Too old to get hired, but too young to retire

  • Article by: MICHAEL KINSLEY , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 2:26 PM

Photo: Paul Tong, Tribune Media Services

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A friend of mine had his name in the paper the other day. It was an article speculating about who might inherit a prestigious post in the literary world when the current grandee retires. The article said that my friend would have led the list 10 years ago.

Ouch! The obvious though unstated implication is that now he's too old. He just turned 60.

He says he already has his dream job and didn't mind the idea that, because he is 60, some career opportunities have moved beyond his reach. But I mind.

Another friend of mine, whom we'll call "Nick" (because that's his name), is doing something about it: He's suing.

Nick grew up in North Dakota and went to Stanford, where he graduated with honors and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.  Unlike Greg Smith, the guy who wrote that already legendary op-ed piece last week about quitting Goldman Sachs, Nick never won any medals in the Jewish Olympics. On the other hand, he never worked for Goldman Sachs, so that's a wash.

Where was I? Oh yes: So after Oxford, Nick went to Stanford Law School, where he was managing editor of the law review.  He clerked for the Supreme Court, won election and re-election as attorney general of North Dakota, served for eight years, then lost a race for governor, went on to practice law and served as chief legal officer of several Fortune 500 companies.

Then he decided that he wanted to teach.

If you want to become a law professor, one of the things you have to do is submit your resume (plus a fee) to the Association of American Law Schools. Every fall in Washington, the group holds a conference to recruit faculty, at which law schools interview candidates they are interested in.

Just about every accredited American law school participates. Two years ago, of 172 law schools, only two offered Nick an interview, and he already worked part-time at one of them.

He got no job offers. Good heavens, why not? Was he attorney general of too small a state? Did the competition have even more Fortune 500 companies under its belt? Was it that lost race for governor — the only blemish of failure on his record of success?

Nick suspects otherwise, and I suspect he's right: It's age discrimination. He was 60 at the time. Now he's 62.

Law schools just do not hire people in their 60s as tenured or tenure-track professors, except for the occasional "adjunct" (temporary) professor moving up or a lateral transfer from another law school faculty.

Imagine how infuriating this must be to an ambitious guy like Nick. Three or four decades ago, law schools were beating down his door. Now they won't even give him an interview.

Meanwhile, the Georgetown University Law Center, for example, hired three people after the 2010 job fair, none of them with Nick's shimmering credentials.

Of course, every law school will have reasons for a decision not to hire a particular candidate. Georgetown, for example, says the list of subjects Nick wanted to teach didn't jibe with the subjects it needed to cover.

But 172 law schools and not one job offer? It seems beyond reasonable dispute that age discrimination must be involved.

Not everyone will agree about how big an injustice this is. (I mean the behavior of the law schools. The fact that Nick, like many of us, is two years older than he was two years ago is an obvious and devastating injustice, with no remedy.)

You may be thinking: "This guy's a jerk. He's won life's lottery again and again. Instead of filing legal documents all about how his credentials are better than everybody else's, he should be gracious, stand aside, and give some other people a chance at acquiring a bauble or two for their resumes."

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