In one case, I remember an attorney from one of the ten largest law firms in the country who was labeled as a "partner" and yet was making the same amount of money as a second year associate. I saw many examples of this sort of thing taking place the longer I worked as a recruiter. One particularly egregious example was when I saw a large Los Angeles law firm offer an unemployed real estate partner a salary that was 50% the amount of what a first year associate at that firm would receive.
"Are you kidding?" I asked the law firm.
"No, we are quite serious," they said.
"Why?" I asked. "That's humiliating."
"We're paying him that because we know that he will take it, and we are the only firm that is going to hire him."
To my astonishment, the partner took the job.
It is very, very tough being an older attorney. I am going to elucidate some of the reasons it is incredibly difficult for older attorneys to find work and offer some suggestions as to how they can overcome this trend. Since my primary placement activity involves law firm jobs, I will concentrate largely on this.
1. The Nature of the Law Firm Favors Younger Attorneys and Attorneys Who Generate Business
Older attorneys who generate business are always employable. I've seen attorneys in their early 80s move to firms because of their ability to bring in business. While some firms have a mandatory age for retirement, not all do.
Law firms only exist due to paying clients. The people who do the work are a cost center that takes away from the profits of the law firm.
Senior attorneys who do not bring in business are a cost center for law firms. In addition, senior attorneys traditionally have much higher billing rates than junior attorneys.
These higher billing rates hurt older attorneys in the following ways:
First, if a senior attorney has a high billing rate, clients are more likely to scrutinize their bills and not pay them. A senior attorney with 20 years of experience might bill at a rate of $725 an hour compared to a junior associate's rate of $250 an hour. As a result of significantly higher compensation for senior attorneys, law firms prefer to give as much work as possible to younger attorneys with lower billing rates because the bills then look better and more manageable to clients.
While it might seem logical, in theory, that law firms could bill the work of a 20-year attorney at a lower rate to make their presence more palatable, this is not how it works at law firms in practicality. Law firms - almost universally - bill out attorneys based on their level of experience.
Second, because there is a limited amount of work available at law firms that clients will be willing to pay high billing rates for, most partners prefer to do this work directly for their own clients (rather than giving the work to someone else inside the firm). Additionally, most law firm compensation systems function so that partners receive a higher percentage of the work they do for their own clients than for other clients. Thus, if a partner does the work for his own client and bills at $800 an hour, the partner might receive 30% (or $240 per hour) of that billing rate as direct compensation. Conversely, if they give the work to someone else in the firm, they might only receive $120 for each hour of work. Thus, it is in many partners' best interests to do the work for their own clients and not delegate it out to other partners or associates.
2. Younger Attorneys Generally Work Harder Inside of Law Firms
Younger attorneys are a fixed cost. Thus, they cost the law firm the same amount of money whether they work 1,500 hours or 3,000 hours. While a law firm may pay a larger bonus to an attorney who works 3,000 hours, the cost is negligible from the firm's perspective.
When I was working at a law firm, I was routinely billing 70 to 80 hours a week. Staying up all night and working long hours is something that young people do because they desperately want to get ahead. They typically do not know their limitations, do not understand how the business world works, and do not realize that despite hard work there may not be a lot of opportunities for them in the future.
One guy I know worked with billed at least 3,500 hours a year at a major law firm for seven years and then quit before making partner.
Law firms are not usually surprised or upset when young attorneys, who have helped make the firm millions of dollars in profit, become tired, burned-out, or exhausted and subsequently decide to leave the firm and work elsewhere. In fact, this is a normal part of the process.
Generally speaking, younger attorneys can be pushed very hard, will work hard, are hungry and want to impress. Partners like having them around because they can rely on them to bill lots of hours (sometimes due to inefficiency and inexperience) and make the firm money. Also, clients are more receptive to having young attorneys work on their cases because of their lower billing rates. In contrast, after nearly ten years of working crazy hours, more senior attorneys are unlikely to work as hard as they did to get to their current position (unless they are a partner who gets a significant percentage of the amount they are billing). Many experienced attorneys that have been working for 10+ years are not going to be too motivated to work 2,500 hours a year for $150,000 in salary.
