Q. Bill, I'm considering retirement. After practicing law for 35 years, the time seems right for several reasons. But I'm still having misgivings about leaving my firm. Do you have advice on how to make it easier?
A. A couple of months ago, I served as an arbitrator with another lawyer, someone I've known since I started practicing law nearly 30 years ago. He built his firm from a half-dozen lawyers to nearly 100 in 25 years, but he recently scaled back to part-time work. During our conversation I was struck by my colleague's comment that he was having difficulty figuring out how to spend his newly acquired free time. "All I've ever done," he said, "is get up in the morning, drink my coffee, put on my tie and drive to the office." He went on to say that he had worked until 7 o'clock every night for years. The problem now, as he explained it, was that he was so busy working for so long that he never developed any hobbies or interests outside of his work and he didn't even have social ties apart from his partners and others at the office.
Now, this lawyer is someone whom I've always admired-in large part for his ability to focus hard on his practice and avoid the variety of distractions that have always tended to lure me away from my work. But as we were talking about our respective situations, I was taken aback when he told me that he had always envied the way that I had been able to find time for my avocations. Hearing this from such a successful lawyer- someone who confessed that he "had more money than he could ever spend"-gave me pause to reflect.
The exchange stayed with me over the next few weeks. The notion that someone in great health-with plenty of money-would be having trouble facing a future with a lot of free time was hard to comprehend. A bit later, though, I got a call from Mike Long at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) asking me to look at a book that he had just written on personal and retirement planning for lawyers. Long was inspired to write his book, titled Lawyers at Midlife: Laying the Groundwork for the Road Ahead (Decision Press, 2008), after spending 14 years as a peer-counselor at the OAAP, where he helped judges, solos, big firm lawyers and everybody else work through all sorts of job and career crises. He also recently ran a weekly drop-in program called "Lawyers in Transition," where he saw lawyers facing situations not unlike the one my friend and colleague described. I read Long's book thinking that maybe it would help me understand my colleague's angst-and I think perhaps, at least in part, it might explain some of the discomfort about retiring that you seem to be feeling, too.
Shifting Priorities Through Time
Long's book is filled with anecdotes based on his years of one-on-one and group counseling sessions with lawyers at all stages of their careers. He writes that a common theme among lawyers is that they often recall with pleasure the activities they were passionate about before law school, but had to give up when they began their law studies and abandoned entirely later on as their law practices and clients' demands took priority.
For most lawyers that Long worked with as a peer-counselor, that shift in priorities lasted for decades. During that extended time, he says, "Your schedule is influenced by court calendars and client needs and expectations."
Without the structure provided by courts and clients, retired lawyers "often experience an uncomfortable loss of focus and direction," according to Long's experience. And for retiring women lawyers, he found that the problem was complicated by the fact that many had been juggling their clients' needs and families' needs over the years to a greater extent than their male colleagues.
"Each of us moves through transitional periods in our own way," as Long explains it, and many retiring lawyers he has counseled initially "report a tremendous amount of freedom." But what many "don't yet realize is that their newfound freedom is just another phase. Sometime later-and it's different for everyone-the new retiree begins experiencing unanticipated emotions and discomfort." This discomfort, according to Long, has to do with the lawyer's "struggle to find activities that provide a sense of purpose and meaning" at a time when "they feel less valuable and valued." That struggle is merely a stage in the transition process, he says, and the lawyer will generally experience a "rise and fall in mood and level of satisfaction."
I think if you can recognize that this discomfort period really is a natural phase, and that you need new activities to bring new value to your time once you leave your practice, it will go a long way in building a pleasant and productive retirement for you.
To make the transition as smooth as possible, I recommend that you check out resources like the ABA Second Season of Service Commission if you're looking for volunteer activities, and that you get your hands on helpful materials like Long's book Lawyers at Midlife, which contains information on financial planning and useful worksheets and charts. But the book's big strength lies in the real-life stories of the struggles and challenges facing lawyers at midlife. Long's clients have included lawyers in their 50s and 60s who have saved little for retirement but have been forced to give up their practices because of health problems; lawyers who retired only to learn that they felt "purposeless or devalued without their lawyer role or lawyer identity"; lawyers who could no longer meet the performance expectations of their firms; and lawyers who had trouble dealing with anxiety and depression at the thought of retirement. Their stories put a human face on the transition process and will help you know that you're not alone.
Reading Long's book gave me a better understanding of my colleague's concerns about leaving the law firm that he spent a quarter- century building. What's more, I'm now convinced that all my hobbies and avocations will help make my transition into retirement much easier-if I ever retire, that is.
K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice, 2nd Ed. (ABA, 2006).