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As Australia’s workforce ages, experts say there are a host of ways to harness and retain the talents of older workers in the legal profession.

With Australians living longer and top legal talent tough to source, law firms are being urged to tap into the country’s expanding pool of older workers. From making make semi-retirement and part-time legal work a reality, to offering training on latest technologies, experts say firms can benefit from trying to attract and retain older workers.

Sarah Queenan, founder of Humanify HR Consulting, says it makes sense for firms to hire older workers given Australia’s ageing population and amid a battle for the best workers.

On the supply side, global recruitment company Hays says the Australian skills market remains incredibly tight, with 88 per cent of employers experiencing a skills shortage, 40 per cent saying that it has intensified, and shortages widespread for lawyers.

“There is a global talent shortage that is being experienced with prominence here in Australia. Organisations across all industries simply can’t recruit the people they need,” Queenan tells LSJ. “Older workers will be an essential part of any HR strategy of high performing organisations, including law firms.”

Structural reasons driving the talent shortfall make targeting mature age workers a smart option for legal HR departments, according to the Canberra-based HR expert.

The “reality is in the Australian landscape it is unlikely we will be able to move fast enough to build the skills we need to replace those we are losing from the workforce,” she says.

“Creating workplace environments that are inclusive, supportive and flexible to the needs of older workers will be an essential part of any HR strategy of high performing organisations, including law firms.”

Beyond shoring up staff supply, older workers bring a myriad of other positives to firms, she says, pointing to their deep experience, industry expertise and professional skills.

Far from cruising at work until retirement, research shows older workers bring a diverse skillset to law firms. They can look at business operations from a different perspective, fill knowledge gaps and mentor less-experienced staff, which has flow-on effects including increased productivity and lower rates of absenteeism.

What’s more, these skills can be imparted to younger staff, Queenan says, opening up the opportunity for law firms to run formal mentor programs for junior lawyers.

“It simply makes good business sense to ensure your organisation is inclusive to engaging all workers – regardless of age, gender or other attributes,” she says.

“Employing people of all ages can add significant value to your business in terms of the diversity of thought, skill and experience it brings to your operations.”

On how to attract older workers, the HR expert urges firms to be flexible. She describes workplace flexibility – the idea that  employees can be productive no matter when or where they perform their work – as a “huge lever firms can pull.”

“Older workers will be less likely to be incentivised by money, so firms will need to think outside the box and consider incentives like flexibility, superannuation, modern leadership and having a great workplace culture as key to any HR strategies implemented to attract and retain older workers,” Queenan says.

This aligns with research in the area from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR). It suggests initiatives such as “phased retirement and flexible late-stage careers” can allow older workers to remain in the workforce longer.

According to CEPAR, with the share of workers aged over 55 having hit 19 per cent in 2021, and this trend of workforce ageing set to continue, firms will need to make accommodations.

Firms are being urged to look at “working time and leave regulations are also standardised even though worker needs differ across life stages” as well as welfare support for carers.

“This is especially the elder that many older workers are involved in that allows workers to continue their careers more sustainably at different life stages, without forced or excessive interruptions,” the research centre, based at the University of New South Wales, argues.

“Overall one size does not fit all and that a customised approach is best.”

Humanify’s Queenan says superannuation should be another consideration, particularly for older women lawyers as they typically have less super than men.

Leading up to retirement age, the median super balance for women is around 25 per cent lower than for men, according to the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia.

“Firms can look at offering superannuation incentives, in understanding that this may be a key factor for many older workers who are female who elect to return to the workplace from for example, a period of retirement,” Queenan says.

Close attention also needs to be paid to workplace culture. She says firms will only be able to secure “exceptional” mature age talent if workplace culture is inclusive to their needs. “Older workers are less likely to be motivated or driven by money, so they simply won’t put up with unhealthy workplace cultures,” she says.

It is critical to note that older workers tend to avoid firms not actively working on workplace culture, including initiatives to protect workers from burnout, which she says is “unfortunately understood” to be commonly experienced by legal professionals.

Strong leadership that avoids stereotypes on age, for instance the misapprehension that older workers find it hard to adapt to new technologies, is another must-do.

“As a leader you should get to know what motivates your people at an individual level – regardless of their age, don’t make assumptions.”

Hunter Leonard, the founder of Silver&Wise, a company that helps mature-age Australians build business skills, agrees that it’s time to tap into the older worker market.

“With the current tight labour market, smart companies can tap into this recruitment pool in many ways,” Leonard says.

