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If you want an experienced lawyer, Jim Main is your man. Having clocked over 40 years in practice, the 75-year-old business law specialist and chartered tax advisor is an established advisor to clients in the Wagga Wagga region and beyond. His firm, JMA Legal Business Lawyers, has offices all along the road to Gundagai – in Sydney, Cootamundra, Junee and Tumut. Each month, the father of three and grandfather of seven travels to Sydney for work. When he’s not on the road, he’s based at his property in Cootamundra.

Main says that while he has cut his working days back to three per week, they are long and intensive. Oftentimes they will spill over, stretching three days into four. But having put in the long yards to build a reputation as a trusted legal practitioner, Main has started to experience the downside of being a senior figure in the legal profession. Some people – or, more specifically, clients – have started writing him off because of his age.

About five years ago, Main addressed the question of succession for his business by introducing a flat management structure and bringing on board five other shareholders. He is now one of six directors of the firm (five of whom are lawyers), which he says has worked out well. One of the core in-house roles Main serves is to deliver training in tax and commercial law each week. Many of the strategic decisions he makes are in the interests of the firm and its 20-strong staff, so it’s still business as usual when the main man isn’t around. But what do you do if you love the law and want to stay involved after 70?

Main, who is a long-time contributor to LSJ’s Legal Updates section, says you just have to hold your ground. He has developed a system to share matters with colleague Michaela Schmidt: she takes care of documentation and Main focuses on the design of the legal solution. It’s the perfect arrangement to ensure clients feel they’re getting a complete service, and for a junior practitioner to benefit from mentorship by an experienced hand.

Main tells MELISSA COADE that his legal nous gets better by the day and he’ll only stop working once he’s asked to stop coming into work in his pyjamas. In the meantime, he says he will brush off the ageism and continue adding value where he can.

“I was brought up to be a farmer but decided I couldn’t do it, so I had to go back to school. I happened to have lunch with a friend who said, ‘Why don’t you try law?’ Because I had left school at the end of Year 10, I had to matriculate. I then did law through the Solicitor’s Admission Board by correspondence. I also talked to a local solicitor my family had used for a long time and he offered me a job. So I went to work for him and now a large part of what I do is complex farm succession work. 

We have had a drift of clients locally, partly because at they look at me and say, ‘You’re getting too old.’ They refuse to look at these fantastic young lawyers I’ve got in the firm.

Locally, people talk. A lot of people are my age and they are retired. They make assumptions about me. I’ve had one direct comment about that. Two clients – one in his 50s and the other in his 60s – made an appointment, came in one day and said, ‘You’ve done a good job for the family for three or four generations, but time goes on and you’re getting old and can’t keep doing that stuff, so we think we should go somewhere else.’

I have to admit, I did get a bit angry. I said, ‘Why don’t you have a word to the accountants I work with and make a judgment after you speak to them?’ There was absolutely nothing except my age that led them to their assumptions. That was the most direct and hurtful example of age discrimination I have experienced. You also hear things indirectly. I quite often get the question, ‘Have you retired yet?’ and that whole discussion about taking things easy. 

You can choose to ease back and hand over the hard work to the younger generation and spend more time playing golf and travelling – that’s all quite legitimate. But if you want to stay involved and engaged, you’ve got to keep working at it.

JIM MAIN

When I look at the US and its mid-term elections, there are all these people in their 70s and 80s who are running for office. Australia, in contrast, is not good with older people. There is this assumption that once you get past 55, it’s time to write you off. I think that’s ridiculous. I’m a far better lawyer now than I was when I was 65.

You can choose to ease back and hand over the hard work to the younger generation and spend more time playing golf and travelling – that’s all quite legitimate. But if you want to stay involved and engaged, you’ve got to keep working at it. You’ve got to get used to everything being online, you’ve got to get used to electronic filing, you’ve got to get used to training much more than just going to a seminar once or twice a year. And you really must think about the future.

From a personal point of view, where you can justify it economically, you should share the workload. It’s a more profitable approach, because you have juniors doing much higher work than they otherwise could and you integrate the firm. It’s also the best way of training someone, to have them involved when you’re going through all the complexities.

You cannot always justify having a team approach if it’s fixing up a will or buying and selling a property, but we have some clients with very complex structures and it makes economic sense to have that option. It’s also a really good way of transitioning clients so that when you do eventually leave they don’t say, ‘Oh well, we had better go somewhere else’.


Photography: Jason McCormack