Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2011

“The boomers’ biggest impact will be on eliminating the term ‘retirement’ and inventing a new stage of life... the new career arc.” —Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School

Salem attorney and baby boomer Martha Pagel is enjoying her journey along the glide path. A term that is gaining increasing popularity within the boomer lexicon, the “glide path” is a strategy to semiretire from working so that one can enjoy more leisure time while still being able to pursue professional challenges and maintain financial stability.

Pagel, 57, a shareholder with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, says she expects to cut her work schedule to three-quarters time or even half time within the next two or three years.

“Even now I appreciate being able to take more time off and having greater flexibility in my schedule,” says Pagel, who specializes in water resources. Her career has included serving as an assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice’s natural resources section, director of the Oregon Division of State Lands, a senior policy advisor for natural resources for former Gov. Barbara Roberts and director of the Oregon Water Resources Department. She joined Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt as a shareholder in 2000.

“I love what I do. I love the direct interaction with clients and coworkers, and the ability to have an impact on policy,” she says. “I like being part of the firm and I still feel like I have more to learn from being in a law firm. And I appreciate the income.”

Along with the personal rewards of semiretirement, Pagel believes law firms — and the legal sector as a whole — benefit from boomers bucking traditional retirement at age 65 and continuing to work in varying degrees.

“With every year I gain more experience and I can share that, so one of the big benefits is being able to put that to work for our clients and for the profession,” Pagel says. “I don’t think any of us are viewing retirement as getting out the rocking chair. I see a time when I will stop working to do other things, but I really like the glide path approach.”

Pagel is among the boomer attorneys who are redefining retirement. As of last summer, more than one-quarter million lawyers were 55 years or older, according to the American Bar Foundation. The boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, now make up a quarter of the U.S. population.

The move to diversify retirement options for boomers has gained such momentum that in 2007 the ABA’s House of Delegates passed a resolution opposing mandatory retirement and called on law firms to eliminate such age-based policies. In January 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Kelley Drye & Warren, claiming its mandatory retirement policy violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The following April, the national law firm dropped its retirement policy in response to the lawsuit.

Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal, a nationwide legal staffing service, says that as the median age of U.S. attorneys continues to rise, a growing number of firms have replaced mandatory retirement policies with options such as “phased retirement.” This allows senior lawyers to have flexible hours, part-time or seasonal work and the ability to work remotely from home or a vacation residence.

As another retirement option, more boomer attorneys are choosing to retire from their firms but continue the relationship as an independent consultant, Volkert notes in a white paper titled, “Law Offices Re-examine Traditional Retirement Model.”

A 2007 report by the Multnomah Bar Association showed that many Oregon lawyers who are boomers are planning to remain within the workforce in varying degrees. While the report, “Bridging the Gap,” was intended to address the generation gap among local lawyers, it also highlighted some intriguing facts regarding boomers’ attitude toward their career and retirement.

For the report, the MBA surveyed just over 1,300 members, 636 of which were baby boomers. Of those, about 65 percent were men and 35 percent were women. The majority of boomers surveyed, 86 percent, expressed a high level of satisfaction with their jobs.

Conducted the year before the economic downturn, the survey showed the majority of boomer lawyers questioned expected to be fully retired within 10 years. However, several boomers included in the survey said they wished they had begun planning earlier for their retirement.

Linda Green Pierce, president of Northwest Legal Search Inc., says she talked with several senior partners who were preparing to retire before the recession. When the economy tanked, some saw their retirement savings shrink and decided to keep working a few years longer.

“As we come out of the recession I think those things will be reassessed but, in general, all of those assessments of whether and when they will retire have changed for senior lawyers over the years,” she says.

Money Rarely the Main Motivation
While the recession’s impact on retirement savings most likely has led some Oregon attorneys who are boomers to keep practicing, several say they still work simply because they continue to enjoy what they do.

Ed Harnden, 64, managing partner with Portland’s Barran Liebman, says he helps other senior lawyers at the firm with their transition strategies as they begin contemplating retirement. He, however, has no plans to retire.

“The reason I say I’m not going to retire is because I love what I do,” says Harnden. “I think if you get to the point where you don’t love the practice anymore, that’s one thing. But if it provides you with opportunities to do good work, then to just drop out seems to me to be kind of a waste.”

