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The shape of a career in corporate law is beginning to resemble one in the military. In the service, most officers retire in middle age, except for the few slated to move into the highest ranks. And just as military people anticipate and plan for their second careers, so big-firm lawyers will be pressed to think about “What next?” This new reality creates a new opportunity. Middle-aged partners already face an uncertain future. Recruitment and motivation require that large firms regularly promote younger lawyers into the partnership; profitability demands control over partnership size. It is the older partners who are sacrificed to these two imperatives. With the exception of rainmakers and superstars, partners over 50 are increasingly under pressure to leave gracefully, take early retirement, accept of counsel status, or hang on with diminished status and a reduced share. Much like investment banking, where people are phased out in their late forties, a career in large-firm practice is shifting from a lifelong trajectory, culminating as a respected elder, to a compressed period of 25-30 years of intense and lucrative involvement, followed by a long “retirement.” Smaller practices and corporate law departments will make comparable but less visible accommodations to the profession’s new demographics. America’s older lawyers form an immense pool of human capital — roughly equivalent in size to the legal professions of the entire European Union. Of America’s 1 million lawyers, some 300,000 are over 50. Twenty years from now there will be an estimated 1.25 million lawyers. The number of lawyers below 50, however, will remain about the same, but the number over 50 will nearly double to 560,000. In other words, the profession’s additional growth will consist entirely of older lawyers. Many of them will enjoy financial security, good health, and extended years, but are slated to be involuntary retirees. Does the coming abundance of experienced but underemployed older lawyers offer a way to deliver desperately needed legal services to the poor, while also providing fulfilling work to lawyers? The poor are not getting adequate legal protection. And the public believes (correctly) that legal institutions are more responsive to those with money and influence — an imbalance for which they hold lawyers responsible. Of the hundreds of thousands of experienced lawyers in their fifties and sixties, are there a fraction who would pursue a second career in public interest law if a path were readily available? For some, this may be a new thought. For others, it would mark a return to long-abandoned ambitions. Many entering law students think this is what they want to do. Although student debt and the law school culture tend to deflect students to the corporate ranks, there are still far more graduates who want to do such work than there are openings. Despite spending years in other practice settings, many lawyers have maintained these impulses. A few determined or lucky aspirants presently find their way from private practice to a rewarding place in public service work. But for those considering this route, there are many obstacles and no clear signposts. Just as wildlife managers build ladders to help salmon swim upstream, we need to institutionalize paths for lawyers to make this journey. The most obvious path is to have older lawyer volunteers augment existing legal services offices. Another approach is to create more freestanding “firms” of legal services providers. An example of this is Legal Services for Children, recently launched by Warren Sinsheimer, a retired New York corporate lawyer. A third option is for retired lawyers to remain at their old firms and serve as a pro bono department, enabling firms to fulfill their pro bono obligations while providing an attractive postretirement option for partners. A fourth approach is the law school clinic, where the availability of retired lawyers might allow expanded programs and mentoring. Such transitions might spark culture clashes. In the legal services setting, there could be difficulty integrating senior lawyers who are accustomed to cushier facilities and ample support staff. These newcomers, who are also used to deferential treatment, might find it difficult to defer to younger but more experienced “lifetime” legal services attorneys who lack the indicia of status. Career legal services people will expect to have their expertise acknowledged, and they may view these volunteers, who haven’t endured their sacrifices and frustrations, as lightweights. Apart from the potential friction, there is concern that the corporate lawyer’s expertise is not relevant to representing poor people. Training programs can get lawyers up to speed. And this objection may reflect too narrow a view of the legal needs of public service clients. An infusion of lawyers with expertise in ERISA or banking law could broaden the repertoire of the legal services sector. Corporate lawyers may lack experience in dealing with poor clients and obstinate bureaucrats, but they are not strangers to dealing with foolish and difficult people. And those who do adapt to the very different conditions of public service practice may enjoy a higher degree of professional autonomy than they had experienced in their corporate work. Notwithstanding the cultural hurdles, retired lawyers might infuse the public services sector not only with manpower, but a breadth of expertise and political support. Free of career pressures, they should also be able to act independently and assertively on behalf of their clients. Overall, lawyers are about as satisfied with their lives as any occupational group, but research reveals striking differences in satisfaction between the various legal sectors. Curiously, those lawyers in prestigious, high-income specialties rank lowest in job satisfaction. Public interest work seems to generate the most career fulfillment, and private practice, especially in large firms, the least. Might some of the sense of purpose and meaning experienced by those in public service work be captured by those who turn to it late in their careers? Do the minority who actually did go into public service carry some special predilection for fulfilling work that is lacking in those whose inclination to public service was stifled by the law school culture, or the contingencies of the job market? We can’t be sure. But there are grounds for believing that those who do choose a second career in public service will find it rewarding. The timing is fortuitous. Lawyers who are now proceeding through their fifties went to law school in the period from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s — a time of ferment, excitement about poverty law and public interest law, and misgivings about corporate practice. If there is any cohort of lawyers among whom the appeal of public service work should be revivable, it is the law graduates of this period. For the legal profession as a whole, an increased commitment to public service may produce a number of welcome side effects. The legal profession suffers one of the lowest confidence levels of any prominent American institution. A recent study conducted for the American Bar Association, “Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System,” showed that only 14 percent of a national sample were “very confident” of lawyers, compared to 46 percent for doctors, 39 percent for accountants, and 37 percent for organized religion. The public is skeptical about whether today’s lawyers are devoted to justice. In 1993 a study commissioned by the ABA, “A Survey of Attitudes Nationwide Toward Lawyers,” asked respondents to compare contemporary lawyers with those of the past. It found “that lawyers have suffered the greatest decline in the areas of defending the underdog, providing leadership in the community, and seeking justice.” When asked what would improve their opinion of lawyers, the response most frequently chosen was one that described lawyers providing “free legal services to the needy and to local charities that help the needy.” Large sections of the legal profession have embraced a picture of calamitous decline — loss of collegiality, blunting of public service, rampant commercialism. This dreary picture inspires a great outpouring of nostalgia for the past. The declension scenario is not new, and the imaginary good old days are not a useful model for the future. However, a visible migration of lawyers, including prominent and prosperous ones, into public service work would not only provide needed services; it would reaffirm public service as a central value, and help to restore to the profession a sense of purpose and elan. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The demographic data relied on here is based on an analysis conducted with Paul Voss and Roger Hammer of the Applied Population Laboratory of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A more complete exposition may be found in my article “Old and in the Way: The Coming Demographic Transformation of the Legal Profession and Its Implications for the Provision of Legal Services,” 1999 Wisconsin Law Review 1081. Marc Galanter is John and Rylla Bosshard Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin and LSE Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics. He is working on a study of large firms in Britain that will complement Tournament of Lawyers (with Thomas Palay, Chicago, 1991).

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