Old Lawyers Never Die, They Just Retire
WSBA’s Changing Demographics=Opportunities for Younger Lawyers
by Joel Matteson
In 2011, the WSBA commissioned a comprehensive membership study to “gain an accurate picture of the profession’s composition [and to] understand the reasons why attorneys leave the profession.” 1 The study’s findings are particularly significant for younger attorneys. The study suggests that over
the next 10 to 15 years, approximately half of the WSBA’s lawyers will enter retirement age. This seismic shift in demographics presents a tremendous opportunity
for younger lawyers to fill the void left by these outgoing attorneys.
Aging of the Bar
This “graying” of the legal profession
is much more pronounced than usual.
As the study explains: “To put this finding in perspective, consider that if one
assumes an average career span of 40
years, then, all things being equal, one
might expect approximately 12 percent
of the membership to retire during any
given five-year period. In the era of the
aging boomer cohort, however, all things
are not equal. These findings, within the
context of societal trends, point to the
overwhelming likelihood that in the next
five years, [the] WSBA will face a retirement wave that comes close to doubling
the statistically expected average of 12
percent. A retirement rate of this magnitude ( 4. 8 percent annualized) will lead to
over 1,400 members leaving the active
practice of law each year.” 2
The study reveals that over half of
the WSBA’s members are over 51 and
21 percent are over 61. The mean age for
active members is 48 and the largest cohort is the 51–60 age group. A whopping
79 percent of the bar is “over the hill.”
In contrast, the number of attorneys under 30 is comparatively small. Twenty-something lawyers account for only
seven percent of the WSBA’s lawyers.
Compared to baby boomers, the ratio is
7–1 in favor of the boomers.
within that same time frame. In other
words, approximately half of the bar’s
membership is expected to leave full-time
employment within the next five years.
Exacerbating this phenomenon is the
fact that the influx of newer attorneys is
not keeping pace with the rate of retirement. WSBA admissions fell 13 percent
from 2007 through 2011.
This drop in Bar admissions corresponds to a
nationwide drop in
law school applications.
shortage of lawyers in
Washington state runs
counter to the much-
about a nation awash in
To Retire or Not to Retire?
Of even greater significance than the uneven age distribution is the percentage of
attorneys entering or nearing retirement.
Approximately 25 percent of all lawyers
in Washington plan to retire in five years.
Another 25 percent plan to go part-time
A Lifelong Career?
Besides the vast aging out of the
WSBA’s lawyers and the reduced
admissions of younger lawyers,
a substantial percentage of law-
yers are leaving the profession
for non-age-related reasons.
Almost half the Bar is not
sure they will retire as lawyers.
Only 42 percent of the study’s
participants agreed with the
statement, “Taking everything into
account, I believe I will continue to
practice as an attorney (or eventually
return to practice) for the remainder of
my professional career.”
Some leave the legal profession disil-
lusioned, others feel acutely the lack of
mentorship and guidance, and still oth-
ers grow disheartened by the unrelenting
demands of the billable hour, high stress
loads, and a depressing lack of work-life
The impending shortage of lawyers
in Washington state runs counter to the
much-publicized concern about a nation
awash in attorneys. For the last several
years, there has been much talk about
too many attorneys and too few jobs. But
as the WSBA’s recent study reveals, that
trend is likely to be counterbalanced by
the impending retirement of the baby
boomers. These facts do not suggest that
concerns about fewer jobs or a glut of law-