Vol. 41, No. 2

In a world of change and transition: Which way forward?

by Stephen P. Gallagher

With so many long-time executive directors retiring, I thought this might be a good time to talk about life’s transitions—letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become.

The emotions involved in winding down one’s life work and transferring responsibilities to a new generation can be an intense mixture of pride, anxiety, and even loss. In my experience, people are increasingly embracing the idea of living longer, living better, and maintaining a balanced, vital lifestyle. People of all ages are seeking much greater meaning in everything we do.

I was hired by the New York State Bar Association in 1990 as one of the first practice management advisors in the country—which means the executive directors who are now retiring are my peers in many ways. Since I retired from bar work in 2003, I have been working with colleagues who are themselves going through the human dynamics of life’s transitions. I firmly believe that older is the new normal, and this is not only changing what it means to age but it is also changing how we live—permanently altering the course of our lives. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 years of age every day, it is time for bar associations and the legal profession to recognize that aging is not just about people 65 and older; people of all generations have to face up to the new realities of aging.

I have read that law schools throughout the country are in crisis as a result of dramatic declines in enrollment and revenue. It is fair to say that bar associations and the entire legal industry share equally in this crisis in the profession. Today, just about every bar association in the country faces a crossroads, even a time of professional peril, in moving beyond the internet economy.

A lesson from outside the bar world

Let’s look, for a moment, at another business that has faced significant change in recent years: Barnes & Noble. In 1990, the company made retailing history by opening the first category-killer bookstore. People flocked to the spacious and comfortable stores, which offered a comprehensive inventory of books, CDs (and then DVDs), and the nicest café in the mall. You were welcome to sit, read, and enjoy your coffee without fear of being asked to leave. Barnes & Noble grew like a weed. Bar associations experienced the same period of growth.

As the internet economy took off in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, Barnes & Noble was forced to change its business model. In 1997, it launched BarnesandNoble.com, offering 1 million titles for immediate delivery, plus access to a nationwide network offering over 30 million listings. This move came at roughly the same time as the launch of an unusual online bookstore called “Amazon.com.” At the time, Barnes & Noble wasn’t worried about Amazon. Everyone knew that book lovers preferred to browse in the store, sit in comfortable chairs, and enjoy a coffee. Didn’t they?  

Now, in this new era of networked consumers and digital everything, the internet is a giant Amazon.com blob absorbing every industry it touches, and a teenaged Steve McQueen and his friends don’t need to warn us. The entire legal profession is facing a Barnes & Noble-sized disruption. One tip for all of us: Let’s be a Barnes & Noble … not a Borders.

Changing times call for a new retirement model

The traditional meaning of “retirement” has been a single event—withdrawal from the workforce into leisure, relaxation, and a slide to the end of life. Today’s new retirement model must be seen as more of a journey than a destination. For many individuals, work can be an enriching experience that may not end at an arbitrary age of 65 or even 70. Whether it’s continuing to do what we love, pursuing a long-held interest, or simply seeking to remain socially engaged, there’s definitely change coming in what we think of as “retirement.” The legal profession must take a more active role in helping lawyers transition to and from this new retirement.

According to a 2012 American Bar Foundation survey, 68 percent of bar members practice in solo and small-firm (10 lawyers or fewer) settings. Of these same respondents, 59 percent reported that they had no plan in place to maintain their practice in case of death, disability, or bar discipline. With a growing shortage of lawyers in certain regions of the country and within certain types of practice, access to justice will be even more limited.

Down the years, I have met many solo practitioners who feel they have only two options available to them when it comes to retirement: continue working full time or close the door and walk away.

Transitions are not limited to “end times.” Many newly minted lawyers face a decreasing number of large firm, government, and corporate jobs. It is fortunate that we are seeing the timely emergence of law school incubator and residency programs, which enable new lawyers to acquire the range of practical skills necessary to launch successful practices.

Law students who aspire to be solo or small-firm lawyers might have much brighter futures if bar associations, working in partnership with law schools, could do more to help connect such aspiring young lawyers with mid-level to senior lawyers who wish to step away from full-time practice. Rural practice programs are a great start; I believe more such programs will be needed, and perhaps similar programs would be useful in areas that aren’t rural at all.

