecticut who works with the Center for Third Age Leadership, an organization that helps people find new opportunities after age 50 and assists companies in maximizing productivity of maturing employees.

It looks like there are going to be lots of bored horses out there.

Copyright 2005 American Bar Association  
ABA Journal