Peak Performance

  • Print

This year, divorce attorney Joseph N. DuCanto celebrated his 50th anniversary–not of being married but of practicing law.

“My kids say, ‘Isn’t it time for you to take it easy?’ and I say, ‘For what?’ ” says the Chicago lawyer, 79.

Most days, DuCanto can be found in his office by 9:30 am. Although he no longer tries cases, due in part to hearing loss, the former U.S. Marine still contributes to his firm, one of the largest family law firms in the country, by bringing in new business and facilitating settlements. When asked about retiring, he’ll tell you that he intends to go out with his boots on.

People age differently, DuCanto adds, and while some seniors “might be ready for the rocking chair,” he isn’t. “I have some infirmities but am still able to be mobile without assistance. I’m still able to talk up a storm and keep up a sharp conversation.”

While DuCanto is quick to point out that he’s done his share of $250 divorces, he now charges $600 an hour. “I still get an enormous number of referrals because I have a great reputation, and I’ve touched a lot of lives,” DuCanto says. “Many lawyers throughout the country know me, and when they’ve got a problem in the Chicago area, they call.”

While the idea of a 79-year-old lawyer who remains practicing and productive may be unusual now, that’s likely to change in the next decade or so, says Louis Condon, 78. A retired judge, Condon chairs the ABA’s Senior Lawyers Division, which has some 7,000 members. It is open to attorneys who are 55 years of age or older, or who have been in practice at least 25 years.

“I believe the baby boomers will continue practicing well into their 70s,” says Condon, who is based in Charleston, S.C., and does private arbitration. “It may seem unusual now, but 10 years from now it may not seem strange. I think of 65 as an artificially set retirement date.”

Senior lawyers like DuCanto report that age has indeed prompted some adjustments, from leaving early to find a better parking spot closer to the courthouse to emphasizing rainmaking over dealmaking. But they say they are staying in the game because they simply enjoy it too much to quit. “The essence of life is service,” DuCanto says. “You can really be a tremendous resource for the younger client and the younger lawyer. And it’s a stimulant.”

The law can also be fascinating, and that keeps many older lawyers in the profession, says Dr. Linda Emanuel, a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Emanuel heads the school’s Buehler Center on Aging, which focuses on research, education, health care and policy for the elderly.

Many careers, she says, such as medicine, require a certain amount of physical health, but the law is a bit different, in part because the profession relies heavily on prior knowledge. “I can easily imagine sitting on the bench as a senior justice, using accumulated wisdom,” Emanuel says. “I think the accumulated wisdom is a natural fit.”

Maintaining Mental Acuity

Research findings demonstrate that cognitively challenging activities are good for people as they age, Emanuel says (although she knows of no studies that focus specifically on lawyers). And, she says, there is evidence that if someone is inclined to experience depression, the symptoms will likely worsen with retirement.

Besides keeping active mentally, Emanuel says physical activity also helps people as they age. How much a person does, she says, is not as important as doing something regularly. Former judge Ellis E. Reid III of Chicago knows this, and that’s why he returned to private practice in 2005 after stepping down from the Illinois Appellate Court. It was a lesson Reid, 71, says he learned from watching his grandfather, who retired from the railroad.

“After he stopped working, all he did was sit and look out the window, and he was dead within a few months,” he recalls. “I just can’t see sitting home and watching soap operas.”

But Reid, who was the first black judge to head the Cook County Circuit Court’s 1st Municipal District in Chicago, doesn’t think his decision to forgo the easy chair is all that unusual. “People are living longer and are healthier,” he says. As a result, he predicts more people will be practicing as they age. “It’s really not that unusual now–we’re out there.”

Reid decided he was going to become a lawyer after washing windows and walls for the wife of the late Aaron H. Payne, a well-to-do lawyer in Chicago. Reid didn’t exactly know what Payne did as a lawyer, but he did know that one of his clients was a legendary performer. “He represented Josephine Baker, and he had a brand-new car. To an 18-year-old kid, that was pretty fascinating.”

During Reid’s second year of law school, he was drafted and sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky. The Army was integrated at that time, and Reid says he had few problems with racism on the base. Off base was another story.

“I had experiences in Louisville, being turned down in restaurants and hotels; it was just raw racism,” he says. “A lot of young people now haven’t been exposed to that, so they don’t have an understanding of how deep or recent it was. I’ve seen the changes, and I know where we were.”

