The Aging Workforce

I have placed more than 100 attorneys with in-house legal departments in my recruiting career, but here is a revealing statistic--only four have been older than 50. This low number is based on the dynamics of my particular business. I mainly fill staff attorney through associate general counsel positions, while larger "executive" search firms tend to get the chief legal officer assignments.

Still, hundreds of overqualified in-house attorneys over 50 would kill for some of the "junior" roles that we are filling. I put the word junior in quotes, because many of our engagements seek experience in the eight to fifteen years range. Corporations are hiring the 30- to 45-year-old associates and income partners, or mid-level staff from other corporate legal departments. That's the sweet spot.

I'm not trying to stir up age discrimination suits. I'm writing about this topic because change is truly on the horizon--no senior pun intended. As emphasized in a session on the aging workforce at the recently concluded InsideCounsel SuperConference, the baby boomer demographic plus longer, healthier life spans will combine to create a new reality. Bottom-line: older workers will want, or need, to work into their 70s, and fewer next generation workers will be available to replace them.

This is a pending labor shortage crisis for positions requiring heavy manual labor. There are legitimate safety concerns when it comes to working in a quarry or on a construction crew; the body does break down eventually. But legal departments? Of all the functions in a corporation, legal is best positioned to embrace these demographic changes. Lawyers really should get better with age, and many do.

So, why are so many healthy, ready-to-work older lawyers on the sidelines and unable to find meaningful employment? It's simply the pyramid structure, and money.

The challenge, as it is so often in my world, lies at the doorstep of human resources. Companies need to create new titles and new compensation structures for older attorneys. There are many ways to go about this inevitable change. Let's look at law firms for just one example of how to think about a new structure. Older law firm lawyers can move from equity to non-equity status. Titles such as special counsel are available to aging law firm attorneys who want to continue practicing.

Similarly, we can create respectful ways to hire older attorneys into staff roles without GC-track potential. Pay will be commensurate with the job, not with someone's salary history. Older lawyers will accept a pay cut versus previous positions; it's usually the company that has trouble accepting the new economics. Lawyers in their 60s and 70s will access 401(k) plans, IRAs and law firm pensions to supplement what you are paying them. They will appreciate the opportunity to stay employed and, yes, make some money.

I am confident that 40- to 55-year old general counsel will be able to lead older attorneys. General counsel are successful people who will appreciate having the experience in their departments, and this will outweigh any discomfort or fear of being second guessed.

I predict this future will arrive before I retire, and that my 50+ placement numbers will improve accordingly. We are in the business of giving our customers what they need. I am very proud, for example, for the third year in a row more than 20% of the attorneys we placed were racial minorities. It makes me feel good to help our clients meet or exceed diversity objectives. I hope we can place more 50+ age attorneys. Reality check: the supply of older candidates far exceeds the current interest in them. Eventually, the demographics will change that.


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