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March 10, 2023

Senior Lawyer/Volunteer Lawyer: The Key to an Active Retirement

Tazewell Shepard

The entire PDF in which this article appears can be found here. 

This article is a partial reprint of the original article that appeared in Experience, April/May 2022. Read the full article which includes Tazewell Shepard’s experience as a volunteer lawyer, and how he went from scaling back his practice to creating a full calendar of richly rewarding volunteer activities.

Maybe you’ve been practicing law for 40 or 50 years, or maybe you were a late bloomer, changing your career choice to go to law school and practicing for only 30 years. Either way, you’re ready for a change, and you need to decide what exactly that change will be.

Becoming a volunteer lawyer starts with a self-realization that you have a wealth of knowledge and experience from your years of practice. If your main goal is to make money, then don’t retire. But if your main goal is to be and feel useful, you can do that by becoming a volunteer lawyer.

It may be helpful for you to consider first whether you want to use your legal skills or your organizational skills. Not every senior lawyer has learned how to organize and manage people and ideas, but many have, and both types of skills can be useful to a volunteer organization.

Here’s an example from my own experience. One of my early volunteer efforts as a lawyer was to participate in legal clinics sponsored by our local volunteer lawyer program. You may be familiar with the volunteer lawyers program as it exists in many states.

It was an easy fit for me since my law practice has consisted mainly of commercial litigation and business bankruptcies. As a volunteer, I could talk with clients about such topics as breached apartment leases, tax issues, and credit card debt. It wouldn’t have worked so well if my practice had focused on securities fraud or mergers and acquisitions.

Once I joined the VLP board of directors, I found they needed leadership as much as they needed lawyers at the clinics. I also found that I enjoyed planning continuing legal education events and fundraisers and working with our judges on special VLP dockets. Eventually, I became president of my local volunteer lawyers program.

Of course, your volunteer experience may be different, depending on your personality and the nature of your practice. However, I’m confident you can find a volunteer opportunity that’s right for you.

How To Get Started

Maybe becoming a volunteer lawyer sounds good to you, but you don’t know where to start. If you’re comfortable navigating websites on your computer or tablet, I suggest you check out the pro bono sections of both the American Bar Association and the ABA’s Senior Lawyers Division. The ABA site has a list of general opportunities for volunteer involvement, and the SLD site has such resources as information on remote pro bono activities and ethical considerations for legal aid lawyers.

Another option is to get involved with your local or state bar association. To me, the difference between these organizations is the degree of organization and structure. With your local bar, you may be able to start a new program or a new position. This is also true with your state bar, but it’ll take you longer to network with other volunteer lawyers and to figure out which of your ideas will work in the context of the state bar’s mission statement and goals. There also may be some travel associated with a statewide organization.

I don’t want to give you the impression that you must come to any bar association with a sack full of great ideas. Many state bars and large city bars have excellent existing programs, and you may enjoy getting involved in one of them. One example is mentoring young lawyers. Another example is participating in pro bono legal clinics. A third example is the ABA’s Free Legal Answers program, where you can create an account online, sign in, and then pick and choose questions from the public that you’re willing to answer anonymously as a lawyer.

Making New Friends

Having said all this, there’s one benefit of being a volunteer lawyer I should have emphasized earlier. You’ll meet people and make friends you never would have met otherwise.

One former state bar president, a real estate lawyer, calls me every week to see how I’m doing and to discuss some goal or project. Another friend, a plaintiff’s lawyer, calls as well, and we talk about our families and when we might take a trip together to New Orleans.

Here’s the thing: They both live more than 300 miles from me. These are dear friends I never would have met if I hadn’t become a volunteer.

So, I leave you with three good reasons to become a volunteer lawyer—helping people, staying busy and useful, and forming friendships that’ll brighten your life. 

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