Promise is a Luxury in Economy Demanding Production

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The issue of the shaky status of older lawyers at large law firms refuses to go away, as the de-equitization of partners "past their prime" continues.

The Wall Street Journal reported a variety of anecdotal examples early in 2013: a one-third partner reduction at a 200-lawyer Nashville firm, a Wells Fargo Private Bank survey saying that 15 percent of respondent firms will cut partners in the first quarter, and a consultant's claim that many big-firm partners are billing 30 percent below the traditional standard of 1,900 hours a year.

Still, the bottom line continues to be that lawyers must contribute to the well-being of their firms. If they don't, they will be terminated, whether they're partners or associates. The basic formula of P = R – E (profits equal revenue minus expenses) applies to law as it does to every other service profession.

And in that formula, age is irrelevant. There are 80-somethings who are contributing to the bottom line of the firm and 20- and 30-somethings who are not. Those who do not contribute to the bottom line will not be sustained for long.

Being a partner is no longer the key to the magic kingdom. Partnership agreements are written in such a way that a partner can be terminated from his/her equity position without much difficulty. "What have you done for me lately?" is not an idle phrase in the world of law firms. Everyone must contribute.

At some point, lawyers often feel entitled to get what they're getting — that by virtue of being in a larger firm, their compensation should continue to escalate, regardless of the firm's fortunes. If those fortunes sag a bit, even if the lawyers are not terribly productive, they still want their compensation.

That mentality can no longer survive, and it is not just a function of age and seniority. I recently rode my bike to the heights of Mt. Figueroa in Santa Ynez Valley, one of the most difficult climbs in the country. Lance Armstrong held the record for the climb at 53 minutes, until a young man under 23 beat it at 48 minutes. While I certainly didn't come close to either time, I made the journey and was the oldest in our group to do so. Removing the governor of age from my mind and focusing on what I wanted to achieve enabled me to do it.

Similarly, older lawyers who continue to apply the client service lessons learned throughout their careers will continue to contribute. We're not living in the 1980s, and the business of law is not measured by Nielsen ratings. In the current economy, the promise of youth will take a back seat to concrete production, regardless of the producer's demographic.

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