Today firms face a shortage, not a surplus, of talented lawyers. To compete they will need to replace the traditional concept of retirement with flexible options to keep lawyers of all ages working productively and happily.

The aging of the workforce is something that the legal profession can no longer ignore. According to Census Bureau data, nearly a third of all Americans 76 million people were born between 1946 and 1964. With the first of the baby boomers now entering their early 60s, the legal marketplace has no choice but to consider the effects of massive numbers of boomers leaving the profession in coming years. Over this same period of time, fewer talented young people are expected to enter the workforce. Demographic and economic projections suggest that the shortage of workers will start soon and grow significantly. And the Employment Policy Foundation, in testimony before the U.S. Senate, has estimated that 80 percent of the impending labor shortage will involve skills, not number of workers potentially available. The result: Within the next several years, the shift in age distribution will cause law firms to experience an unprecedented brain drain unless firm leaders take dramatic steps to find new approaches to attracting and retaining key people.

Critical to efforts to win in the war for talent which is only just beginning will be facing the challenges presented by traditional retirement policies that define retirement in terms of removal or withdrawal. Nearly 80 percent of the baby boomers say they want to do some kind of work in retirement, according to Census Bureau estimates. So, instead of viewing retirement as an end-point in itself, law firms and their senior partners will be far better served by treating retirement as a series of developmental steps taken by individuals over an extended period of time. Put differently, retirement today needs to be seen as more a journey than a destination.

Now then, let’s consider how firms might turn that concept into reality.

On-Ramps and Off-Ramps That Are Built to Suit

In their book Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent (Harvard Business School, 2006), Ken Dychtwald and co-authors Tamara J. Erickson and Robert Morison recommend that employers look to “phasing” as a variation on the traditional retirement model. They define flexible retirement as an approach that encompasses flexible roles and work styles; attractive work assignments suited to one’s experience and inclination; and reduced hours, flexible schedules and more control over one’s time before and after the point of “official retirement.”

In other words, as the authors point out, given the increasing longevity, declining birth rates and disproportionate size of the baby boom generation now approaching retirement age, organizations must look at the workforce quite differently and adapt management practices accordingly.

Keeping those points in mind, let’s next consider some research into a separate but as you’ll see, highly related area in the war for talent.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her most recent book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success (Harvard Business School, 2007), contains a wealth of enlightening research showing how the old career model particularly for women just doesn’t work. Hewlett reports that “fully 60 percent of highly qualified women have nonlinear careers. They take off-ramps and scenic routes and have a hard time conjuring up continuous, cumulative, lockstep employment which is a necessary condition for success within the confines of the white male competitive model.” For too many talented women, she writes, this model doesn’t work, “which is why many companies find it difficult to attract and retain female talent, just when the need for the broadest talent pool is greater than ever.”

Hewlett further points out this: “Despite the fact that women these days are highly credentialed (49 percent of law school graduates and 36 percent of business school graduates are female), they are not being promoted or advanced at a rate commensurate with their weight in the talent pool.” Findings from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that more than half of all professional and graduate degrees are now awarded to women. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of women with graduate and professional degrees is projected to grow by 16 percent over the next decade, while the number of men with these degrees is projected to grow by a mere 1.3 percent.

In her forward to Hewlett’s book, Carolyn Buck Luce, who is chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force (which represents 34 global corporations), shares this powerful quote from Patricia Fili-Krushel, executive vice president at Time Warner: “These women who leave or languish, are, in effect, the canaries in the coal mine, the first and most conspicuous of an outdated, dysfunctional career model.” Fili-Krushel then enumerates some of the other casualties: “58-year-old baby boomers who don’t want to retire but are no longer willing to put in 70-hour weeks; and 28-year-old Gen X and Y men who want to be better, more involved fathers than their dads were, and need flexible work.”

Research clearly indicates that many men want flexibility: 49 percent want paid leave after periods of intense work as do 61 percent of women and 45 percent of men want to work flexibly within a full-time job. Generation X and Y in particular (men as well as women) find these options extremely appealing. Hewlett goes on to report that “the data shows that for young men ages 25 to 44, the ability to work flexibly tops their list of solutions.”

So, you might ask, how does this discussion about the need to form more flexible strategies for attracting and retaining younger lawyers (of both genders) relate back to the need to form more flexible strategies for older partners?

Hewlett says that companies need to get in the business of offering serious forms of flexibility. Mary B. Cranston, senior partner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, agrees. She further argues that any discussion of flexible retirement must include flexible work assignments for all employees. “One of the things firms have to do to retain their experienced lawyers is to help them customize their jobs,” she says. She reports that to achieve that end, Pillsbury Winthrop has made significant strides in recent years in redesigning more flexible work schedules for everyone from recent hires to senior partners who are preparing to transition away from full-time practice. “Firms that fail to make this accommodation,” she says, “will come to regret their one-size-fits-all approach.”

In sum, this means rethinking both the on-ramps and the off-ramps for lawyers of all ages. The need for more flexible and accommodating work options affects not only those who are approaching traditional retirement, but younger women and men who don’t fit inside the box or don’t want to work within the traditional partnership pyramid. Approaching the coming shift in age demographics in all directions will mean a win-win in the talent war.

The Sunset Alternative: A Revised Strategy for Transition Planning

Law firms everywhere must focus on finding the balance to keep key people at every stage of development. This will include discussing how the years leading up to retirement should be a period of time when senior lawyers can experience new growth opportunities for themselves and properly handled, this process should benefit the broader law firm community in many other ways. The senior lawyers that many law firms are now looking to sunset may be the untapped resources firms need to lead the talent pool of the future.

Today, we are facing a shortage, not a surplus, of talented lawyers. Firms must begin to phase out “retirement” as we know it. As a replacement, firms need to explore how a staged reduction in work hours and responsibilities ahead of full retirement might work. The same must be said for young people entering the profession. No amount of money will be enough to keep talented young people from “jumping ship” unless firms begin to address their needs and concerns.

The fact is that most senior lawyers and pre-retirees are not looking to fade away. They want enriching endeavors. Certainly they want to leisure at times, and they naturally want to have fun. But contrary to the popular media view of retirement, the most important thing lawyers anticipating retirement are looking for is fulfillment, their own sense of purpose and meaning. The idea of a more flexible retirement option would allow not only partial retirement, so that senior lawyers can enjoy other pursuits, but also active retirement, wherein seniors can remain productively and socially engaged in the workplace. Going to more flexible retirement policies as well as more flexible work schedules for all lawyers will demonstrate a fundamental shift in the way lawyers of all ages live their lives.