Harnden says that he appreciates the mental challenge and intellectual stimulation that goes along with his employment law practice, noting he also finds it invigorating to help solve problems for clients.

“It also gives me a chance for community involvement, which is where I spend a fair amount of time. It gives me a way to help more than I would otherwise,” says Harnden, who has devoted nearly four decades to supporting the state’s legal aid system and is a founding member of the Lawyers’ Campaign for Equal Justice.

Peter Richter, 66, a partner at Portland’s Miller Nash, also plans to keep working, noting his creative juices are still energized by studying, learning and teaching the art of persuasion and advocacy, particularly as it relates to jury trials.

“I’m at a very good stage in my career where I can pick and choose the issues I handle, and I have a lot of support here at Miller Nash,” Richter says. “I still work 10- or 12-hour days if I’m getting ready for depositions or a trial, but I can also take time off and I don’t have to fill in hours like I used to.”

In addition to his practice, Richter teaches trial advocacy at Lewis & Clark College’s Northwestern School of Law. In 1999, he cofounded the Oregon State Bar’s Trial Advocacy College, a hands-on trial advocacy program for young lawyers. His work with young lawyers illustrates the differences in how the brain functions at various ages.

“Young lawyers are trained in law school to look at every legal issue and fact and write a 20-page recitation on it, but when you’re older you learn to look at the client and provide them with a quick, concise answer,” Richter says. “As the brain ages we’re better equipped to do that, which is another good reason to keep us around.”

The brain’s function as it ages is a topic explored at length in Barbara Strauch’s new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain – The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. Strauch, a deputy health and science editor at the New York Times, theorizes that the brain hits its prime between the 40s and late 60s, and this focus on high-level performance explains why we begin to misplace our car keys — and, sometimes, our car — as we reach middle age.

As long as his mental and physical health hold out, Albert Menashe contends, he will continue to practice family law. Menashe, 61, managing shareholder at Gevurtz Menashe in Portland, says he also appreciates the opportunity to foster mentorship programs that teach younger lawyers not only professional skills, but professional conduct as well.

“Plus I have the added privilege of having my son work with me, so I get to be with him every day. I just can’t imagine doing anything else,” says Menashe.

Thom Brown, 59, a partner at Cosgrave Vergeer Kester in Portland, does foresee himself retiring from his appellate law practice when he turns 65 — that is, unless an irresistible opportunity comes along.

“The only thing that would change that in my own mind, absent catastrophic or health issues, would be if I was so fortunate as to end my career on the Oregon Supreme Court. Then I would certainly extend my career beyond 65,” he says.

Boomers’ Upbringing a Factor in Retirement Decisions
The fact that baby boomers have a broader array of options later in their careers sets them apart from their predecessors, who grew up during the Depression and, for the most part, were not as focused on the personal satisfaction their careers may or may not have provided. Many boomers inherited their parents’ Depression-era work ethic, however.

“I rarely saw my dad because he got up early in the morning and worked late to support the family, and that was true for many of my friends’ parents,” Richter says. “Even though our parents were able to give us an education and help us, to some extent, with getting a college education, we were raised in that environment where you had to work.”

Richter notes that law firms, particularly large law firms, evolved with the same general pattern because most of their founding partners were raised by Depression-era parents.

“Their primary goal in life was to succeed in their profession, so it was a 24/7 experience,” he says. “Some of that rubbed off on us, though it’s not as extreme.”

Menashe says that while boomers have attempted to achieve a better work-life balance than their predecessors, it’s been a difficult challenge at times.

“I think the younger lawyers today live a much more balanced life. I grew up thinking I had to work hard and support my family, and I missed some of my son’s activities that I wish I hadn’t,” Menashe says.

Harnden says he remembers that when he was a young lawyer starting out, several senior partners in his firm continued to keep working in those “pre-401K days” because they needed the income. Others simply had not developed outside interests that would keep them entertained and intellectually stimulated after retiring from their careers.

“Career enjoyment wasn’t really a point of discussion in the past. It was more about earning a living to support your family,” he says. “The problem was that many firms back then didn’t have the tools to let people know when they weren’t functioning at a high level anymore.”

