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From the President

A new focus on issues affecting senior lawyers

By Patrick Kelly,
President, State Bar of California

Patrick KellyDemographic studies of lawyers in California demonstrate that the ranks of senior lawyers are growing dramatically. For example, a 2011 State Bar survey found that 48 percent of California lawyers are 55 or older compared with just 14 percent in 1991. The current economic downturn, together with the fact our society as a whole is productively working longer, means that lawyers as a group are working to a greater age than in the past. Oftentimes their traditional support networks, such as a large firm or corporate or government environment, are no longer available to them.

Whether defined as the traditional and perhaps outmoded retirement age of 65 or some other age, the challenge to the State Bar is how to determine and address the issues facing this lawyer group in a positive and proactive way while at the same time carrying forward its core mission of public protection. To meet this challenge, earlier this year I formed a Senior Lawyers Working Group chaired by Trustee Pearl Mann to explore in a comprehensive way what is being done by other associations such as California local bars, the American Bar Association and National Organization of Bar Counsel in addressing the issues that specifically confront senior lawyers and their clients in their law practice, and the relationship of these issues to the public we protect. The Working Group consists of members of the board's Member Oversight and Regulation, Admissions and Discipline committees. The group’s ultimate goal is to make recommendations that will enhance the ability of those senior lawyers who choose to practice longer in a meaningful way, while at the same time ensuring that the interests of the public are protected.

While not new, this issue has increased in prominence over the years. In recent years, the ABA and many local bars have formed senior lawyer sections or committees that explore and develop programs to enhance and improve the practices of senior lawyers and their service to clients. The Working Group will examine existing programs such as those that create mentoring and pro bono opportunities to capitalize on the energy and experience of senior lawyers. In this regard, the State Bar has already developed an Attorney Surrogacy Program to assist attorneys wind down their practice and has published a guidebook on this subject. The National Organization of Bar Counsel, which is the national association of attorney regulators, is also looking at this subject by establishing a committee to examine how attorneys who choose to can continue to practice and those who wish to retire from the practice but need help in unwinding their practice can find the help they need.

The Working Group is also mindful of the need to help identify and deal with lawyers that create a risk to the public. As to this issue, there is no escaping the fact that some lawyers should step down from an active practice. But this is not necessarily an age issue. Whether fostered by substance abuse, early onset of a disabling disease such as Alzheimer's or personal tragedy, the State Bar bears the responsibility of finding ways to identify and deal with attorneys that present a risk to the public no matter what their age. Thus, the Senior Lawyers Working Group will also be exploring ways of partnering with lawyers and regulatory groups to develop better ways through education and remedial measures to approach these issues in a positive and comprehensive way.

The recommendations of the Working Group will be completed this spring and the State Bar will consider them as it fulfills its public protection mission. However, whatever action the State Bar undertakes will proceed in a fair and thoughtful way that recognizes both the needs of the public and the senior attorneys in our legal community.