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The face of ageism in law firms

By Eve Vlemincx.

In the hallways of law firms, where tradition meets ambition, a more complex narrative unfolds—one that challenges the conventional approach of "up or out" and reveals the face of ageism in law firms.

When we think of ageism, we often think of people at the end of their careers. However, what if it concerns a much broader narrative?

One that brings to light stories of individuals who, for various reasons, didn't ascend the traditional ladder within the first decade of their careers, only to find themselves at a crossroads, battling the silent yet pervasive bias of ageism.

A truth hidden under words such as ‘up or out’ or “we only recruit the best”, but what does ‘the best’ truly mean? Does diversity and inclusion really stand a chance if we don’t dare to question policies that have been normalized for decades? In doing so, we might exclude a wealth of talent that never even makes it to the entrance of our firms…

What do we value?

The myth of the first decade.

Take the story of Alex, a bright and ambitious associate who joined a prestigious law firm with dreams of making partner. Life, however, as life tends to do for the majority of people, had different plans. Family obligations and a personal health crisis took precedence, slowing down Alex's fast-track progression.

Upon returning to the firm, Alex found himself confronted with a truth that remained hidden from him before. Alex got sidetracked. After all, he missed his fast track.

This scenario is not uncommon and sheds light on an aspect of ageism that's often overlooked—the notion that if one hasn’t so-called ‘made it’ within the first decade, their value and potential are diminished in the eyes of peers.

They might come with extra maturity and life experience, granting them skills that no course might teach and potentially making them better attorneys, but all this gets dismissed in the traditional approach.

Redefining potential

Similarly, there's the story of Sara, who spent the first ten years of her legal career in public service, gaining invaluable experience in litigation and policy work. Transitioning to a private law firm later in her career, Sara encountered skepticism about her non-traditional path, with all the consequences that came with it. She was considered ‘counsel-material’. After all she missed the fast track for partnership, before she had even started.

This form of ageism highlights a rigid and narrow definition of success that fails to acknowledge the rich diversity of experiences that lawyers can bring to the table.

Ageism: A barrier to diversity, inclusion and innovation.

These stories underscore a critical flaw in the "up or out" mentality. It not only perpetuates ageism and excludes talented people, it also stifles diversity, inclusion and innovation.

By valuing only a specific trajectory—early and rapid ascent within the firm—law firms overlook the potential for growth and contribution from those who have followed different paths. This, in itself, makes it challenging to be inclusive and to innovate. After all, one likely ends up with a team that is very homogeneous because one excludes people who went through a different trajectory and don’t fit the traditional mold.

In such a culture, real diversity and inclusion struggle to arise, stifling all efforts at innovation. This oversight not only impacts the individuals concerned but also deprives the firm of the broad range of perspectives and skills that are essential for navigating the complexities of modern legal practice.

The way forward: Redefining success.

The legal profession stands at a crossroads, with an opportunity to redefine success in more inclusive and flexible terms. This entails recognizing and valuing the diverse paths lawyers take in their careers, including those who may diverge from the fast track or enter the profession later in life.

Law firms can lead this shift by implementing policies and practices that support varied career trajectories, such as flexible work arrangements, continuous learning opportunities, and alternative pathways to partnership.


The stories above illustrate that ageism is not only about those at the end of their careers. It might even impact very talented lawyers at the beginning of their careers. "Up or out" might still be considered a normal strategy, but we have to be aware of its impact. Not everybody might be partner material, but not everybody encountering ageism is not partner material either.

By broadening the narrative of success to include diverse career paths and timelines, the legal profession can cultivate a more inclusive, dynamic, and resilient workforce. In doing so, law firms not only combat ageism but also unlock potential of lawyers, regardless of when or how they embark on their professional journeys.

The time is ripe for a cultural shift—one that embraces all dimensions of diversity and redefines what it means to succeed in law.


About the Author Eve Vlemincx is a strategic advisor with expertise in a wide array of areas including legal digital transformation, innovation and leadership. She serves as an advisory council member for Harvard Business Review and is a Course Facilitator at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Eve is highly sought after as a keynote speaker and guest lecturer in various professional settings. Notably, she has been honored as a five-time recipient of the Stanford GSB LEAD Award.

Operating at the dynamic intersection of legal and business, Eve holds certifications from esteemed institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, Kellogg and Stanford Graduate School of Business. Additionally, she brings substantial experience as a seasoned lawyer specializing in corporate law and restructurings.

Eve's guiding philosophy is centered on working smarter, not harder, as she helps individuals and organizations navigate the complexities of today's rapidly evolving landscape.

1 Comment

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Apr 09

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