Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc. He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel.
“How to Bullet Proof Your Career in Your 40s and 50s.” This is the title of an ACC Chicago Chapter Program attended by well over 90 in-house attorneys this past week at the East Bank Club in Chicago. When I heard the title I questioned why, in a lawyer’s prime years, must she think about bullet proofing her career just because she turns 40?
I have always believed, and I am confident that I am absolutely correct, that we become better lawyers with age. Of course this is not simply due to age. Age is a measure of time, not ability. However, as we move through time, we continue to add to our experiences, legal and otherwise. This naturally leads to more personal observations, broader perspectives, situational experiences with outcomes good and bad, substantive and practical knowledge or what I dare to sum up in one word – wisdom.
What is wisdom? The ability to discern or judge what is true, right or lasting, insight, common sense, good judgment, the sum of learning through the ages (dictionary.com). Over the course of a career, a lawyer is involved in hundreds of situations in which people at various levels within an organization rely upon her to exercise good judgment, avoid pitfalls, maximize profit, provide insight, reduce risk, counsel, guide, sometimes cajole and always protect them from harm. There is no substitute for these experiences in terms of gaining wisdom. No book learning can take the place of actual hands on experience. So then, wisdom is an extremely valuable asset for an in-house attorney to offer her client.
The following words capture the essence of this value:
And if riches be a desirable possession in life, what is more rich than Wisdom, who produces all things? And if prudence renders service, who in the world is a better craftsman than she? … Again, if one yearns for copious learning, she knows the things of old, and infers those yet to come. She understands the turns of phrases and the solutions of riddles; signs and wonders she knows in advance and the outcome of times and ages. Wisdom 8:5-8
Generally, I would guess that practitioners of most occupations benefit from years and years of experience. Who doesn’t feel better as they get on the plane when the pilot has a bit of silver in her hair, or when wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon has a slight grandfatherly appearance? But at the risk of offending fellow professionals, lawyers seem particularly well suited to becoming better with age. Of course, age does not equal wisdom, but it suggests it. One can rarely achieve the same level of wisdom without the passing of time as with it, the more the better.
So, I am truly perplexed why any potential employer would look at a seasoned lawyer and believe for a even a moment that she is “too old.” Rather, I would expect that the hiring committee would welcome a bit of silver in the hair, a few wrinkles, an age spot or two. I cannot help but to cite from the Bible once again to make the point:
A great number of wise men (seasoned in-house counsel) is the safety of the world (corporate client), and a prudent king (CEO), the stability of his people (shareholders); so take instruction from my (GC) words, to your profit. Wisdom 6:24-25
Now those are wise words!