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Hon. Joseph Suozzi Noted in LIBN, "Til Death Do Them Part: Some Lawyers Putting off Retirement"

Jan 12, 2007Local Government and Land Use

Media Source: Long Island Business News


Gary Holman, a 75-year-old lawyer at Lamb & Barnosky in Melville, is talking about something unthinkable to many Islanders: No Long Island Expressway.

It's not a futuristic view of an age after automobiles, but a glimpse of the past. Holman remembers clearly the days before the thoroughfare sliced the Island neatly in half. He also remembers representing property owners evicted through eminent domain by a state determined to build the automobile artery.

Holman has been practicing law longer than many attorneys have been alive. He passed the bar in 1954 and recently was cited for 50 years of effort by the Nassau County Bar Association. He's gone from carbon copies to computers, from the days when houses in Roslyn sold for about $37,000 to days where they sell for more than a million. He even worked on land cases in the days when there really was vacant land here.

So when will this legal eagle wing toward the golden sunset of retirement?

Not anytime soon.

'I have the best of all worlds,' Holman said. 'I have very good backup here in the office. An assistant, a paralegal, second to none. As long as I have a computer, fax machine and a phone, she can do a lot of work. I edit it. '

... going and going and ...

Holman is part of a generation of lawyers working well into their 70s and beyond. Like everyone else, they're living longer, and forestalling retirement longer for one key reason: They can.

They bring experience, credibility, clients and expertise. And they like staying on. Athletes such as Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens may be considered dinosaurs - albeit, productive dinosaurs - at age 40, but baseball is not the only profession graying around the temples. If old generals fade away, old lawyers simply cut their caseloads - but remain active, working, ever-ready attorneys, perpetually powered Darrows who keep on keeping on.

'Nobody's retiring,' said Jeffrey D. Forchelli, managing partner at Mineola's Forchelli, Curto, Schwartz, Mineo, Carlino & Cohn. 'Lawyers never retire. They just get older. '

So 'retired lawyer' may not be an oxymoron in the league of 'legal brief,' but Holman certainly isn't alone. He's not even the only septuagenarian at his firm. Attorney Gerald Rosenberg, six months Holman's senior, still practices at Lamb & Barnosky, while over at Forchelli Curto, attorney Bill Cohn, 75, is as busy as ever.

At Garfunkel, Wild & Travis in Great Neck, Robert Wild - at 62, the firm's oldest attorney - said he doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon. 'I like what I do,' Wild said. 'I'm still young enough. '

And at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein in Garden City, Joseph Suozzi - father of Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi - still shows up for work every day, well into his 80s.

'This is sort of cradle to grave,' said Douglas A. Cooper, co-managing partner at Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, which has 26 partners, including some in their 60s. 'I guess they like being here, and we like having them. This isn't 1874, where at age 50 somebody's burned out and sick and ready to cash it in. ' Good deal all around

It is, ultimately, a two-way street: Law firms benefit from the experience and relationships veterans bring to the table, while older attorneys thrive on something they might not find elsewhere: energy.

'If you're in a vibrant firm that's growing and there are vibrant, young people coming on, people like to stay around,' Forchelli said. 'It makes them feel young. Maybe their hours are a little bit less and they're more in a statesman-like role, almost a teacher-like role, [but] they provide tremendous experience. '

He added that many attorneys don't want to leave their work behind because it's become an important part of their life and personality. 'Fortunately or unfortunately, the practice of law is a labor of love,' Forchelli said. 'You get bit by the bug. '

Helping keep older attorneys in the game is the fact that law is a flexible profession, and most firms embrace that flexibility - allowing veteran lawyers to scale back without having to leave the job.

'A lot of lawyers like to keep active, not fully retire,' said Eugene Barnosky, co-managing partner at Lamb and Barnosky. 'Maybe go to half-time or some other period of time. We have accommodated many partners, so it's not required that they work as hard as they once did. '

Compensation is typically tied to an attorney's billable hours and the business they bring to the firm. According to Barnosky, who joined his firm as an associate in 1982, this lets people 'enjoy their golden years, but not fully retire. '

Communications advances also make it easier to work without actually trudging to the office every day. Holman uses a Blackberry, a cell phone and computers to keep on working, even when he's not at work. 'Technology makes it possible,' he said.

Taking chances

There are several reasons why lawyers keep on practicing. A love of the law is right at the top, but other reasons lean more to the practical.

Attorneys typically don't have pension plans or golden parachutes; even if they get their share of accounts receivable from the year they retire, their stream of income, once they're out, dries up, and a life of leisure is by no means guaranteed during their golden years.

'You're basically on your own,' Barnosky said. 'I think the concept is you make your money when you're working. Hopefully, you make appropriate arrangements through your savings, 401(k)s and all that. If you plan wisely, that should be your retirement. '

Holman might be able to afford to retire, he said, but he'd feel the financial effects. 'I think my lifestyle might take a hit if I stopped working altogether,' said the veteran attorney, despite having invested in a 401(k), an IRA and other savings plans.

And if retiring attorneys face financial risks, firms also take chances by keeping them on - not financial chances, but other hazards inherent to employees who may have passed their prime. Most law firms, however, say their older attorneys remain astute, and sharp enough to avoid such pitfalls.

'You have to be careful that you're not going to leave someone in a position who's going to embarrass the office,' Forchelli said. 'We haven't had that problem here. '

Even if older attorneys scale back their hours, they often face new pressures - those that come with the attainment of a higher rank. Holman - who worked full time as his 'own boss' until 1997, when he merged his firm into Lamb & Barnosky - is both philosophical and humorous about the responsibility that comes with being in charge of certain clients.

'As Harry Truman said, 'the buck stops here,'' Holman said. 'Of course, I remember Harry Truman. '

Mandate this

Despite the proliferation of aging attorneys, some larger firms have mandatory retirement ages - policies that have come under increasing fire.

When Manhattan-based Sidley Austin instructed many of its partners to leave or take of-counsel roles, several partners filed suit under the federal Age Discrimination Act. It was a unique moment in the annals of legal history.

'Typically, you have to be an employee to be covered by federal discrimination laws,' said Mark Sussman, managing partner for Jackson Lewis on Long Island. 'And a partner typically is not an employee. It's an employer, an owner of the business, in theory. '

In this case, the courts ruled the partners were not functioning as true partners, and therefore were protected by the Age Discrimination Act. While the Sidley Austin partners eventually prevailed, Sussman warned that this case does not necessarily set a precedent.

'This would be done on a case-by-case basis,' he said.

Jackson Lewis, which does not have a mandatory retirement age, hasn't had to confront the issue of forced retirement, and it won't anytime soon.

'We have a relatively young firm,' Sussman said. 'While we've been around 50 years, we haven't had that many partners retire from the firm. '

As for voluntary retirement ...

'Maybe someday,' said Holman, who despite two hip replacements still likes to ski and golf. 'I'm the only guy in my class from Amherst College that I know of ... still working. I never wake up in the morning like my retired friends and say, 'What am I going to do today?' and have nothing but a golf score on my mind.

'My friends who are doctors envy my position,' he added. 'I don't really ever have to retire. '