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Experience January/February 2023

Senior Attorneys and Ageism: The Next DEI Frontier

Judith Droz Keyes


  • One law firm handled assisting its aging partners prepare for retirement by creating the Senior Attorneys Group with Experience/Enthusiasm/Energy/Excellence (SAGE) affinity group .
  • The legal community needs such a group due to the prevalence of ageism and age discrimination and the lack of open discussion on age-related issues.
Senior Attorneys and Ageism: The Next DEI Frontier
Anna Stills via Getty Images

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Like most large organizations, my law firm has had affinity groups for many years. The constituency of the original groups was typical: lawyers of color, female lawyers, LGBTQ+ lawyers. Over time, other groups have been added: veterans, flexible-hours lawyers, first-generation professionals.

Five years ago, after thinking about it for months and perceiving both the need for it and its potential value, I proposed to our managing partner that we create an affinity group for senior lawyers. My proposal was immediately accepted and the Senior Attorneys Group with Experience/Enthusiasm/Energy/Excellence—SAGE—was born.

The “E” in our group’s name is flexible. But without it, we would have been SAG—and that wouldn’t have been good.

Because I’m convinced that SAGE has made a meaningful contribution to my firm and to its senior lawyers, I want to share our story.

Why the Need for SAGE?

Ageism is real. Mocking older people is tolerated when it would never be tolerated if another group were the target. Think about the all-too-common “senior moment” and the ubiquitous meme “OK, Boomer.”

Stereotypes of older people—especially older women—abound and are seldom flattering. Another case in point: all those “funny” birthday cards for seniors, meant to be “endearing” but missing the mark by a mile.

Age discrimination is also real. It’s overt at firms that mandate the departure of partners at a designated age. Most firms encourage succession planning, which is a neutral and healthy concept. But it’s often thoughtlessly and callously invoked only with respect to older lawyers.

These realities aren’t discussed at most law firms—at least not openly. To the contrary, talking about age-related issues is discomfiting to some and threatening to others. (Should I consider taking my education dates off my web bio? Whom should I ask?) It’s simply not done in polite company.

Talking about your retirement plans is risking being pigeonholed, marginalized, written off. It’s just safer all around not to talk about these issues, which leaves older lawyers without a community that’s attuned to the issues of this unique stage of life.

SAGE exists to provide a collegial, respectful, empathic, informative, supportive, and “safe” setting for senior lawyers to explore concerns, needs, questions, and interests specific to our cohort. It’s needed. And it adds value to the lawyers and the firm.

How SAGE Helps Our Lawyers

It’s not immodest to observe that SAGE has accomplished a great deal at my firm, nor, I hope, is it impolitic to observe that we have a ways to go. Here’s a brief overview of what we do and where we are:

We offer a safe space—Over lunches, dinners, and happy hours and at seminars in person and remotely, we talk openly with each other about what we’re experiencing (good and bad), the questions we have and don’t know whom to ask, how we’re feeling about our work, what we should and shouldn’t say on LinkedIn and the firm’s website, and whether we’re starting to think about cutting back or retiring.

We know each other well, and we have our seniority in common. So there’s no risk that musing about retirement will translate to anyone thinking we have one foot out the door, which we fear may result in our being pushed out—or marginalized.

We’re advocates—Senior lawyers know how important succession planning is. Most of us have done it, and been the beneficiary of it, at various times in our careers. Senior lawyers aren’t unwilling to engage in succession planning. But we do want some structure around it, some support for it, and some recognition for doing it.

At our firm, SAGE participated in developing a succession protocol for lawyers contemplating retirement that has helped clarify roles and expectations. It isn’t perfect, but it’s helpful—and it has started a healthy conversation that continues.

We’re mentors—Who better to counsel senior lawyers than other senior lawyers? Those who’ve navigated the Social Security and Medicare waters, rebranded themselves with a different focus or niche, relinquished their partner status and embraced a different role, or partially or fully retired all have much to offer those contemplating, or embarking on, those paths.

Our retirees are a wealth of information about what to think about, what to do, and what not to do as we approach and enter retirement. Of course, attorneys have always been able to reach out to trusted colleagues with whom they have a relationship. But what about those who don’t have access to these resources?

Whether it’s an attorney in a branch office or the female attorney who didn’t have a role model when she started practicing in the 1970s and who doesn’t have one now (that one strikes close to home), SAGE fills a need.

