The Often-Forgotten Risks of Dying at Your Desk When You’re a Solo or Small Firm Owner

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. First, the good news. Men in the United States aged 65 can expect to live 18.2 more years on average. Women aged 65 years can expect to live around 20.8 more years on average. The bad news is that some lawyers read that and somehow think that they can practice that long.

Sobering Statistics About Aging

If you’re one of them, consider these sobering statistics that I found while perusing the internet.

  • Ten to 20 % of people 65 and older have mild cognitive impairment.
  • Heart disease affects 37% of men and 26% of women 65 and older.
  • One in nine people aged 65 and older (11.3%) has Alzheimer's dementia. After 65, the risk doubles every five years.
  • Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries have two or more chronic conditions.
  • More than one-third of adults 65 or older sustain an injury by falling each year. Of those who do, 20% to 30% suffer moderate to severe injuries (such as hip fractures) that decrease mobility and independence. Falls are the leading cause of injuries among older adults, causing hip fractures, head trauma, and death.
  • At least 80% of people older than 60 are living with one chronic illness, but 50% older than 60 are living with two chronic illnesses.

Call me Mr. Doom and Gloom, but facts are facts. This is not fake news!

The Unfortunate Consequences of "Dying at Your Desk"

Here are some more facts to think about if you’re a Boomer contemplating the timing of your retirement. This will happen if you suffer a heart attack, stroke, a fall that puts you out of commission for a few months, or pass away unexpectedly.

  • If you’re a solo and die, your grieving spouse or children will likely have to handle phone calls from clients with active matters, while at the same time planning your funeral. If your firm has other lawyers and staff, they will probably be as clueless as a family member about dealing with immediate client concerns.
  • Your clients, whose well-being you have claimed for years was so important to you, will probably panic about how their matter will be handled going forward. They will also either blame themselves for entrusting the matter to an attorney whose age was an accident waiting to happen or you, for taking the matter, to begin with.
  • Your staff will quickly scatter and be unable to help anyone.
  • If you pass away, a family member or executor will be forced to decide whether to try to sell the firm or simply shut it down. To do that they will either have to spend thousands on fees to advisors to help them decide or overburden a trusted colleague or friend who will help them out.
  • If your descendants try to sell the firm, the following will be lost:
    • Money. It will take months for everyone to get their act together and find a successor firm. By then, terms will resemble a fire sale because many clients will have already found new counsel.
    • Your ability to steer your clients to a trusted colleague. They may retain someone who you’ve always hated or didn’t trust.
    • And even if your clients or heirs find a competent successor, you won’t be around to help with the transition that would have made life so much easier for both clients and your successor.

I am well aware that many lawyers want to continue to work for as long as realistically possible because they either need the money, can’t imagine doing anything else, or both. The consequences of dying at your desk are not worth the risk.

Now What?

So, what to do? There is no simple answer. At a minimum, every lawyer, whether they are 35 or 65, should have a contingency plan in case they are hit by the proverbial bus. There’s plenty of good material on the web courtesy of bar associations and malpractice carriers to help you there. But to be quite frank, having that in place helps a little, but doesn’t adequately address many of the “dying at desk” issues raised in this post.

Although reasonable people can differ with me, I think that once you hit the early 70’s, all bets are off. You can’t assume that you have at least five or perhaps even more good years left to practice without a substantial risk of a serious health problem. Many lawyers believe that, but the risk is a real one and the statistics mentioned earlier prove that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that everyone retire at age 70. I know plenty of lawyers in their 70’s and even 80’s, who can still very capably help clients. What I am suggesting is that if you are a solo or a single small firm owner around that age, you should consider practicing in a different environment. That is, in a setting that minimizes the burdens to family, clients, and staff should your time come prematurely and unexpectedly.

The best way to do that is to affiliate with another law firm and for many, that usually means in an “of counsel” role. By working in a larger organization (even if it’s just joining forces with a solo), there are now more bodies around to better handle the inevitable issues faced by dying at your desk.

This is not a perfect solution. Working for someone else is never an easy adjustment when you’re used to being your own boss for so long. It also will probably not be as lucrative either. What can I tell you? Just another example of “getting old sucks!”

The bottom line: your long-term health prospects are not as rosy as you might think, and the risks associated with assuming you’ll remain healthy are higher than you might think. Many of you have made an excellent living by properly assessing risks for your clients. Time to practice what you preach.

Feel free to reach out to me to discuss the issues of "dying at your desk". You can reach me at 612-524-5837 or you can contact me online.

Categories: Attorney Retirement