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Elaine Epstein ’76, Partner, Todd & Weld, LLP
How does ageism play out in the profession?
I view ageism as less of a destructive force in the practice of law than in some other professions. First, assuming age goes hand-in-hand with increasing experience and reputation, it is largely positively perceived in the practice of law. Colleagues and judges know you and you don’t have to strive to prove yourself in every case. Clients see gray hair as a sign of maturity and expertise. Indeed, clients are often more willing to listen to the older voice than the younger. And, clients can usually absorb the bad news – the risks and downsides of their cases and even the truth about their own shortcomings as witnesses – more easily from one who presumably carries battle scars from years in the trenches.
The good news about this, particularly for women, is that law is a profession where youth and good looks matter less than in many other fields. And, women reentering the profession after years at home – or entering it late – may find that their life experiences and more mature perspective bring a great deal to the table. Clients, other attorneys, judges and juries often give greater credence to one who looks the part of the voice of reason.
The negative side of aging in our profession varies depending on what perch you view it from: it is very different to approach 65 in a large firm with a mandatory retirement policy than elsewhere, where you have more control over your own age-related destiny. Knowing that the retirement date looms, whether wanted or not, creates greater pressure to earn more money sooner and keep it up for as long as you are allowed to do so. The resulting atmosphere in firms, particularly combined with the recent economic challenges, no doubt contributes to making some a daunting place for women, in particular, to work. This is borne out by recent data that show women leaving firms in larger numbers than their male counterparts.
Yet from my own perspective, law seems a comfortable profession in which to age. I have been fortunate in first having my own practice for many years with another woman (my best friend) and then spending the last decade and a half in a firm where I feel comfortable letting more gray show each year! The Northeastern University School of Law experience gave me a good grounding in feeling at home in the law and confident in my own abilities. Thus, I still strongly encourage women to enter the profession, even at “non traditional” ages.
The NUSL Women In the Law “Ask-the-Expert” monthly series will be ongoing in 2009-2010. If you have a question for future experts, please email M.Marquis@neu.edu. Keep in mind that we have three workshops, two additional brown bag luncheons and the second annual Women in the Law Conference (4/2/10), which will be held this year. Visit the Women in the Law for more details about these programs.