Inside Perspective: In defense of the ‘older’ worker

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!

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6 responses to “Inside Perspective: In defense of the ‘older’ worker

  1. Michael McKillip CPA

    Hey Dan!

    Another great Blog! I agree with you that, in most cases, wisdom is only earned with age. But in the throw away society we all live in, wisdom is not always recognized and prized be many employeers in an array of industries.

    Mike

  2. Dan – Very insightful and well-written. I really enjoy your column. Sometime in this profession one gets so busy that it becomes difficult/impossible to find time to step back and reflect on the “big picture.” Your column does this (and helps your readers do this) . If we are going to improve as attorneys (and if the profession is going to improve), we have to stop periodically and consider how we are choosing to make this journey through our life and work. Thanks for the perspective!

  3. Dan well said. The results of wisdom are common sense and success. Insight and strength are as well. Because of wisdom, according to Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, kings reign and rulers make just decrees. Businesses are lead with wisdom, and judges make righteous judgments.

    My question is: how do we gain wisdom? What is the source of our wisdom? As you said above experience is a great teacher and brings much wisdom!

  4. Allyson Bouldon

    Fantastic column Dan! Thanks for the reminder that our focus should be on the factors that are directly linked to professional success and not on the factors that are ancillary at best.

  5. As one of those lawyers who is now in his 50’s, I can look back and know I am a better lawyer than when I was young. In fact, I see the same in other lawyers who are advancing in years. At the time we all took our bar exams, we probably had a broader scope of legal knowledge on all topics, but none of us had a clue about how to be lawyers. Experience is the greatest teacher, but the key to properly using the “wisdom” of older lawyers is in the mentoring process so younger attorneys don’t have to hit every bump in the road to learn. Thanks for your blog piece.

  6. Dan,

    Great persective and insight. I especially like the inclusion of 3000 + year old wisdom from a wise king.

    Thanks for sharing.

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