Phasing Into Retirement

Whether a lawyer works in a firm or as a solo, he or she does not close up shop one day and ride off into the retirement sunset the next. Many lawyers gradually wind down their practices—over months or years—and transition to part-time before retiring completely. Historically, law firms use the “of counsel” designation for lawyers nearing retirement.

Depending upon the needs of the individual lawyer and law firm, a lawyer’s productivity can vary significantly as he or she approaches retirement. For some, “of counsel” status is little more than a destination for socializing and regular lunches with colleagues. Others continue to bill some hours, mentor younger lawyers, represent the firm in the community, and continue to make a significant contribution to the firm and its bottom line.

Even solos usually wind down and work part-time before retiring completely. Some stop accepting new cases and work until all of their active cases are completed. Others transfer active files or sell their practice to former competitors. Either option takes some planning.

Whether a lawyer goes cold turkey or slowly phases into retirement, there will be many more hours of available time in each day. After working hard for 30 or 40 years, rest and relaxation is usually the first goal—sleeping in, renting and watching the movies you’ve always wanted to see, and reading the daily issues of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal front to back.

Trouble begins when retirees start expanding two or three hours of relaxation into regular full days of nothing but relaxation. That soon results in boredom and a loss of professional identity.

Many retired lawyers remain happily connected to the legal profession in many ways—part-time (and sometimes for pay)—in areas like these:

  • Expert witness work
  • Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)—mediation and arbitration
  • Politics (running for office or working on a campaign)
  • Teaching as adjunct faculty at a law school or college
  • Teaching continuing legal education programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Ramping up bar association activities
  • Writing articles for print or electronic media, or blogging

Lawyers can also look outside the legal profession for fulfilling activities. There are paid opportunities in corporate America and the entrepreneurial sphere. Based on your interests, you can also consider an active involvement (most likely unpaid) in organizations in the following areas—any one of which would be thrilled to have you as a volunteer:

  • Religious
  • Social services
  • Hospitals
  • Civic
  • Education/youth services and sports
  • Environmental
  • Culture/arts
  • Community agencies

Give your retirement planning the same due diligence you devote to your legal work. Use the Internet to conduct basic research. Read some books and articles. Most importantly, get out and talk to real people—especially those who have already retired and can provide their “real-world” perspective.

Chances are very good that you know someone, directly or by association, who had retirement goals similar to yours. Did it work? What went right? What went wrong? How much groundwork had to be laid? Was enough time devoted to planning? Have a conversation with these individuals. You will find that they will be more than happy to share their experiences with you.

I strongly recommend that my attorney coaching clients who are still working (but thinking about retirement) “practice” for retirement. Actively engage in some of the things you’re planning to do in retirement and see if you enjoy it. Start taking longer vacations and more three- or four-day weekends. If all goes well and you’ve planned properly, you will enjoy this time. If you get restless, it may be a good idea to amend your plan and keep practicing—or you run the risk of an unsatisfying retirement.

Assuming that your “practice” time goes well, your retirement planning is still far from complete. You must plan to continuously adjust your expectations and actions as time goes by. When you began practicing law and finally felt you knew what you were doing, you did not hit the automatic pilot button and coast for the rest of your career. You continued to make minor and major adjustments. You needed to be flexible, persistent, and patient. The same is true with your retirement activity plans; tweaks will be needed as circumstances change. Your career was satisfying, but not perfect. No retirement is perfect, either.

Ideally, you will be able to look back at your legal career with a sense of accomplishment. With some thoughtful planning (and a bit of luck), you can have that same feeling of accomplishment about the productive and satisfying years you spend in retirement.

Categories: Attorney Retirement