THE GENERATIONAL MIX

by Joel A. Rose
 

     John Morris (the attorney's real name has been changed) is 74 years old and the senior partner of a 40 lawyer, AV-rated, general practice law firm, located in New York City. During 1990, Mr. Morris celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the Bar. This event was highlighted by a gala reception in the grand ballroom of a major hotel. Professional and administrative members of the firm along with their guests, spouses, clients, friends, members of the judiciary and the bar were invited. Mr. Morris' contributions to the firm were acknowledged several years ago through the excerpted provisions of a special contract between Mr. Morris and the firm: "Mr. Morris' name may continue to be first in the firm name in the event of his departure due to retirement, death or disability. He shall continue to receive a percentage interest in the firm's net profit. In his sole discretion, Mr. Morris shall be entitled to one-hundred twenty (120) working days off during each calendar year of the Partnership. He may set his own schedule and time off as he deems appropriate without answering to the other partners. He shall be entitled to maintain his same individual office or comparable individual office space should the firm relocate its offices. The firm shall provide Mr. Morris with backup assistance from its other attorneys and legal support as he deems appropriate in the performance of this legal work for the Firm."

     Notwithstanding these generous arrangements and the respect and camaraderie which Mr. Morris has engendered over the years, he is troubled. Mr. Morris is as concerned about his future as his younger and middle-aged counterparts. His personal and professional needs and requirements have to be acknowledged. He wants the opportunity to continue to handle intellectually and professionally challenging work without undue pressure from his partners, which means handling a limited number of matters and having more support on some cases. Mr. Morris wants the opportunity to continue to lead a productive life, despite the encroaching seventy-fifth birthday, and still have the satisfaction of being able to make a contribution despite the problems that may be associated with his age.

     The concerns expressed by Mr. Morris to the author during a management audit of the law firm are not atypical of the fears and problems of older lawyers.

     The older lawyers' problems may generally be categorized as personal and/or office related. Their personal problems may place a special emphasis on age, family, health, and a host of other concerns. Office problems may most often deal with reallocation of client responsibilities, learning new specialties, or reorganizing philosophical differences with younger and mid-level partners.

     The need for the older lawyers to discuss their problems is a valid one, and the office must recognize their special problems. They may feel inadequate, unclear on just what is expected of them at this stage of their careers, or unclear on how their work is being judged and evaluated. They may not understand the motivating factors of other partners and may be prompted to feel that younger and mid-level partners are "scheming" against them. They may want to do quality work, but the other partners may place more emphasis on overall production.

     They feel unappreciated yet, for a variety of reasons, are afraid to complain.

     They may feel quite alone and neglected. Their friends, clients and peers in other offices may have retired or died. They may feel insecure.

     Obviously, not all older lawyers will experience all of these problems at any given time. However, there may be just enough of an undercurrent of discontent, misunderstanding, and confusion to warrant the office's making a special effort to acknowledge and remedy the situation. Nobody can be expected to perform at their best as long as there is distraction by doubt and fear. Every partner should have an outlet for problems of this nature.

     It is not uncommon for older lawyers' problems to appear to be in direct conflict with the economic and professional objectives of younger and middle-aged partners. When addressing this issue, the managing partner or management committee should attempt to satisfy the concerns and frustrations of both groups without sacrificing either. The managers should determine how the office can benefit from the talent and potential of the younger attorneys while utilizing the years of experience, established client relationships, and maturity provided by the older lawyers.

     It has been the author's experience that a concerted effort toward establishing a dialogue between the older and younger partners can go a long way in addressing the needs and requirements of all parties. This type of encounter may be structured along formal lines such as firm meetings or retreats, or it can be done informally during luncheons or dinners. The discussions may be coordinated by lawyer management or outside assistance.

     Some firms offer older lawyers an opportunity to transfer from active to "Of Counsel" status. As Of Counsel, the partner is entitled to retain an office and share secretarial assistance with limited duties to perform in the office's behalf. In addition to fees based on unbilled work and uncollected or undistributed income, the partner would continue to receive a guaranteed salary but might not receive the other allocations that active partners are entitled to receive.

     Several years ago, the author was introduced to the former managing partner of a large law firm who was serving as Of Counsel to that office. The Of Counsel took the author into his office where he reached into his desk drawer and took out a plaque that read, "Yesterday I was like you. Tomorrow you will be like me." He smiled and said, "I show this plaque to my younger colleagues whenever they complain about the older partners."

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