Harnden points out that while firms today are much more adept at creating transition plans for aging partners, ultimately it is up to the individuals to monitor their mental acuity and ability to meet their clients’ needs.

“You still need to have the ability to do a great job for the client, and sometimes it’s the client’s choice. If they aren’t using your services, it’s time to take a look at the value of your service,” he says.

In addition, senior attorneys need to examine whether their decision not to retire is impacting the ability of younger associates to take on bigger responsibilities within the firm, Harnden says.

“I think that’s something firms with three people or more certainly need to look at, and that shouldn’t be happening because the more senior attorneys owe it to the profession and their firm to take on the mentoring role. They need to say, ‘How am I helping younger attorneys with the time and experience I have?’ ” he says, adding it is essential that senior attorneys transition their work and knowledge to younger attorneys.

“If the more senior attorneys don’t do as much mentoring as we should the drawback is that our experience and judgment are great, but we’re not passing it along so it’s not helping as much as it should,” Harnden says.

Brown agrees, noting he transitioned from managing partner to partner on Jan. 1, 2010, with the goal of strengthening his firm by creating an opportunity for others to fill the leadership role.

“Younger people need to be compelled to grow, expand and take over and that won’t happen if boomers and traditionalists in the firm don’t move on,” he says.

Jason Hirshon, a 32-year old attorney with Portland firm Slinde & Nelson and chair elect of the Oregon New Lawyers Division, says the impact of boomer lawyers not retiring, especially during this recession, is a double whammy for young lawyers.

“The big firms aren’t hiring, so you don’t see a lot of younger attorneys able to get in. It’s a big issue and I think we can equate that to a lot of baby boomers not retiring,” he says.

Before joining Slinde & Nelson, Hirshon worked for a firm that was founded more than three decades ago. The partners already were senior lawyers, so Hirshon figured he would have a chance to advance relatively soon.

“They were still there when I left, and they may still be there. There were people who had been there for 10 years or longer who hadn’t made partner yet,” he says. “Among the big firms we have seen some associates not move up on track, and I think a lot of the firms are nervous about becoming too top heavy.”

Hirshon says a growing number of law firms are exploring new management models that form a diamond shape rather than the traditional pyramid shape. In the diamond model, there are fewer partners, more midlevel attorneys, and fewer entry-level attorneys.

Despite this dynamic, Hirshon says he doesn’t hear much frustration among younger attorneys.

“The reason I don’t hear a lot of grumbling is that a lot of younger attorneys are unsure about whether they want to become a partner,” he says, noting the economic instability within the profession and, to some degree, the demands of a management position.

“You don’t hear work-life balance thrown around as much as you did when I graduated five years ago. I think everyone is just happy to have work and will work their fingers to the bone to stay busy,” Hirshon says.

Another reason young attorneys may have accepted the longer-term presence of their boomer counterparts is that they recognize the value of mentorship within the profession. The MBA’s “Bridging the Gap” survey found that generation X associates appreciate the professional development mentorship senior attorneys provide, as well as their expertise, knowledge and experience.

“I think the mentoring is absolutely a great thing, and I know a lot of young attorneys who are finding great mentoring opportunities,” Hirshon says.

Looking Ahead to the Next Stage
Richter, a longtime mentor for young lawyers at Miller Nash, says he relishes the opportunity to fill that role and provide leadership opportunities for associates.

“We hire young associates with the intent that they will succeed and become partners. The partners share the pie very readily because we see not just the future of the firm, but the future of us existing partners at stake,” he says. “I don’t want to work 2,100 hours anymore. I want to pass on what experience, knowledge and training I can to the younger lawyers so they will succeed and also keep me around longer.”

Harnden says he, too, enjoys mentoring young attorneys, and he looks forward to focusing more of his time and expertise helping nonprofit organizations that need legal services but can’t afford them.

“Those are areas where senior lawyers can make a difference and with great enjoyment,” he says.

Brown says that he while he looks forward to retirement, stepping away from the practice of law does not mean disengaging from intellectually challenging and otherwise meaningful endeavors.

“I think many boomers would say, ‘I want to get out of this grind,’ but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go to a retirement community or play golf seven days a week,” he says. “What it means is that I’m going to find other interests and things to do that are fulfilling and are not so singularly demanding as my practice.”

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. 

© 2011 Melody Finnemore

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