The Changing Demographics of our Bar

by Robert E. Harrington

While we have not attempted any study of generational cycles in our local Bar, by all appearances and based on what we know about the demographics of our society at large, the next several years will see remarkable generational change.  The "Baby Boomer" generation will increasingly transition to "senior lawyer" status and eventually to retirement.  At the same time, a new generation of lawyers is entering the profession - flush with the opportunities sprung from our boundless technological advances and confronted with the challenges caused by that technology and the ever-changing legal economy.


Recognizing this period of change in our profession, Keith Kapp, the president of the North Carolina State Bar, remarked in his installation speech that the bar should examine our approach to both the beginning and the end of law practice and consider changes that we might make to improve these areas.


North Carolina is not the first state to delve into these issues.  Mark W. Merritt forwarded to Nancy Roberson and me an interesting report from the Ohio State Bar Association's Senior Lawyers Project Work Group.  The Ohio working group report noted:


The next decade will signal a significant shift in the legal profession. Lawyers born in 1946 and after, "the Baby Boomers," will begin to turn 65, and many will retire or leave the practice of law; even those who remain active will likely make some changes in their practice.


At the same time, the youngest lawyers continue to enter the profession at a rapid rate.  While law school admissions may have slowed in the last year or two (it is probably too early to identify a trend), law schools, including the seven throughout North Carolina, continue to turn out eager students, anxious to get started professionally.


This confluence of circumstances provides equal parts opportunity and challenge.  The Ohio report notes the increasing importance of providing assistance to senior lawyers in wrapping-up practices and managing post-retirement years.  This demographic change increases the need for educational programs of particular interest to senior lawyers, including practice transition, practice valuation and transition of law firm management.  There will also be a need for social and professional outlets for senior lawyers - outlets that encourage their continued involvement the legal community.  And, on a more difficult subject, the bar must be prepared to identify and address compassionately issues of practice impairment that can come with advanced age and to do so in a way that recognizes the primacy of protecting the public.


At the same time, the Ohio report highlights the opportunities inherent in the availability of senior lawyers in transition not only to provide pro bono and community service, but to serve as mentors for young lawyers.  Senior lawyers will be in an advantageous position to teach professionalism, as well as share practical legal skills.


Ohio and our State Bar clearly are not alone in considering these issues.  The ABA's Senior Lawyer Division covers much of this same ground, encouraging its members to remain active in the profession's leadership, network with each other, obtain information regarding issues of particular importance to senior lawyers and interact with young lawyers entering the profession.


Here in the Mecklenburg County Bar, we are at the threshold of addressing these issues.  Earlier this fiscal year, several lawyers met to discuss the beginning of a Senior Lawyers Division of the MCB.  Consistent with other bars, our nascent senior lawyers group hopes to engage in a range of activities from social programs to keep senior lawyers involved in the life of the Bar to CLE programs addressing the needs of senior lawyers to mentoring young lawyers.


The MCB is only at the beginning of developing a vibrant set of activities geared to senior lawyers and programs designed to allow senior lawyers and young lawyers to learn from each other.  Here, as elsewhere, this will be a major effort for the profession over the next few years.  I encourage lawyers who want to participate in this effort to contact the Bar.