In my career, I have encountered several extremely hard-working senior attorneys; however, this is not as common as hard-working junior attorneys. Generally, the older an attorney gets the more their productivity declines.
3. Older Attorneys Have Higher Salary Expectations
Attorneys with 15+ years of experience expect to be paid much more than younger attorneys who are being hired right out of law school. While many senior attorneys are more than happy to take a position that pays what a junior attorney makes, this is not a dynamic that is conducive to the success of a law firm. The law firm suspects and worries that the senior attorney may resent having to take what the attorney perceives to be a pay cut. In addition, the senior attorney may leave when a better job becomes available and, as a result, may spend a significant amount of time searching for a job and not committed to the currently-held, lower-paid position.
After I was out of law school a few years, I took a position in the Los Angeles office of a major New York law firm. I had gone to this law firm initially because they doubled my salary over what a major Los Angeles law firm was paying me. This law firm had come to Los Angeles in the 1980s (like many New York law firms did) when tons of firms were setting up shop in Los Angeles because they believed that they needed to be closer to Japan - which was widely perceived as a powerful economic market primed for global economic dominion.
The law firm I worked for grew by acquiring partners from a variety of law firms around Los Angeles and offering them huge salaries. A partner who might have been making $200,000 at a local Los Angeles firm was offered $450,000. The money that was being generated working for huge financial institutions in New York by the law firm was used to hire partners in Los Angeles and overpay them significantly. The partners that were being hired were not worth what they were being paid by any stretch of the imagination.
It took until the late 1990s for the law firm to recognize that paying these exorbitant salaries was unsustainable and, as a result, the firm started forcing out partners and letting them go. I represented several of them when I became a legal recruiter and helped them secure jobs.
The problem with all of these partners was that most of them did not generate business for the firm. They had been hired as partners and paid high salaries according to a structure that made very little sense. Most of them could not believe the market would only pay them a fraction of what they were earning in their prior jobs. Rather than take a job with a firm where they were "unfairly paid," several of these older attorneys made the monumental mistake of joining forces to start their own firms.
It did not work out that well for them.
One of the issues with senior attorneys is that law firms know that if they pay them less, or give them a less important title, the partner may not stick around.
4. Obvious Frustration in the Workplace
Older attorneys often appear frustrated because of a series of disappointments they have suffered over their careers. Many have been let go from other law firms and have had various frustrations. Many are angry as a result and are thus unenthusiastic and pessimistic about their career prospects for the future.
When an attorney has "been around the block," they are less likely to have the same level of enthusiasm as a younger attorney. This lack of enthusiasm and frustration is something that can set the tone for a negative work place.
5. Inability to Make the Attorneys Around them Feel Young and Important
At almost every law firm in the country, the most respected older partners almost always have younger attorneys working directly for them. These younger attorneys ask a lot of questions and give the older attorneys the opportunity to feel important. They also give the older attorneys the opportunity to show these younger attorneys the ropes and be their mentors throughout the process. Older attorneys in contrast already "know everything". They are unlikely to get emotional, ask questions, or be "impressed" easily with another attorney. Thus, an older attorney may quite literally not enjoy their day at work as much with another older attorney around. Please do not attack the messenger, but I have seen more relationships and affairs between older attorneys and younger ones than I can count. A fifty year old partner in a dead end marriage is more likely to be interested in hiring a younger "available" attorney in her late 20s than he is apt to hire a woman in her late 40s. This may not always be the case - but it often is. Since attorneys spend so much time at work, this sort of thing goes through their mind.
6. Damage to the Attorney's Reputation
The longer an attorney has been around, the more likely it is their reputation will be blemished due to more experiences with clients and, therefore, an increased probability of unsatisfied clients. In contrast, a young attorney with a "fresh slate" is not likely to have any damage to their reputation.
