Goodbye Boomers, It's Been Great to Know You

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I typically eschew making predictions about the future. To me, they largely are an exercise in vanity, aren’t much more than pure guesswork, and carry no consequences for the prognosticator if they are wrong (no one follows up). That said, however, there is one thing related to the legal services marketplace that very well could happen as a result of the pandemic – a push toward transition and retirement for the oldest lawyers among us, and the opening up of opportunity for their youngers.

I say this not only from professional experience (I have been consulting to law firms and law departments for 30 years, and practiced law for 14 years prior to that), but from a very personal point of view as well. I turned 70 in March. I’m fortunate to be healthy, active and engaged in my life, professional and otherwise. Until the past few weeks, and given the fact that I love what I do, my plan was to keep working full time, on a year-by-year basis, so long as I remained healthy and continued to be challenged and rewarded in my practice. But things have changed for me, and obviously for billions of people around the world. If my situation is at all emblematic of what others my age are feeling, retirement, or at least partial retirement, may all of a sudden be in the offing for both senior and relatively-senior lawyers working in law firms and law departments.

We Boomers have long stymied progression for younger workers by taking up much of the space, in terms of positions and jobs, to which younger lawyers aspire. This hasn’t been completely true across the board, obviously, but the daunting size of my generation, and the degree to which so many decided to not retire, or to un-retire after the recent, Great Recession, have served to thwart the career goals of many of those coming behind. What retirement means, and when it happens, has been redefined by those of us born since 1946, which is the start of the Baby Boomer generation, the academics tell us.

This potential change of plans isn’t due to difficulties related to sheltering in place for senior lawyers. In fact, there have been some extremely rewarding aspects of having done so for nearly two months now, and the duty has been anything but terribly tough for those of us who can afford to take 50 days (and counting) off. What is much scarier, and anxiety-inducing, is the thought of having to go back fully and physically into society and work, after businesses and organizations reopen completely and before an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is devised and available. I may not like spending nearly all day every day at home, and not seeing my child and grandchildren up close (which is the worst part of the present situation for me), but the soon-to-be alternative certainly seems much worse. My age alone puts me in a high-risk category for the virus, and although there are drawbacks to sheltering in place, they sure beat the prospect of having to leave my shelter.

I suspect that many others around my age and in my situation feel the same. Like me, other senior lawyers who just a few months ago might have planned to continue to work well into the future, likely are recalculating their retirement horizons because these new risks, that none of us foresaw, now outweigh personal desires to remain fully employed in in-person environments. This is especially true because many in my cohort have the means to retire without significant negative changes to their lifestyles. If you’re 70 or even 65 or 60, retirement may look a lot more like the better choice than it did in December, and because many of us can afford to retire, we might just do so.

If that happens, there will be a quantitative easing of the age-and-position succession pipeline, which will have the beneficial effect of opening up opportunity for those further down that pipeline. Organizations will benefit as well because new Boomer retirements will help law firms and legal departments keep remaining lawyers busier and less subject to potential layoffs than they otherwise might be and as they were in the Great Recession of 2008. Senior lawyers will be happier knowing that they will have more control over their exposure to the virus, and younger lawyers, finally, will be able to say, “Boomers it’s been good to know you. How can we help you transition your clients and your legal work to ourselves and others in the firm or the department?”


James S. Wilber is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc. He heads Altman Weil's services to corporate and government law departments. He advises law firms and corporate law departments on administrative structure, management and leadership and is a former practicing lawyer and law office manager. 

Contact him at jswilber@altmanweil.com.

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