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For lawyers, competency issues differ based on age

June 28, 2017

When a group of Indiana lawyers was asked who had ever faced age-related discrimination at work, whether for being too young or too old, nearly half the hands in the room went up.

The question, posed earlier this month at the Indiana State Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Conference, pointed toward a common issue in the practice of law — older and younger attorneys struggling to convince clients and co-workers they are competent to handle their work. For the law’s youngest employees, the issue is usually a lack of experience that is perceived to equate to a lack of skill. And for attorneys who are nearing retirement age, common stereotypes, such as an inability to use modern technology, can paint them in an incompetent light.

Experience and marketing

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For Allyson Claybourn, associate general counsel for Berry Global in Evansville and chair of the ISBA’s Young Lawyers Division, the hardest people to convince of her legal abilities are clients, who often doubt young attorneys’ capacities to tackle complex cases.

“I think that clients have a certain idea of what they want lawyers to look like and the experience level they want them to have,” the 33-year-old said. “A lot of the struggle for young attorneys is proving their competency with their young age and less experience on the job.”

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The most important step toward establishing a reputation of being a competent attorney is to master the technical skills of being a lawyer, said Marilee Springer, a partner with Ice Miller LLP. When she mentors young associates, Springer advises them to first hone their technical skills and “credential” themselves by serving on boards and booking speaking engagements. Such credentialing is key to overcoming a presumption of inexperience, she said.

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But what younger attorneys lack in experience, they make up for in the ability to market themselves to the community once they have proven themselves to be reputable, Claybourn said. Dan Gioia, a partner with Burke Costanza & Carberry LLP in Valparaiso, agreed and noted that adapting to new marketing techniques is among the biggest challenges facing today’s most senior practitioners.

When Gioia, 66, began practicing law, the concept of legal marketing was not prevalent. But now, attorneys who want to grow their practices are expected to have profiles on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and update those sites regularly to keep in constant communication with potential clients.

Considering the stereotype that older attorneys are resistant to new technology — a stereotype Gioia said he agrees with and has witnessed first-hand — the effort required to expand a client base in today’s world can be a major disadvantage to older attorneys still in the market for new business.

Cognitive concerns

But the biggest concern for aging attorneys is not technology, but declining mental health, Gioia said.

Gioia, chair the ISBA’s Senior Attorneys Section, recalled an instance in his career in which a partner at a firm, who was in his 70s or 80s, began to struggle to perform his work competently due to cognitive issues. The solution was to pair the partner with either a paralegal or legal assistant to ensure the necessary tasks were completed. Such situations do not always present obvious solutions, however, as it can be difficult to tell a longtime attorney he or she is no longer competent to work on their own, he said.

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Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court’s Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, agreed, but said there is a process JLAP encourages law firms to go through before telling an older attorney it’s time to retire.

It is important for attorneys to get an accurate assessment of the causes of their cognitive issues. What might appear to be early signs of dementia could actually be an issue rising from depression or even be stress-induced, she said.

With an assessment in place, Harrell said attorneys should be referred to a medical or mental health professional who can provide guidance on how to best treat their problems. If a cognitive issue is related to dementia or other serious mental conditions, then often it is easier for the attorney to hear that news from his or her doctor than from a family member or co-worker.

The next step in the process is to develop a plan, such as Gioia’s example of pairing an aging attorney with a paralegal who can ensure necessary tasks are completed. But if such a partnership can’t improve the situation, Harrell said it’s important to help the attorney understand what life could be like after retirement.

For an attorney who has devoted 50 years of his or her life to the practice of law, imagining a world without the work can be difficult, the JLAP director said, but a cognitive issue doesn’t have to be the end of the line. Retired attorneys can still be called in to consult on big-picture issues for their firms, she said, or even continue their service on boards.

While cognitive issues make up only a small percentage of calls made to JLAP each year, Harrell stressed that attorneys who notice older partners beginning to struggle with their work should call for advice. Every call is confidential, so younger attorneys or other colleagues who are afraid of offending a revered partner don’t have to worry about their concerns being made public.

Learning from each other

Though attorneys just beginning their careers and those nearing retirement face different professional issues, legal professionals from both age groups said there are things they can learn from the other generation.

For example, Claybourn said she has been lucky to have two legal mentors in her life — her supervisors at Berry Global. Those attorneys, both women, have not only taught her how to be an effective attorney, but also how to project confidence, which she said is the key to overcoming bias against younger attorneys.

Springer agreed that mentorship programs are important for young attorneys, but said Ice Miller is revamping such programs to benefit attorneys at all career levels. This August, the firm will begin piloting a career coaching program with its incoming first-year lawyers, who will receive feedback from older partners each time they complete a project, rather than waiting for an annual review. The program eventually will expand to include all non-partner attorneys across all of Ice Miller’s markets.

Such feedback is beneficial for all lawyers, but more so for young attorneys because the program will focus on building on the strengths they demonstrate during projects, rather than pointing out weaknesses, as is often done during year-end reviews, Springer said.

And there is plenty that older attorneys can learn from new associates, Gioia said, such as the best ways to utilize modern technology in the practice of law. Though some older attorneys may be resistant to changes in their field, Gioia said he tries to encourage his colleagues from his generation to embrace technologically driven developments.

Young attorneys’ methods of practicing law will become the predominant methods, he said, so attorneys who will soon retire need to overlook their generational biases and instead encourage associates as they rise through the ranks into the future of the law.•

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