We’re a source of information—It was remarkable to discover how much information our senior lawyers didn’t have—and craved. Some of us have insights into some things, but few of us have thought about all the issues. And all of us are unsure where to go find out what we don’t know. So SAGE sponsors meetings and webinars with experts on such topics as:

  • How Medicare works, particularly in relation to our firm-sponsored health insurance (including the number of hours a winding-down lawyer must work to remain eligible) and when and how to sign up for which of the Medicare parts; also, penalties that can flow to the lawyer or the lawyer’s spouse, or both, from untimely filing
  • When to file for Social Security retirement benefits, including how to file and suspend and how the age of your spouse might affect your decision
  • Whether and under what circumstances required minimum distributions must be taken or can be avoided; also, rolling over IRAs and 401(k)s from former firms to the current firm, the best time of the year to retire, and the minimum number of hours that must be worked to postpone RMDs
  • When it makes sense to stop paying the premium for a long-term disability policy

We’ve created a cheat sheet on these and many other topics to make this information more accessible to senior lawyers and junior lawyers as they become senior lawyers. But we have to remember that having sponsored a seminar two years ago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it again (and regularly).

We have fun—Across offices and practice groups, we’ve found that we enjoy each other’s company. No need to put up a false front or to fear that coming out of the closet about our age will brand us.

How SAGE Benefits Our Firm

Our firm is also a better place as a result of SAGE for several reasons:

We’re building community—Although all attorneys are welcome to join, we extend an invitation to those who’ve been in practice for 35 years or more as an inexact proxy for age. Every year, we reach out to lawyers who hit that benchmark and invite them to a welcome event. It’s a rite of passage of sorts that we’ve been surprised has been so celebrated.

This year, one invitee said, “How wonderful! You SAGEs are the backbone of the firm, and I’m thrilled to join you.”

We celebrate our senior lawyers—This year, SAGE began hosting a series of webinar chats with some of our outstanding elders. The first one featured an attorney who’s 80+ years old, still active, and a lion in his field being interviewed by a younger senior lawyer—his mentee who’s also a lion in her own right. This inaugural SAGE event was open to everyone in the firm—and more than 200 attended.

We enhance its culture—Senior lawyers are loyal supporters of the firm, an important part of firm culture, and repositories of firm history. They are sources of knowledge, insight, and perspective for junior lawyers on areas of law, clients, industries, the firm, the community, the profession, and more.

Properly supported and respected, senior attorneys are living examples of what a long-term, successful career can look like and role models for those who aspire to that achievement.

We contribute to its financial success—Senior lawyers typically have significant contacts developed through long-term relationships with clients, other lawyers, judges, academics, and community leaders. They’ve held leadership roles and enjoy meaningful reputations within their practice areas and business or institutional communities, as well as through affiliations with their alma maters, bar associations, professional groups, and the broader community.

Rather than being roadblocks to junior lawyers’ advancement (an oft-stated but ill-informed concern), they can make meaningful contributions to the development of younger lawyers by mentoring, training, and opening doors for them to clients, referral sources, and industry contacts. All of this can happen without SAGE, but SAGE motivates, sustains, and celebrates it.

We’re supporting retirement—SAGE takes information and inspiration from experts, counselors, and those who’ve gone before. But the decision of when and how to retire is intensely personal. What a group like SAGE can do is help with the process of retiring. That includes creating an off-boarding checklist, suggesting hardware and software to buy, encouraging the designation of a staff member as the point person for information, and more.

We support innovation—SAGE is, above all, a work in progress. The group has surveyed the senior attorneys at our firm, identified additional adjustments in various areas, and is working with firm leadership to implement constructive ideas. We’re all about supporting our firm as it continues to learn and get better and better.

How SAGE and DEI Connect

SAGE perfectly fits the DEI construct and furthers DEI goals. Here’s how:

Diversity—Many firms, including ours, now have five generations of lawyers in active practice. Much is being written about what each generation has to teach, and learn from, the others. SAGE has an obvious role to play in celebrating this diversity and maximizing its value.

Equity—Part of being fair and impartial is countering negative stereotypes and revealing implicit biases. SAGE is a natural ally in fulfilling the firm’s commitment to equity.

Inclusion—Although recruiting and retaining senior lawyers isn’t an issue at many firms, failing to recognize, include, and value senior lawyers’ experience and wisdom is not only a missed opportunity, but it’s also contrary to the core DEI principle of inclusion.

Honoring our elders isn’t a cultural value in mainstream America. No affinity group can change that. However, recognizing and valuing the contributions of a firm’s senior attorneys, and supporting them in making those contributions, is essential if firms are to be true to their DEI commitments.

And doing so is not only important for the well-being of the firm’s senior lawyers and culture, but it’s also strategically astute.