Changing of the Guard

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Last Word: Changing of the Guard

Lexpert, June 2009

By Marzena Czarnecka

There’s a silver lining in every recession, and for a number of forward-looking managing partners, the practically golden lining in this one is recruitment. Good people have been almost impossible to move over the last few years. It’s hard to contemplate changing shop when you’re running from deal to deal, file to file, and have no time to contemplate how unappreciated and unhappy (and possibly underpaid) you are.

I’ve been looking forward to this round of musical chairs from the moment the economy softened, because this round is going to be different. Or, rather, it should be different. The prizes in this round, unlike in the moves of the early 1990s that made partner mobility in the Canadian market acceptable and almost respectable, are going to be—should be—younger. Much younger.

This isn’t just my resentment and obsession with the eventual demise (however long delayed and hard fought) of the dominance of the baby boomers talking. Really. This is my obsession with law firm demographics. (Hey, we all need a hobby. You crash sports cars, she runs marathons—I draw little graphs of the ages of lawyers at this law firm or that, and from this extrapolate its future civil wars and potential increase/decrease in profitability. Ok, it’s a little sad, but I’m getting a little too brittle for sky-diving and bungee jumping.)

According to my little unscientific charts—often drawn on cocktail napkins at dull parties or backs of tree-killing PowerPoint presentation print-outs at duller workshops and seminars—demographics is about to take centre stage in law firm management. Not because of diversity, gender and equity issues—not yet. This revolution is going to be all about age. And, as ever so many things that manage to effect change at the change-allergic law firms, this revolution will be driven from without.

See, while the world economy was having its whacky party during the inaugural decade of the new millennium and law firms fought tooth and claw for clients—and for the senior, marquee name, boomer lawyers connected to these clients—something insidious happened, with hardly anyone noticing.

Corporate counsel got younger. And younger.

Read that sentence again. It’s important. Corporate counsel got younger—and they’re getting younger still. The changing of the guard happened so gradually and so casually that virtually no one at law firms noticed. It wasn’t a case of the boomer Chief Legal Officers and General Counsel retiring en masse and handing the baton over to the younger batch. Some retired, some moved into real executive positions… others retained their titles and nominal oversight, but transitioned more and more of the actual decision-making over to their juniors.

And their juniors aren’t 50-something to the silverbacks’ 60-something. They’re not necessarily even 40-something. I mean—most of them have all their own teeth and undyed hair. They’re barely out of their legal diapers: heck, they barely remember life before the Internet.

The changing of the guard skipped—or is about to skip—a generation. Sometimes two.

The implication for law firms, and talent recruitment during this downturn—can’t be overstated. Essentially, it means, “Buyer Beware.” The 50-something or 60-something marquee partner an ambitious firm wants to poach because of his connections and his clientele may not come quite as advertised. The people he’s connected to—they may not matter any more.

And the younger ones who now matter? They may hate his overbearing aged guts. After all, to paraphrase one of my favourite 30-something partners, “Why else do you go in-house if not to exert some sort of control over who you work with?” And, adds the ever-cynical I, to extract a wee bit revenge if you can get it in on the side?

Or, in the best case scenario, they barely know him and they’d much rather work with one of their own peers, with whom they’ve formed and maintained connections.

‘Tis hard to hear, I know, but it’s true.

And there’ve been indications, in the Calgary market at least, that law firm management is starting to grok on to this. The musical chairs haven’t (at press) started in earnest, but in the preliminary round, the top prize has been on the right side of 40. A certain very senior partner long rumouredd to be on the market is on the market still, with more than one firm muttering that he’s just a tad past his expiration date. (For those of youse still in your prime, a reminder: it’s a cruel profession and a cruel world. Start stacking some money under your mattress now. Better yet, don’t incur a lot of debt, eh?) And there’s more: managing partners here and there are starting to talk, in almost audible tones, about the need to address performance and remuneration issues at the most senior levels. One Calgary firm appears to have embarked on a careful (and very quiet) cull of the old and underperforming and an investment in the new and full of potential.

Here’s hoping they don’t muck it up. Because the future—it’s all about having the right demographics.

Marzena Czarnecka lives, writes and dreads getting old ungracefully in the very young Calgary.

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