YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Alumni programs face retirement

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jul 12, 2006

CHARLESTON -- Only a handful of professions could be permanently wounded by an employee's decision to leave the company.

Law firms lead the pack of businesses that are hinged on personal and professional happiness. The sudden absence of a senior attorney's book of business and contacts can cripple a firm, which is why many practice executives believe "keeping them happy" pertains to their own personnel.

Alumni programs are not just for law schools and undergraduate alma maters. Maintaining close relationships with retirees was the norm in larger, historically-rooted firms even before the modern marketing concept surfaced. To be a partner in a prestigious firm was to be a member of the family for life; to never completely hang up the practice of law.

Today, as employee turnover rates skyrocket, law firms are watching retiree rosters plummet.

Human resource experts claim that professionals in higher-earning jobs change companies every two to three years. The more talented the individual, the more likely it is that another company will snag them away because of their solidified client relationships and years of mentored training at the expense of someone else. Consultants advise managers to view resignations as a normal, expected part of corporate life, but law firms tend to take attorney departures much more personally.

"Law firm survival requires quality clients and talent," stated certified management consultant, John W. Olmstead. "In professional service firms such as law, people are the product."

The St. Louis-based Olmstead and Associates assists solo practitioners as well as mega-firms with strategic planning, board governance, marketing, and technology issues. The president of the company, who possesses a Ph.D. and MBA, went on to say that the days of working for one or two firms throughout a career is a thing of the past. The present generation of workers believes that blind loyalty to one organization may not be in their best career interest.

What might come as a surprise to some is that clients may be to blame for lawyers' lack of dedication to a firm. Recent downsizings and staff reductions have paralyzed company spending, which means that managers are looking for cheaper law firms to handle the remaining pieces of work. Less stimulating cases and sporadic spurts of billable hours force lawyers to seek partnership elsewhere. Olmstead analyzed a firm's separation anxieties, beginning with the recruitment of lawyers by rival firms.

"I think the stigma is most negative when an attorney leaves to join a competitor," he said. "When an attorney comes out of retirement, the timing of retirement and re-entry is on two separate timetables and can be justified as a change in career goals. This is more acceptable to the old firm," he explained. Olmstead claims that a lawyer's need for practice autonomy and an office of one's own is also easier for a firm to handle if it must lose prized legal talent.

The preservation of relationships reflects firm character and tradition in that many former members or partners are kept on a social registry despite changes in status. This act of goodwill is a statement that personal friendships haven't been sacrificed because of professional wants and needs.

Alumni graduate into even greater prominence as their active practices come to a close. Retirees become legal historians, mentors to associates, referral sources of business, marketing gurus, reporters of gossip, agents of new talent, advisors to management, mediators and arbitrators, and most importantly, the firm's most trusted allies.

In this day and age, it just might be easier to make partner than to earn the rank "of counsel."

Kathryn E. (Katy) Brown is a former law firm executive. Today, she is the managing member of a professional writing and editing agency called The Write Word, LLC. She can be reached by calling (304) 344-5355, or via e-mail at

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