At most points in an attorney's career, the attorney will do something wrong. This could be blowing a huge deal, insubordination, disrespecting a superior, or choosing the wrong side in an internal, political dispute at the firm. Law firms typically do not hire attorneys who have issues in their past, including sanctions, malpractice claims, or any other disciplinary action by the state bar. Law firms might also infer from the circumstances that you are either incompetent or undisciplined based on your work history. For example, if an attorney is 20 years out of law school and has worked at numerous firms and never made partner, a law firm may look upon them a bit suspiciously and be less inclined to hire them.
7. Perception that the Attorney Either May Retire or Has Health Problems
A law firm does not want to hire people, train them and promote them through the ranks if the perception is that they may retire or have a health condition prone to cause severe illness in the future. They would rather hire a younger person who is likely to work for an extended period of time and who wants to spend their career in the firm.
I have noticed when I interview older attorneys that they often talk about how they "got sick" at some point in their career working for a law firm or at their own practice. While there is nothing wrong with being sick, this topic of conversation is generally not well received by employers who may be worried that older attorneys are more likely to be on sick leave or otherwise absent for an extended period of time while on payroll.
Because of sickness, age or attrition, older attorneys on average tend to miss work more often. As a result, law firms are much more reticent about hiring older attorneys over younger attorneys.
8. Social Interpersonal Skills
Younger attorneys generally enjoy going out after work with co-workers in order to socialize and have fun with each other. In contrast, older attorneys tend to be more independent and merely want to go home after being finished with a long day of work.
This issue is exacerbated because there are generally a lot of young attorneys inside of law firms. The attorneys who are not partners typically socialize together a great deal and enjoy each other's company. A lot of hiring is done by attorneys based on whether the job candidate is someone they could envision socializing with on a routine basis. Older attorneys are often disadvantaged by this because they are more likely to avoid "going out for drinks" after work because of a desire to be home with their families. There are also generational differences that make it harder for senior attorneys and younger attorneys to understand each other. These generational "mismatches" are something that law firms take into account in deciding whether to hire older attorneys that are more in touch with and more understanding of the younger generation.
9. Unwillingness to be Inquisitive and Learn New Ways of Doing Things
Older attorneys often have various methods of doing things that they have been following most of their career. Due to what is often decades of doing something the same way, they are reluctant and resistant to change. In the litigation context, for example, senior attorneys may instinctively file a certain type of motion or, in the corporate context, may be committed to doing a deal a certain way.
As attorneys become older, they are more likely to be averse to flexibility or change because they are rooted in their methods or approaches. This notion of older attorneys sticking to their habits is often frustrating to law firms that either want to revamp their standard operating procedure or prefer that their attorneys all work in a certain way.
I remember when I was practicing law that there were attorneys in my firm in their 60s and 70s who did not even use computers. They had their secretaries print off their emails and had the secretaries sit there while the older attorneys dictated their responses. While I thought this was "charming" to some extent, a lack of technological savvy actually held these attorneys back and slowed the efficiency of the firm because the secretaries were wasting time having to dictate messages on behalf of the older attorneys.
If a law firm had a choice between hiring an attorney who could not use a computer and required a full-time secretary to help them, and an attorney who could simply use a computer and did not need any help or supervision, who do you think they would hire?
10. Perception the Employer Will Get Sued or Be in Trouble if Things Do Not Work Out
Older attorneys who are fired or laid off have fewer options and thus have a more difficult time finding a new job. When a young attorney is fired, they may be out of work for a matter of days or weeks. An older attorney may never find a job again. Due to how difficult it is for an older attorney to find a new job, they may decide that it is in their best interest to file a lawsuit allegingage discrimination.
Older attorneys sue law firms much more frequently than younger attorneys. Therefore, it is often riskier for the law firm to hire older attorneys out of a fear that, if they are forced to fire the older attorney, that attorney may claim his or her termination was based on age discrimination.
There are numerous jobs out there for older attorneys, and it is not impossible for them to find them. The issue, though, is the dynamic of the law firms that tends to favor the hiring of the young over the old.
Notwithstanding the law firms' affinity for younger attorneys, the experience of older attorneys remains valuable to corporations, the government and many other organizations. In addition, law firms must hire senior attorneys to serve as mentors to guide the younger, inexperienced attorneys. Numerous law firms also increase the amount of older attorneys they hire when business is strong.
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