It’s taken a few years, but Heather Folker, communications director at the Colorado Bar Association, says she has become a bit of a numbers person. So, too, she says, have many of the bar’s administrators and Board of Governors members.
“We didn’t use to track our age demographics, even five years ago,” Folker says. “Now, we track it every year. It’s a concern for us.”
And what those latest numbers show in Colorado is a small uptick in the percentage of members over age 45—often considered the midpoint of a lawyer’s legal career—combined with a small decrease in the number of new, younger members joining the bar. It is a scenario many bars face, and one that the Colorado bar is currently tackling in-depth, in what may be the most extensive long-term strategic planning process in its history.
It is a process that Folker calls both exciting—and challenging.
“Our operating costs continue to go up, so we have to be thinking about that a lot,” she says. “We’re spending way too much money on projects that don’t generate a lot of involvement. There are going to be some changes, and I’m sure some people are not going to be happy.”
Colorado bar leaders aren’t the only number watchers, both inside and outside the organized bar. They also aren’t the only ones talking about changes, as discussion about the aging of the profession, the decline in the number of law school graduates, and the challenges they present to bar associations creeps closer to reality. And while some say that bars have been slow to confront the issue, more associations now seem to be moving forward with the dialogue and the actions to address the demographic elephant in the room.
There is genuine concern in the legal community about the future aging of bar associations, but some also see silver linings in the demographic clouds. Whether it’s due to softer financial portfolios, healthier baby boomer minds and bodies, or just a desire to keep the legal juices flowing beyond the average retirement age, many in the profession also see opportunities for older lawyers to continue to be a significant part of their bar associations.
Of course, not every older lawyer who remains in practice enjoys such vigorous health. As lawyers continue to age in a persistently down market, many bar associations struggle over how to protect the public's best interests while also preserving an impaired lawyer's dignity. Look for more in-depth coverage of this reality of an aging profession in an upcoming issue of Bar Leader.