Ageism: a favorite topic among dinosaur lawyers who are pushed out, shoved out, reduced in force, tempted with generous severance packages but who aren’t ready for rounds of golf, golf, and more golf, or lives of bridge, bridge, and more bridge. One of my former colleagues is retiring soon; she has not been pushed or shoved out. She decided that now, fast approaching 70, was the time to move on. But she worries: what will she do if she’s no longer practicing law? Is she still a lawyer? Absolutely. We have had so much of our professional identity wrapped up in what we have done and that doesn’t just disappear.
The big challenge for dinosaur lawyers is what to do, if anything, with all that knowledge gained over a lifetime of experiences, some good, some bad. I have colleagues and friends who want nothing to do with the law anymore, who are now what the state bar calls “inactive,” and they are more than happy with that designation. They pursue other interests that they never had time for while practicing; they volunteer, they mentor, but just not in the legal community. They are happy to leave the practice of law behind them. They push out with the old stuff and replace it with new.
Others feel that all those years of practice can be best used to help others who need legal assistance but can’t afford it. (Sound familiar?) For those who want to remain active, but don’t want to have to maintain an office and all that entails, the state bar has a Pro Bono Practice Program that pairs with various legal service providers. I would imagine that other states may have similar programs. One upside is that the state bar waives active bar dues.
Others no longer practice law per se, but move into ADR, once hailed as a balm for resolving disputes, but which has now become a cottage industry for retired judges, lawyers who are sick of litigation, and those tired of practicing. However, look at the slew of litigation involving arbitration clauses. Hardly a way to resolve disputes in a less litigious manner.
We keep the pressure on for equity, diversity, and inclusion, but does DEI include coming to terms with the ageism that plagues the profession? Lifespans previously were not as long, so there was less fretting about what to do with elder lawyers. Just like dinosaurs, they became extinct. No longer the case. It’s true that some dinosaur lawyers have lost their edge and continuing to practice does not make sense, but for others, that’s not the case, and to lump all dinosaur lawyers in one giant pile of “off with their heads” is a disservice.
Bloomberg Law has published its “Future of the Legal Industry.” Are we now an “industry” rather than a profession with dual roles as attorneys and officers of the court? Does any other “industry” have such dual responsibilities? I have never considered our profession an industry. “Industry” connotes manufacturing, production, and the like. I have a hard enough time when people call it a business.
While financial incentives help move the DEI needle, there’s still a long way to go. Most firms responding to Bloomberg report that white males still have the leadership roles. (No surprise there; what will be a surprise is that far-off day when women and minority lawyer leadership is no longer news.) Bloomberg points out that rewarding DEI efforts leads to a workplace environment that thrives on diversity. As the Bloomberg headline says, “Put your money where your values are.” If only….
Ageism remains alive and well in our profession as well as in many others. But I take heart, at least a little, from a feature in the LA Times about Betty White, the irrepressible actress and animal health and welfare advocate, who died in her sleep last week just shy of her 100th birthday and who broke many hearts in the process. (I know, it’s a La-La Land story, but stifle yourself, she was a national treasure.) The article pointed out that White was still working well into her 90s and noted that she had begun to represent “a dream of what one’s senior years might look like, a standard bearer not for youth but youthfulness, of continued work and undiminished powers.”
So, dinosaur lawyers, what are your dreams for your senior years? Like anything else, it is a matter of choice. Golfing, playing bridge, and hanging out with grandkids are what some choose to do and good for them. Not everyone will want to continue to work or be able to do so, not everyone will have undiminished powers, not everyone will be able to retain youthfulness, but unless elder lawyers have the chances to show what they can still do if they want to, we lose collective wisdom and abilities as well as institutional and historical perspectives. Let’s not lose the dream of what senior years might look like and how Betty White exemplified them.
We are the generation of lawyers that has lived through assassinations, wars, 9/11, and more historic events than I can name in this limited space. Let’s not forget what happened a year ago today in the Capitol and, as lawyers of whatever vintage, let’s do everything we can to make sure that it was a “one and done.”
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.