“We live in an ageing world, where through necessity, desire or just wanting to stay connected, many people will not retire in their 60s. Most will learn, earn and yearn for connected lives for far longer. “

For law firms, Leonard says integrating more older workers can help teams reflect the ageing demographics of many client companies – a plus for firms.

With 40 per cent of Australia’s population forecast to be over 50 by 2050, “it just makes sense to make sure the demographics of your firm match the demographics of the world out there and your customer groups”, he says.

“Those that act late will suffer in this new mature world of work. Those that act early will be the winners in the battle.”

On how to attract older workers, Leonard also stresses flexible working arrangements.

Much like working parents, he says mature lawyers often having carer obligations, meaning they value an employer that is serious about flexibility on work hours and times.

Training is another factor typically top of mind for older workers, according to Leonard.

“Often organisations overlook their older workers for training opportunities, but life-long learning and earning is the pattern for today’s mature workers,” he says.

“Many want to keep working well into their 70s and can deliver substantial value, but don’t overlook them when it comes to development and training opportunities.”

For a law firm culture to build respect of older workers, he suggests “two-way mentoring.”

Leonard explains this as initiatives that “connect two different generations of your workers” thereby “creating opportunities for open dialogue between generations.”

“This is where the magic happens,” he says. “Each generation can learn from the other. Perhaps your mature workers can share some soft skills, or dealing with stress, while younger workers might have some input on flexible learning and agile ideation.

“The key is not to open the gaps further by keeping different generations apart, or treating them differently somehow. Start by removing any ageist language and approaches, and then make the connections and watch the benefits roll out for your team.”

CEPAR’s research appears to support the business consultant. It finds 33 per cent of people aged 60-64 and half of women that age were involved in some type of caregiving, while 66 per cent of participants in its study report involuntary career interruptions due to caregiving. Caregiving and career interruptions are also common for older single women without children.

Regarding training, the research suggests it lags for older workers who are” often excluded from knowledge sharing processes” leading to companies losing their intellectual capital. Almost 40 per cent of respondents aged 55-64 reported that their organisation offered little or no skill training, compared with the 23 per cent of workers aged 18-44 , according to the research.

Nina Mapson Bone, founder of consultancy NMB People Strategy, says the payoffs for firms that take this type of approach is an uplift in innovation and solution-based thinking.

For younger workers, they can derive benefits from the industry experience and specialist knowledge of older employees as well as learning how to deal with high-stress situations.

“The older workers can benefit from picking up on new technologies and being more open to new ideas. As a result, having multiple generations in a workforce creates more innovative, solutions-based thinking,” Mapson Bone says.

Regarding law firm flexibility, she says it’s the most important motivator for baby boomers when it comes to workplace engagement.

As a starting point on this front, she says “don’t box your workers into categories.”

“Are you open to having your employees work part-time, are you open to them working from home, or working reduced hours in the day? Many workers are keen to keep working but not at full-time hours,” the HR expert explains.

“Consider also their transferable skills, many workers are keen to use transferable skills and don’t necessarily need to be concerned about whether they’re ‘overqualified’ for the job.”

For these types of initiatives to get rolled out successfully there needs to be “an openness and robustness of debate around opinions and ideas” at a firm.

“The culture of your organisation needs to be safe and healthy,” she says. “The risk through being hierarchical is that people don’t speak openly and offer opinions honestly. It can’t be done to tick a diversity box or it’s unlikely to succeed.

“It also needs to be implemented well. It has to be something the organisation as a whole believes in, and that works within the whole culture or it won’t succeed.”

Both big and small firms can make positive steps in this direction, she says, noting that HR budget isn’t the key factor on getting more mature age workers onboard.

Rather, she says it’s about “being intentional with your hiring and culture.”

“If you bring the right people in regardless of age, and look to their transferable skills, create an open and flexible workplace with a respectful but robust culture, then different people of all ages can flourish in that environment,” she says.

“You may need to be more strategic in how you find people of different generations when hiring to ensure a mix, but that will be about your sourcing strategies and can be solved by asking yourself where your target person is likely to be hanging out, both in person and online, and then sourcing from those areas as appropriate.”

Echoing other experts in the field, she urges law firm leaders to get rid of preconceptions around old age, especially on issues like technology.

“Technology is evolving so rapidly that everyone is beginning to fall into the category of not knowing how to keep up, not just older workers,” she says.

“Train all your people on the tech, and get them using it consistently and well regardless of age. Don’t assume because they are old they don’t know how to use it.

“Assume all your team members don’t know how to use it to its full effectiveness. They probably don’t.”