It’s also no wonder that Reid is reluctant to end such a varied, interesting career. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Reid went to work for a minority-owned law firm. “I was very lucky; I could not have found a job, because the majority law firms were not hiring African Americans,” Reid says. He describes Chicago’s law firm climate then as “totally sliced by ethnicity, race and religion.” Later, Reid became involved in city politics. He ran for mayor in 1977 alongside his friend, the late Harold Washington, who would go on to become Chicago’s first and only black mayor. Reid lost, as did Washington–that year.

“I predicted that we would have an African American mayor in 1983, which was six years away,” Reid says. “I didn’t give any details, but I said it was going to happen, and it did.”

It was just one highlight in what Reid believes has been a great career. “I’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people because I was in a position to do that,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been able to do what I’ve done without the law degree.”

Taking a Positive Approach

A knee injury may slow down Virginia Mueller a bit, but in her eyes, it also gives her an edge–in the form of a handicapped parking sticker, which provides access to great parking spots at the Sacramento County Superior Court complex.

But Mueller, 81, doesn’t like to rely on this unlikely boondoggle. Instead, she prefers to earn her prime spaces the same way everyone else does–by planning ahead and getting to the courthouse first. “Even if I have a 9 o’clock hearing, I get there before 8 a.m.,” Mueller says, “and bring work with me to do in the car.”

Mueller has a similar can-do attitude when it comes to volunteer work. She remains active with the ABA and Soroptimist International, a professional women’s organization that sponsors projects to advance human rights and the status of women. Last year, her work with these groups took her to Switzerland, Iceland and New York.

Mueller started practicing law in 1946. Over the years she has worked as a research attorney with the California Courts of Appeal, as a prosecutor and as a legal aid staff attorney. Today she has a solo practice, which centers on family law, in Sacramento. Mueller married while in law school and finished her degree while her husband fought in World War II. After he returned, they eventually settled in Sacramento.

She started her own law practice after a stint at Legal Services of Northern California, bringing a secretary with her from the agency. The two worked together for 23 years. “The concept was that when I retired, she would retire, but she beat me to it,” Mueller says. “To the extent that I’ve read what you’re supposed to do as a sole practitioner when you retire, I look at my filing cabinets and think it’s easier just to keep practicing.”


Preparing for the Boomer Exodus

Using the term baby boomer to describe the estimated 3.4 million Americans turning 60 this year seems somehow inaccurate.

The new nickname “abbies,” short for aging baby boomers, may be more appropriate as members of the country’s largest generation start to leave their chosen professions.

Some say that lawyers may be hit the hardest. A new ABA task force, known as “The Second Season of Service,” will examine issues for aging lawyers. The task force is a presidential initiative of Karen J. Mathis, president-elect of the ABA.

Maury B. Poscover, a St. Louis transactional lawyer, is currently leading the group and coordinating the planning process. “We’re exploring what services and benefits the ABA can provide to our members as they mature in their practice,” Poscover says.

“There’s been a lot of interes–it ranges from those who are seeking to cut back to those who are not, but [who] would like to explore other options,” Poscover says of the new group. “If someone is of good health and sound mind, and financially able to do so, they may well wish to reduce their level of involvement in law. Others who enjoy what they’re doing will continue well beyond retirement.”

Volunteerism will be a key component of the group’s work. Poscover mentions a public service project that pairs lawyers leaving active practice with pro bono assignments. “We’re really trying to refine the rest, and we’re still exploring ideas,” Poscover says. “We’ve been doing an assessment of what services the ABA presently has available for older lawyers.”

As people age, he adds, the services they need can vary dramatically. “We have some very experienced, competent, mentally healthy lawyers who, in some instances, will want to slow down and others who will want to make use of those skill sets,” Poscover says. Early retirement programs, which can force partners out of their firms without allowing them much say in the matter, are also being examined. “What we might well consider in consultation with law firm managers is developing a best practices plan in terms of how to deal with lawyers as they reach those career points and helping them make decisions for the maximum benefit of the firm and the lawyer,” Poscover says.

At 62, Poscover doesn’t see retirement in his near future. Besides practicing law, he represents the Business Law Section in the ABA House of Delegates, and he chairs the association’s Standing Committee on Membership.

“Right now I’m having too much fun to retire,” Poscover says. “I work full time, and I’m enjoying the work as much now as I ever have in my entire career.”

Stephanie Francis Ward is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.