April 2, 2012 5:53 PM

Happily Ever After

Posted by Aric Press

Recently I’ve spent time with several groups of happy big-firm partners. They talk about their fulfilling work, grateful clients, and collaborative colleagues. They say they can’t wait to start their next project. Mostly, they smile. Several I’ve known for years: I can’t help but notice how relaxed—and energized—they appear. Is it something in the water? Have the new meds kicked in? Am I imagining things? No. I’m meeting lawyers who have started second careers.

I’ve seen them on campus at Harvard, where they’re involved in a remarkable new leadership program, and I’ve seen them at the International Senior Lawyers Project, a splendid decade-old effort aimed at sending lawyers abroad on a variety of volunteer public service missions. (Full disclosure: Until a month ago, my wife was ISLP’s executive director. Given the inherent conflicts, I never wrote about its work. What I address here is otherwise publicly available.)

Both these programs—the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and ISLP—address the next great demographic bomb, the retirement of the baby boom generation. We’ve touched on this issue before: Our former contributing editor Marc Galanter, the insightful University of Wisconsin law professor, wrote about it it more than a decade ago [“The Graying of the Bar,” June 2000]. (For a helpful recent review of the issue, see Deborah Rhode’s 2011 paper for the ABA’s Center for Professional Responsibility, “Senior Lawyers Serving Public Interests.”)

Think of it this way: For lawyers and their law firms, this may be the single greatest departure of lawmaking talent since Moses walked up Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land and die. How this Great Leaving is handled and managed will mark the profession and the nation, for good or ill.

The good is pretty obvious. “There is real satisfaction in doing what you have done all your career, but this time on the side of the angels,” Jeffrey Wood, a retired Debevoise Plimpton partner, told a packed room at ISLP’s tenth anniversary gala. Since he retired, Wood had been a key member of a team helping Liberia’s new government negotiate contracts with multinationals for access to the nation’s resources. Independent monitoring groups have credited Wood and pro bono colleagues from Hogan Lovells with getting better, more transparent deals than earlier, corrupt regimes had commanded.

At Harvard, “the idea is to produce people who can have an impact on society, who can imagine solutions to big problems in a big way,” says business school professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She and colleagues from schools around the famously atomized campus bring together two dozen fellows for a year of multidisciplinary classes and seminars. They expect fellows to draft, defend, and refine a big idea with their group, and to leave with a plan.

For Harvey Freishtat, the retired chair of McDermott Will Emery, that has meant building on a prominent health care practice to help create a nonprofit to tackle end-of-life medical issues. For Paul Irving, the retired chair at Manatt, Phelps Phillips, the program led to his becoming the chief operating officer at the Milken Institute, an economic policy think tank. Robert Saudek, from Morris, Manning Martin, has joined an affordable energy project in Africa. “In some ways,” says Freishtat, “you get taken back to some of the reasons—and hopes—you had when you chose your career. I wanted to be a lawyer to help make a difference for people and the greater society. Some of that you get accomplished along the way, but this, this is the full dose. This goes back to your roots. There’s a joy to it.”

There is great opportunity here for law firms. Obviously, most partners will eventually have to leave. But how they leave and the support they’re given—and can reciprocate—after they’re gone will say a good deal about a firm’s real culture. Firms can provide office space, malpractice insurance, and general support for cases and causes. They might want to revive the tradition of keeping around a few old hands to serve as mentors and culture carriers. There are dozens of variations. Will this departure be a race for the ice floes, or a considered and considerate view of a second professional life? Do you want to model for your juniors how you’d like to be treated—or will you assume they’ll all be gone before you get old? Up to you.

Press, ALM’s editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.

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