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Litigation Journal

Winter 2023 | Timing

Transitioning to Happiness: Type-A Trial Attorneys and Retirement

David A Soley


  • The timing of career burnout is different for everyone.
  • Most type-A litigators have hobbies, travel plans, and myriad other things that they would love to pursue more fully.
  • As in winning at trial, the key to success in retirement is preparation.
Transitioning to Happiness: Type-A Trial Attorneys and Retirement

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I committed to becoming a trial lawyer at the age of five. As a teenager, I was thrilled attending trials. I am still—after 38 years—completely caught up in the excitement of practicing law. However, all skills and passions fade. Even Moses called it in after 900 years. Litigators need a plan for how to transition from successful trial attorneys to successful retirees. That plan should address the “when, how, and why” of what comes next after a happy and successful career of practicing law.

Trial lawyers spend endless months and sometimes years preparing for trial. You carefully examine documents, take depositions, file motions, and meticulously strategize your examinations and cross-examinations. The care you spend winning cases should be applied to planning your future. As in winning at trial, the key to success in retirement is preparation.

Good lawyers love the law, but not forever. Your goal as you approach retirement is to recognize the point that I call “career burnout.” There are many symptoms of career burnout: flagging motivation, diminished energy, a sense that you do not care as much about case outcomes as you did in your prime. These symptoms are the mind, body, and soul telling a trial lawyer, “You have had enough.” Attorneys in their prime are powerful, tough, and creative. We have all witnessed once-great trial lawyers who have worked past their prime.

As an attorney, you should not fight career burnout. Instead, you should recognize it as an inevitability and plan accordingly. It will happen to all litigators who live a normal and happy life. The timing of career burnout is different for everyone. Look inside yourself. Examine how you feel about your clients, your cases, and your outcomes. Think about the end of your last vacation. Were you recharged and ready to get back to work—or did you return kicking and screaming? Did you look, with a little envy, at all of those relaxed people in the fishing boats?

Some lawyers simply have determined that they do not love the law—or, at least, do not love the type of law that they initially chose. This is not what I would call career burnout. It is instead a realization that you do not enjoy law or your field of law. Given that you are blessed with only one life, it makes sense to come to this realization and act upon it as soon as possible. There is absolutely no shame in admitting that a career as a trial lawyer is not in your best interest. If this is the case, switch to a profession or occupation that makes you excited to wake up every morning. Embrace life, and be better for it.

In some cases, trial lawyers flag because of a mental disease such as anxiety, depression, alcoholism, or drug addiction. This also is not what I mean by career burnout. In these cases, you should notify appropriate peers and immediately get the help you need.

Facing Burnout

For those trial lawyers who have been happily and actively practicing for 30 or more years and then begin to feel a waning of passion, that may be the beginning of career burnout. It is important to face the issue courageously and accurately. Those feelings are part of the natural cycle, which tells you that you are not meant to die of a heart attack, at age 85, in the middle of a trial. The recognition of these signs is part of a healthy legal career. Even the great sequoia trees of California do not last forever. It is not in your best interest to wage an uphill battle to keep doing things that are better left for the people in or near the prime of their lives.

It also is not in the best interest of clients for attorneys to continue forever. Clients trust that you will represent their interests to the best of your abilities. You excitedly advocate for your client’s best interests. You solve your client’s problems and add monetary and creative value to their lives. However, when you no longer can advocate with the expected power and zeal, you owe an obligation to your clients to recognize this issue and address it, even if your loyal clients demand that you continue representing them.

The message—primarily for those attorneys who have been trying cases for 30 or more years—is to analyze your inner core. Assess your strength and zeal each morning. If your interest in your cases and causes is flagging, it is time to begin planning the next phase of your life. There is an important teaching in Zen Buddhism that freedom can be achieved if you “let go.” Plan for, and be aware of, the need for a wonderful transition.

Psychologist Erik Erickson wrote about the psychological steps of human development. He taught that life is built in stages from when you are born until you die. How you go through each stage—trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy—is critical to your stability and to successfully moving forward in life. Each decade brings new stages for your development. Professor Erickson insists that, beginning in your 60s, you must begin a process of reviewing and redeeming your life. At this stage of life, you must accept the fullness of your life and embrace your victories and defeats. You become wise and successful if you are comfortable with your identity and your achievements. You become depressed and suffer hopelessness if you cannot come to terms with your past and welcome your next stage of life.

You will never know your future. As Muslims wisely say, “Inshallah”—God willing. You do not know the state of your future health. The next phase of life is your chance to try to accomplish important things that you have not yet done. Depending on your health and age, you may have 20, 30, or more years ahead of you. Retirement is planning long-term goals that keep you excited, active, healthy, and happy.

