Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Retiring Into Directorships

I must have reached a certain age.

Within the last month, three different people have contacted me to say that they’re approaching retirement, so it’s time to start serving on boards of directors. These folks came to me (of all people!) to network.

By keeping my ear so close to the ground, I’ve discovered the new, new thing. And you’re in luck — I’ll share it with you!

Everyone’s getting old and thinking about retirement.

Or maybe I’ve buried the lede. Maybe hordes of baby boomers are now thinking about finding a part-time job that pays good money and keeps you entertained after you’ve stopped working full-time.

That’s not a bad strategy, really. If you’re industrious, you could serve on four or five boards, carefully analyze the board materials before each meeting, monitor the companies’ fortunes, contribute insights and ask tough questions during the meetings, and follow up after meetings in pursuit of the corporate good.

On the other hand, if you’re less industrious, you could show up for a few board and committee meetings every year, enjoy cocktails and dinner with the boys, sit like a cardboard cutout during the meetings, and pocket a few hundred grand annually for your efforts, . . .

so you could postpone dipping into your retirement savings.

Although this oversimplifies things, think about three types of boards of directors. Many folks serve on the boards of non-profit entities. People serve on those boards for the usual collection of mixed motives: Some people view boards as networking opportunities or business development initiatives; some want to project an image of philanthropy; some care deeply about certain charities and are anxious to donate time and money to the cause. I’ll guess that, by the time retirement has rolled around, folks are no longer serving on boards to network or develop business, so retirees serving on non-profit boards may have particularly noble motives. (This is not to say that the networkers and business-developers are necessarily bad board members; young, enthusiastic people who are trying to make names for themselves can be great board members, whether or not they care very much about the charitable cause.)

Next up are the boards of for-profit entities that are not publicly traded. (This appears to be my sweet spot: All three of the folks who contacted me last month were looking for leads of this type.) American lawyers have called me, asking if I know of any private companies that could use, for example, an experienced M&A lawyer on their boards. And board service in the U.K. appears to be an even bigger deal than it is in the United States. (Why is that, do you suppose? Maybe Britain has lots of companies and a smaller population than the U.S., so there are more available board seats per capita? I’m sure the answer is obvious; perhaps someone who actually knows about these things can provide it in the comments.) In any event, folks here in London seem anxious to accumulate “non-executive directorships” (or “NEDs,” to those in the know) as people approach retirement. The motive here is the one I gave at the outset: It’s part-time work that can keep both your mind and your bank account active in your dotage. I’m confident that some of the folks that I’ve spoken with would make fine, industrious directors — a credit to any board. And others that I’ve spoken with — not so much.

Finally, boards of directors of for-profit, publicly traded entities.

Sorry, guys — you’re on your own here. These directorships seemingly go to the current (or retired) CEOs and CFOs of other publicly traded companies. These spots are prestigious, well-compensated, and very tough to come by. Don’t call me for help on these; you’re out of my league. (On the other hand, if you have a directorship of a public company to offer to me, now is no time to be shy! That’s why there’s a “contact the author” link down at the bottom of this column.)

Although I can’t say I play in this sandbox, I do know a few lawyers — general counsel of publicly traded companies, former high-ranking government officials, and the like — who have mentioned that they’re trying to pick up a few directorships of public companies as retirement approaches. Once again, some of these people are gifted, industrious folks who have time, judgment, and connections to contribute to public companies. And other of these folks are a couple of rungs beneath that on the ladder. Or are stilling rummaging around in the basement searching for a ladder. With the lights off. And the shades drawn. At midnight. On a moonless night. And the ladder isn’t there.

See you ladder.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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