Legal profession braces for turnover as half the state's lawyers say they want out

Washington state's legal community may be on the verge of a broad-based succession crisis, as thousands of older attorneys leave the profession faster than they are replaced.

The turnover, largely driven by demographics and economics, poses challenges for firms large and small, although small firms and solo practices seem especially vulnerable.

In response, some large firms are going out of their way to recruit prospective senior leaders, and the bar association is trying to match older attorneys with young lawyers, among other things.

A recent Washington State Bar Association survey discovered that 7,200 of its members - almost a quarter of the state's practicing attorneys - are considering retirement within five years.

Another 32 percent of the bar association's members are weighing whether to leave the profession or cut back on their practices during the same time period.

Seventy-one percent of the WSBA membership is age 50 or older, with 21 percent being 61 or above.

Admissions to the state bar are not keeping pace with retirements. Between 2007 and 2011, the annual number of attorneys admitted to the state bar dropped 13 percent to 1,148, according to state bar data.

In the last five years, 5,997 applicants passed the state bar exam, for an average of just under 1,200 a year, a number that could easily be overtaken by retirements.

"The membership survey was a bit of a wake-up call," said Michael Badger, associate director of lawyer services for the WSBA.

Declining law school enrollments are only adding to the concern, because fewer law school graduates means fewer candidates for the bar. The New York Times reported in March that the number of students taking the Law School Admission Test dropped 25 percent over the past two years, the steepest decrease in more than a decade.

The problem is not limited to Washington state.

"There's a succession-planning crisis going on right now, within law firms and other professional service firms," said Allan Koltin, president and CEO of the Chicago consulting firm Koltin Consulting Group Inc.

Koltin attributes the crisis to a pair of trends that emerged in the 1990s.

First, dot-com companies lured away many potential lawyers and other professional workers. Second, an emphasis on work-life balance soured Generation Xers on following traditional career paths.

"If you worked for a law firm, there was a feeling you were signing your life away," Koltin said. "Students didn't want to be a slave to billable hours."

Today, those students could have been the attorneys preparing to take the reins from senior partners or the keys to a small law office. Instead, older attorneys have fewer younger colleagues who can take over their practices and firms.

To be sure, not all industry observers see a crisis brewing. Tammy Gibson, the Seattle division director for staffing firm Robert Half Legal, said the pool of attorney candidates remains deep.

"I've not noticed any less count of potential recruits," Gibson said. "What I am seeing is that there's becoming more competition within firms."

In sharp contrast to last year, larger firms are asking specifically for candidates they can train to become senior partners. Smaller firms, meanwhile, are expanding searches nationwide.

The result for job seekers has been multiple offers, quick placements, and increased incentives such as signing bonuses and reimbursement for moving expenses. Firms trying to retain lawyers, on the other hand, are raising salaries and offering other compensation, such as flextime and telecommuting.

Seventy percent of lawyers polled in a 2011 Robert Half Legal survey said their law firms or corporate legal departments plan to award their associates pay raises and bonuses.

Smaller firms might not be able to match these enticements, but they have other perks to offer, according to the WSBA's Badger. Among them: the chance to head their own practice.

The WSBA is trying to help by creating a clearinghouse that matches older attorneys with law school graduates and young professionals looking for entry-level positions.

By creating opportunities to link generations, the organization hopes to provide a chance for older attorneys to "exit gracefully," said WSBA President Stephen Crossland, who has a solo practice in Cashmere.

Ideally, older attorneys would mentor protégés for a few years, grooming them to take over when the boomers are ready to step down.

"We're looking at a wide range of programming focused on the over-50 cohort," Badger said of the bar's membership. "The baby boomer generation is between ages 48 and 65, so the graying of the bar is something that's going to be going on at least two more decades."

Crossland, the state bar president, admits he does not have a ready successor for his own practice, which specializes in estate planning and real estate. Nonetheless, he is optimistic.

When he was a young lawyer, he connected with an attorney in his mid-70s, J. Harold Anderson, who mentored Crossland for about seven years.

"The future of the profession is bright," Crossland said. "It's just a matter of making connections."

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