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I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I'm probably going to be one of those guys who never retires. On the other hand, I will definitely want to retire from the practice of law at some point in order to focus on other work. So I can understand why 75 year-old and even 80 year-old attorneys keep at it. My issue is not with their age; my issue is with some elderly attorneys' thought processes and personality. It appears that there are plenty of lawyers from the early 1970s vintage who are still capable and competent. However, there are also plenty of lawyers in that group who simply need to retire because they are not serving their clients and are also embarrassing themselves at court. The challenge is, shall we say, delicately bringing those individuals to a better understanding of their need to retire.

The multi-factor retirement test

I propose a multiple factor self-test for evaluating a lawyer's need to retire after age 70:

  1. Has the lawyer missed two or more significant deadlines in the last year?
  2. Has the lawyer been advised to retire by a doctor, close friend, or member of the lawyer's peer group?
  3. Have two or more clients of the lawyer voluntarily departed for a different lawyer in the last year?
  4. Have two or more of the lawyer's law partners departed in the last year?
  5. Does the lawyer have a significant health condition that would significantly affect his or her practice of law, such as memory loss, dementia, or Parkinson's?
  6. Has the lawyer gotten into trouble with the court that would not have happened at a younger age, such as contempt, inappropriate oral argument, or simple forgetfulness?

I think this is a pretty fair test. Two or more "yes" answers suggest to me that the person should retire as soon as possible. There appears to be a "zone of retirement" where the lawyer can appropriately cash in on his or her law practice. If a lawyer is in the zone, they still have new clients coming in and they can amply justify the sale of their practice, or their partnership interest if in a firm. Indeed, there are websites devoted to brokering sales of law firms. If a lawyer is above the zone, their practice is winding down or shrinking, and the price to purchase would decrease a lot. I guess this is about succession planning more than anything else. Ideally the elderly attorney is in a law firm with a range of different-aged partners who can take over and also buy out the retiring lawyer.

Ultimately, this is about people who hang on for too long. There are plenty of elderly drivers who need to stop driving, and there are a lot of elderly doctors who need to stop practicing. So there should be some type of guideline or official test for competence for elderly lawyers too.

Last updated: July 6, 2018

© 2018 Andrew G. Watters