State Bar transforms senior section into Master Lawyers

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

Imagine the good that almost 12,000 seasoned, caring lawyers can do in Michigan.

Former State Bar of Michigan President Ron Keefe did just that, along with trying to imagine the growing needs of an attorney population about to retire or reduce working hours.

During his reign in 2008, Keefe set up a special committee, which was renewed for one year under immediate past president Charles Toy, to study ways to address the upcoming influx of senior attorneys.

According to State Bar Director of External Development Candace Crowley, "Ron Keefe was drawn to exploring the situation because of the data that came to our attention about the really large number of lawyers who would be seniors soon. Right now 23% of our members are age 60 or older, and more than half are 50 or older."

The committee mulled over the situation, involving such leaders of the existing Senior Section as Asher Tilchin and Edgar Pugh -- and a lot of State Bar staff members.

At its annual meeting in Grand Rapids on Oct. 1, the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) announced a new Master Lawyers Section, and the termination of the old Senior Section.

Reaching age 60 or completing 30 years of practice as SBM members entitles attorneys to a free membership in the section. (Members may opt out of the section when they pay their dues, or by requesting to opt out in writing.) Those 50 years or older, or those who have completed 20 years of membership in the State Bar will pay $25 if they wish to join the section.

The announcement preceded a discussion on pro bono opportunities, which section coordinators regard as an excellent use of the master lawyers' years of expertise, as the first program offered by the new section.

Bob Gillette of Legal Services of South Central Michigan addressed the large crowd, which Crowley characterized as having "really good energy." Following that, a panel presented and interacted with the participants.

Serving on the panel were Michael Chielens, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan; Senior Lawyers Council member Richard Fellrath, who does pro bono work through the Eastern District Bankruptcy Court; David Shaltz, a pro bono lawyer through Elder Law of Michigan; and former American Bar Association Robert Grey.

Commented Chielens, "There are a lot of lawyers who are retiring but want to keep their hands in it as they're winding down, and I think one of the principal ways they can do that is to volunteer pro bono. They can still be contributing members of the bar that way."

In addition to serving as a voice for the concerns of older attorneys, the Master Lawyers Section will offer tools and programs to help that population transition from full-time practice. The numbers of attorneys interested in how to close a practice are now on equal footing with those who want to know how to open one. It is likely that the Practice Resource Management Center will be the SBM entity to deliver such programs.

There are also tangential issues such as financial planning which the section hopes to include on its agenda.

Other older lawyers may wish to continue in practice and the section will help them explore the variety of ways to do so. For example, someone who has run a large firm may wish to be Of Counsel to that firm, or he or she may want to look at other options -- and may not even be aware of what those options are.

The section will also seek to offer skills training that will make alternate forms of continued practice easier. The special committee, chaired by Keefe and Greg Ulrich, found that a chief interest of senior attorneys is technology training.

Yet another function of the Master Lawyers Section will be to make the public aware of ethical and practical issues related to the transition period.

"The wisdom and experience of this group of attorneys is unparalleled," said State Bar of Michigan President Charles Toy. "This section will give them an opportunity to network with each other, to continue to give to the community, and to find resources that will help them transition into the next phase of their careers."

For additional information about the Master Lawyers Section, call Candace Crowley at (517) 346-6319 or e-mail her at

Published: Mon, Nov 15, 2010