x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Trend towards older lawyers is a relic of outdated practices

Should there be a mandatory retirement age in light of the large number of lawyers in the UAE who are over 70?

Of course, Shakespeare only said: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." There was never anything about forcing them to retire.

But the matter of ageing lawyers in the UAE is gaining attention. The licensing requirements are unfortunately driving the profession into a skewed demographic profile, with a majority of older male lawyers dominating the profession.

Any former public prosecutor, police or army officer can obtain a licence to practise law upon retiring at 45 or 50 years old. Newcomers in the profession tend to be quite old compared to other fields.

Age is a sensitive subject for older lawyers, whether they are managing partners in the big law firms or solo practitioners, but the problems for smaller firms are more pronounced. Small firms often ignore the fact that the senior partners are ageing, mainly because the issue of succession is considered too personal.

But what are the available measures for regulators to set the record straight for the legal profession? Should there be a mandatory retirement age in light of the large number of lawyers who are over 70?

The old notion that people in their 60s or 70s should be confined to a rocking chair is obviously outdated; a lot of the lawyers I'm talking about are in great health and have many years ahead. But the profession is changing with a new generation of tech-savvy, young women and men who will soon become a force in what some see as a hidebound, male-dominated profession.

The End of Lawyers?, an influential book on the future of law by British scholar Richard Susskind, predicts radical changes to the profession as the younger generation takes over. Susskind expects that as older lawyers hang up their gowns, legal services will be commodified as clients and lawyers take advantage of online systems and high-tech communication tools.

Lawyers will find new, cheaper, more efficient and better ways to handle their workloads as clients head to the internet for free advice. For the old conservative legal adviser, the message is bleak, while for the young progressive lawyer, exciting new legal markets will unfold.

The interest, then, is to reconcile the interests of older lawyers who have a tremendous amount to contribute to society, both to their clients and as mentors to younger lawyers, with the business interests of the practice at large.

Many older lawyers who keep working past the normal retirement age of 65 have valuable experience and expertise that comes with a long career, and loyal clients who like their work and continue to demand their services. After all, lawyers wouldn't keep working very long if their clients didn't like them.

Many older lawyers keep working because they have nobody to take over their practice. Some firms now have a father and son or daughter working together as fully fledged partners. This can be the ideal way for lawyers to handle succession planning, but of course not all lawyers' children choose to become lawyers.

By the time a lawyer reaches his 60s, he may have very significant relations with important clients of the firm. Firms generally now want those relationships to be transferred to younger lawyers. And of course, lawyers are more keen to give this wealth of clients to their own children.

But what about lawyers who have no succession planning and do not have immediate family members to inherit the business? Do they continue to work even to the point in time when their performance may slip?

Older lawyers have reached a point in their professional careers where they have had the opportunity to benefit handsomely, and ideally would consider retirement to make way for the younger generation. But who can argue that they should be simply cast away at a certain age?

UAE lawyers are regulated by the federal legal practice code and are not subject to any age-related rules. Lawyers working for international law firms practising here are subject to the relevant laws in their own jurisdictions.

Many of the lawyers and legal advisers working for the Emirates' governments and Federal Government are well into their 80s and performing very well. Employers have found ways to deal with the issue on an individual basis and to provide them with the necessary assistance. Lawyers in private practice do not enjoy such support in their work, and should be subjected to greater regulatory scrutiny.

Although it is fair to say that people can be productive at any age, it's certain that the younger generation of lawyers is adversely affected by this trend towards later retirement. If the trend continues, many young Emiratis will be discouraged from studying law and the crunch will come when the most senior, most experienced and most respected lawyers retire. That will leave a lot of empty desks, unserved clients and a huge demand for lawyers with specialised expertise.

 

Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai