Baby-boomers are making their mark on the demographic frontier again–this time valiantly fending off the mandatory retirement that generations of law firm partners before them submitted to. 

The Sidley Austin age-discrimination case, which arose when 32 partners lost their full partner status, ended last fall after two-and-a-half years and seven court decisions (all lost by Sidley Austin) without a decision on the merits.  It did end with a large payment of cash, $27.5 million to be precise, to the aged-50-something+ lawyers, and an uneasy feeling in the pit of many legal bellies.  Left unanswered was the question of whether and when law partners are employers or employees for purposes of the EEOC, a determination which may be even thornier with the proliferating partner tiers in partnerships.

Even if they don’t sue, baby boomers don’t have to take being put out to pasture lying down–they can usually find a firm that will appreciate their talents.  Barry Bryer left Wachtell, Lipton for Latham & Watlkins in 2005 to escape a mandatory retirement policy, and antitrust specialist A. Paul Victor left Weil, Gotshal for Dewey & LeBoeuf for the same reason. 

So what’s the right tact for law firms to take today?  Over half of law firms have age-mandated retirement policies on the books, with a majority of those requiring retirement at 70.  An Altman Weil study found that only 38% of lawyers in management roles agree with having age-mandated retirement policies, although given that nearly 60% of law partners are now over 55 years of age, there’s a good possibility that the disapproving 62% may have their own self-interest in mind.

Many firms argue that these policies are necessary for the transitioning of client relationships, firm leadership and firm profits to more productive, younger partners.  The policies also, of course, automatically trigger firm action, avoiding the firm having to find the will and the muscle to individually evaluate older partners and confront those who are not productive.

Advocates for dropping these age-driven policies point out that, at a time when firms have been bemoaning recruitment and retention challenges, 80% of the growth in the U.S. workforce over the next 15 years will be in the "over 50" age bracket.  And nearly 80% of all baby boomers, according to the US Census Bureau, want to continue to work during retirement.  Why isn’t retaining lawyers who are healthier at their ages than earlier generations, who have proven capable and dedicated, and whose experience makes them highly valuable in a global market, a win-win solution for all involved?

But even without the impetus of a court declaring such a retirement policy illegal, the trend toward dropping aged-mandated policies is clear. The American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution in August 2007 calling for law firms to end age-based retirement policies.  A special committee of the New York State Bar Association concluded that mandatory retirement within law firms at an arbitrary age is not an accepted practice and sent a letter to major law firms in New York asking them to pledge to end those plans, which a number of firms have signed.  

Last year Pillsbury Winthrop announced the abandonment of its mandatory retirement policy and instead supports partners in developing an individual approach to transition.  Senior partners build three-to-five year career transition plans, receive financial planning services to make sure financials don’t drive the decisions and consult professional career consultants for additional support and advice.

According to Holland & Knight,  "We do not have a mandatory retirement policy, although our partnership agreement now requires a conversion from equity or nonequity partner to senior partner status at age 70.  We have many active senior partners in their 70s and 80s and greatly value their contributions."

So are we ever going to get rid of them?