The new reality of aging

Research shows that most older workers (in their 50s and 60s) would like to work fewer hours than they currently do. I believe that mid-career practitioners—with the help of bar associations and regional law schools—should be able to explore transition options other than continuing to work full time or “closing the door and walking away.” The Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study examined the pathways in and out of paid work and unpaid community service, and their implications for well-being. This study confirmed the need for a more flexible retirement that could start when attorneys reach their early- to mid-50s, long before the more traditional retirement age, and last well into the mid- to late-70s.

Almost two-thirds of today’s pre-retirees say they would like to remain productive and include some work in retirement; i.e., stay active and involved. The Cornell study found that nearly half of retirees work for pay at some point after retirement. It should be noted, too, that this is likely higher today: Useful though the study still is, it was conducted before the recession of 2008. Most older workers also wish they had planned more for retirement and that they had begun to plan earlier (in their mid-40s).

Multigenerational family assistance has become the new retirement wild card: Pre-retirees must balance their retirement plans with the possibility of having to support aging relatives, adult children, grandchildren and siblings. Half of respondents to a Harris survey in 2011 expected to provide this support, with 70 percent of those believing their adult children will need financial assistance. With five boys of my own, this got my attention. It is one thing to love your children and grandchildren, but it is another entirely different thing to have them living on the third floor of your house. I can assure you these coping skills were never discussed in law school. 

Change is fast, transition is slow

I prefer thinking of retirement as the end of senior year. Many of our closest friends are moving on and starting something new. Change can be good for any organization, and change is definitely in the air. Most people do not resist change. They do resist transition; i.e., what happens in people's minds as they go through change. Change itself happens very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly over an extended period of time.

As we move into this new legal landscape, aging of the profession poses many interesting challenges for lawyers, their families, the courts, judicial regulators, and the public. The new reality of aging is not just about reimagining old age; it’s about designing our lives and creating social institutions, public policies, and personal behaviors that support us. As mid-career to more senior lawyers begin winding down their law practices, selling to a partner or third party, or bringing in a protégé to transition the practice over time, having a clearly defined plan in place will increase the likelihood of ensuring a successful transition.

A sole practitioner friend of mine once explained that the most valuable thing the bar association could do for him would be to provide sources of financing for young lawyers who wanted to practice in his region. Other than his lifelong client base, he said his only real tangible assets were his home and his office buildings. Getting the equity he needed out of his real estate required a sale of assets for which financing was not available locally. He suggested a bar association affiliate program with a lender who wanted to do business with new lawyers. He also told me he would be proud to work with a “new hopeful” to transfer his practice, if the real estate could be sold to the newcomer.

Moving forward … together

It is important to understand that an individual cannot do this transition alone. Bar associations, law schools and the courts need to assume more of a public role in assuring that the profession is prepared for transition. As the profession opens up new approaches to living and aging, we as individuals and as a society will be able to select our unique path for transition. The legal profession will need to see the aging population of lawyers as an opportunity—a growing market for reshaping the profession, a pool of untapped talent and resources, and the driving force behind economic and social innovation—instead of an unaffordable cost and financial burden.

An equally important part of this new reality of aging is understanding that these new internet-savvy young lawyers have dramatically different buying patterns, interests, and priorities. I recently tested my own “new reality of aging” when I received an email from a young lawyer I was working with. The message read:

As I sit here writing this blog post on my iPad, I have my wife's MacBook for references and my iPhone is playing a song from my iTunes library which is being transmitted through my Bluetooth, Bose wireless speaker, and I am charging my daughters’ iPad and iPhones. I have been reading The Relevant Lawyer: Reimagining the Future of the Legal Profession on iBook, and I'm thinking of getting a Fitbit. My wife has mastered all of said devices, mostly because my 7- and 11-year-old daughters could work at the Apple Store Genius Bar, when they are not living in the world of Minecraft and Musically.”

I understood about half of this message, and no, I never said this transition was going to be easy.

Stephen P. Gallagher

Stephen P. Gallagher has a master of science degree in organizational development and is a lawyer transition coach at his consulting firm, LeadershipCoach.us. Previously, he was director of law office economics and management—one of the first bar association PMA positions—at the New York State Bar Association. He also maintains a Facebook page on the topic of lawyers in transition. Gallagher wishes to thank solo lawyer and friend Leonard E. Sienko Jr. for reading a draft of this article and sharing his own insights.