Three years ago, when Washington State Bar Association released a membership survey, there was one glaring challenge:
The Evergreen State’s legal industry has a looming age problem.
Much of WSBA’s membership is nearing retirement age, with over half the members being age 51 and over, and 21 percent being 61 or over. About 79 percent fall into the legal definition of “age as a protected class,” age 40 and over.
Moreover, the survey discovered, nearly a quarter of respondents were considering retirement within the next five years, while three percent have taken concrete steps to leave law altogether over the next two years (apart from retirement).
“These findings, within the context of societal trends, point to the overwhelming likelihood that in the next five years, WSBA will face a retirement wave that comes close to doubling the statistically expected average of 12 percent. A retirement rate of this magnitude (4.8 annualized) will lead to over 1,400 members leaving the active practice of law each year,” the analysis stated, pointing to the aging boomer cohort as the main culprit.
But, all of that was three years ago.
While there hasn’t been an updated survey since, there has been more effort to diversify the age range of attorneys at South Sound law firms, in attempt to prepare the younger generation for when older lawyers finally do retire. There is also an effort to give the younger generation more ownership.
Richard Phillips, a partner at Phillips Burgess in Olympia, 67 years old, knows he is closing in on retirement. In fact, he said, one of the reasons he helped found Phillips Burgess was because “it was just an opportunity for me to spend the last 10 years of my career having a lot of fun.”
But he also noted that having someone his age at the firm can often be a stumbling block for younger lawyers — especially considering that people may practice law well into their 70s.
“They’re looking around. ‘How long will it be before I’m the senior partner?’ and say, ‘I don’t want to spend 30 years here?’ Those of us who are older, if we don’t pass control on to the younger people, they will go on to start their own firms,” he said. “I don’t think we do a good job, those of us who are older, getting out of the way of younger people.”
And indeed, many younger lawyers in the South Sound have been looking to start their own “boutique” law firms — smaller, more flexible and, they might say, more nimble and efficient.
One such law firm is Ledger Square Law in Tacoma, which was founded at the beginning of 2015. Co-founder Jason Whalen, 52, said he and his partners saw an opportunity to make something of their own and gain freedom.
“From my perspective, after 25 years of practicing, I think there was an interest to have something at the end of the next 20 years. One of the components we looked at was rent — do we want to continue to pay rent, or do we want to buy something that we can ultimately create ourselves?” Whalen said.
Phillips Burgess, which started in 2012, was founded on similar principles. But as the law firm continues to grow, it hopes to avoid having talent leave for the same reasons. Phillips said a partner tract is discussed at the very outset for new hires, and he himself tries to be more hands off as he gradually passes the reins off to Burgess and the other partners.
Firm administrator Larissa Stewart said business succession has been a real problem in the legal industry, and that Phillips Burgess hopes to buck the trend.
“The reality is there wasn’t a great deal of focus put on succession planning. In that early time period of your practice, it was about building your name and your practice. You have a fair number of attorneys who reach that retirement age and if they haven’t planned for that, they will literally just close the doors,” Stewart said.
Right now, attorneys at Phillips Burgess range from 28 to 67, with an average age of about 43. The firm also has a law clerk, age 25, who will be taking the bar next spring.
“I think here we do a good job of hiring not just based off skillsets, but also with that in mind. You have to have people in different phases of their career.”
The average age of attorneys at Ledger Square is about 46, with Whalen in the upper range of that. While it will be a while before Whalen and the other partners decide to retire, they are starting to think about the next generation.
“Within that ‘average age,’ we do have a younger associate and may look, down the road, to adding another, which provides opportunities for business succession,” Whalen said.
Ryen Godwin, an attorney for McGavick Graves, 33 years old, said succession is increasingly becoming a concern in Tacoma. He said if you look around, you will see a lot of gray hairs.
“Are those firms still going to be around if they haven’t hired or brought on lawyers in their 30s, 40s or brand new lawyers who are in their 20s?” he asked, rhetorically.
It’s an experience that McGavick Graves went through starting in 2010, when older lawyers were looking to retire and younger lawyers started assuming ownership roles.
“We have a younger group. We’re going to be around for a long time,” Godwin said, noting that the bulk of lawyers are now in their 40s.
Stephen Bean, of Bean, Gentry, Wheeler and Paternell, said he has been practicing law for 50 years and — he believes — is the oldest practicing lawyer in Olympia. He has no plans to quit, either.
“As long as my health permits, I intend to be a lawyer,” he said. “I like doing it.”
Still, he notes, the firm won’t collapse when he leaves, and he understands the necessity of mentoring the younger generation.
“We now have 12 lawyers here,” he said. “There are some bright young lawyers in here who I like to help with my type of practice, and two or three of them are going to be quite capable of doing what I do — better than I do. They’re bright and they’re good.”
In response to the results of its membership survey, WSBA created the Practice Transition Opportunity Program, offering legal education, transition workshops, buying and selling resources, free webinars, succession planning services and more.
“That’s a very important and key part of a successful firm is the ability for that generation to pass the reigns off,” Stewart said.
An important component of easing transition at local law firms has been keeping the older legal practitioners around while they transition out, so they can provide institutional knowledge and help mentor the younger generation.
For example, at McGavick Graves, retiring lawyers can stay on with the firm as part-time counsel. They continue working on cases as they see fit, but more in the manner of a contract lawyer, rather than a full-time partner.
“As the older lawyers phase out, the younger lawyers can continue to work for their clients, so they can get to know a new face, and the younger lawyers have the benefit of getting excellent training from the older lawyers,” Godwin said.
Still, the transition can be painful, Godwin said. It can be hard to lose all of the experience that the older attorneys brought to the firm.
“Institutional knowledge is tough (to transition) in law firms, as it is in any professional service. You have the firm, but you have these key people at this firm,” Godwin said, “the ones who have the base knowledge. If you lose that, you can’t just transition that knowledge to a new person. You can’t just write down all their knowledge on a piece of paper and say, ‘Here you go.’”