Due to the economic crisis, I have been spending a lot of time on the phone with outstanding lawyers who have been left in desperate situations. Many of these attorneys, from junior associates to senior partners, come from top law firms and have excellent academic credentials. The tone of the conversation is one of desperation and frustration. Perhaps the most frustrated are the senior and partner-level attorneys who have a wealth of experience to bring to the table, but have not had any success getting a firm to talk to them. These candidates are disgusted because their willingness to be flexible and take a hit in title or class year in order to make a move is rejected.

Age vs. Experience Discrimination

When a candidate with many years of experience is told they cannot be presented for a lower-level position, they become angry, very defensive, and often accuse the recruiter and firm of age discrimination. While it may seem like recruiters are discriminating against them for their age, that really has nothing to do with why they express concern over placing the candidate with a firm.

For the recruiter, part of developing a strong relationship with a firm is having an understanding of the type of candidate they want to see. Our job is to save them time and to present candidates who are exactly on point with their needs. Most firms give us guidelines to follow and ask us to stick to them; otherwise, we would not be providing them with a service.

That being said, I have never had a firm tell me not to present a candidate over a certain age. In fact, I have witnessed a number of attorneys transition to law firms who are very close to retirement. I have also seen a number of attorneys well into their thirties and forties graduate from law school as a second career and land law firm positions. Age is not necessarily the issue for senior attorneys trying to transition into a firm. However, here are some legitimate hurdles they will face:

Lack of business. Unless there is that rare opportunity where a firm has more business than it can handle and just needs someone to come in and hit the ground running, a firm almost always requires senior attorneys to bring a book of business with them. While the threshold varies, the attorney typically needs to bring at least enough to support him or herself.

Firms fear the candidate will not be happy and will not be a good long-term prospect. As you probably know, firms don't actually start to make a profit off of an attorney until a few years down the road. In an effort not to suffer a loss, firms hire candidates they feel confident will be with them for the long haul. For example, if you have been a sole practitioner for over 30 years and never worked in a law firm, it can be a tough transition. Firms feel it is risky to bring in someone who has never worked in the environment and does not know if he or she will be happy.

Firms do not know how to bill out a senior attorney in a lower class level. ''Higher quality at a lower cost'' doesn't seem to work. Many senior attorneys are willing to take a hit in class level or title in an effort to make the transition. It would make sense that firms would jump at the opportunity to hire an experienced lawyer but not have to pay him or her for that experience. Again, firms fear that while it may seem smart at the outset, ultimately the attorney will not be happy with the work and leave.

Concerns that other associates in the group will feel threatened. As mentioned above, partners are willing to come in at a Senior Associate or Counsel level just to get their foot in the door. However, firms have to keep their other associates happy and often those associates feel threatened by an attorney who comes in at their level with significantly more experience. Naturally, they fear the work will shift disproportionately and they may not make their billables, which in turn threatens their future at the firm.

Firms are skeptical of senior attorneys willing to take a lower position. All firms have been burned by bad hires in the past and believe that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! Firms are skeptical of senior attorneys who all of a sudden have a change of heart and offer to take a significant hit to do it. It's terribly pessimistic, but unfortunately it's a chance they are often not willing to take.

For more information about law firm diversity, see our Diversity Resources.

While the reasons listed above may be just as frustrating as the process itself, keep in mind that these are hurdles. The hurdles make the job search more difficult, but not impossible. There will be that firm that recognizes the value of a candidate's expertise and years of experience, but it may take a little time to find it. However, if the doors don't open all at once, it may be the candidate's experience that is part of the problem, not his or her age.

For more information about diversity, see the following articles:
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Law Firm Diversity: How Race, Gender, Age, Social and Economic Divisions Impact the Hiring, Retention and Advancement of Law Firm Attorneys