You have seen former lawyers who wither in retirement. It is a horrible situation. While practicing law is certainly a noble profession, it is not, and should not be, the only focus of your life. Those people who wither in retirement—for lack of something meaningful to do—bear witness to the fact that life is sacred and should never be wasted.

Questions to Ask Yourself

When you have reason to believe your zeal is waning, ask yourself if these are the beginning signs of career burnout and, thus, approaching retirement. If so, take stock of your situation and evaluate your interests. Most trial lawyers never achieve everything they want to do in a weekend, in a month, or on a vacation. The first step in retirement planning is to make a list of everything you want accomplish in your personal life. You can begin this process years before the time you will actually transition to not working. A few questions to ask yourself: Are there other legal interests that you would like to pursue, such as being a law professor, working at a legal aid clinic, or becoming engaged in bar activities? Are there non-legal occupations in which you want to engage? What are the “bucket list” items you want to pursue? Are there interests or hobbies to which to devote the rest of your life?

Obviously, finances are an important aspect of retirement planning. If you do not believe that you have sufficient funds to spend the rest of your life in a rocking chair, you need to pick interests that generate appropriate income and supplement your savings. Always remember that the most important part of saving is not earning more money but spending less. I knew a VISTA volunteer living on an annual income of $3,000 who had $1,000 in the bank at the end of the year. Later, as a lawyer earning a substantial income, he was always in debt. As you age, you become more and more accustomed to an expensive lifestyle. The key issue in retirement planning is to determine what you need and really want, and to limit your expenses accordingly.

Retirement, especially for an active professional, is not about rest. It is about approaching the remainder of your life with the passion and determination that you previously spent on litigating cases. Just as you carefully plan for a trial, you now need to carefully plan for retirement. For many trial lawyers, the financial planning is the easier part. The harder issue is to recognize that most of us cannot effectively represent clients in trials forever and that trying cases, while a wonderful part of life, is not always in balance with other needs and dimensions.

Use all of the skills you have as a trial lawyer to seize the moment and effectively plan for a happy post-trial life. Trial lawyers are helpers, healers, planners, and problem solvers. You also need to learn to make time for yourself and for your future. You need to go about planning for a transition in the same way that you would plan a litigation strategy.

Planning a happy retirement is not easy for trial lawyers. You are active people. You want and need to feel very much alive. You need to use the same discipline that has made you a successful trial lawyer to organize a happy retirement.

One part of the planning process should include strategies for maintaining good health. Vigorous activity in later life is more important than in earlier life. It is critical that your retirement plan include one hour of vigorous exercise every day. Especially in later life, it is important to keep your heart rate up by dedicating several days per week to aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise includes bicycling, running, swimming, and fast-paced walking. While golf and tennis are wonderful and beneficial activities, they do not count as aerobic exercise. Your retirement regimen should also include several days per week of strength exercises with weights. Unused muscles degenerate quickly in later life. Strength training ensures a successful and happy transition.

Talk with your doctor about your retirement plans. Work out an appropriate exercise menu that meets your needs, is well suited to your personal medical conditions, and ensures a happy retirement. Dedicating specific times for going to the gym or working with a physical trainer is an excellent idea.

You cannot keep eating like you did in your 20s. As you age, your metabolism slows, and you need to transition to better and less food. “Better” food means consuming fewer simple carbohydrates, simple sugars, heavy fats, fried food, and junk food. “Less” food means smaller portions and walking away from heaping plates of French fries or nachos. Increase fish and vegetables, and decrease red meat. Focus more on high-fiber foods such as lentils. Remember: Your metabolic rate is decreasing, and your body is far less forgiving than it used to be. Fruit juice, with its heavy sugar content, should generally be avoided. While fruits in general are wonderful for you, try to limit your fruit intake to two to four servings per day. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation. You want the last third of your life to be your best.

Filling the Hours

Another part of the preparation process is to decide what you want to do to fill those hours you used to spend working as a trial lawyer. Make a list of both your general interests and your so-called “bucket list” items. The bucket list items are the dramatic “one-off” items such as hiking the Appalachian Trail or swimming the English Channel. This should not be a particularly long or unrealistic list. Bucket list items are fun but generally do not enhance overall health, life, or happiness. The focus of your retirement planning should be on long-term pursuits. Such pursuits are as numerous and diverse as the number of people on the planet. You may want to become a leader of the American Bar Association or your state bar. You may want to devote several months per year to travel and exploration. You may choose to grow trees, tend plants, or raise orchids. You may want to build a magnificent collection of rocks and minerals. You may want to write novels or write books on the practice of law. You may desire to take care of and further the careers of your children and grandchildren.

Your passions should never cease. Pursue them with a type-A commitment. Be a regular volunteer for causes that move you.

Catalogue all of your interests. Pick three to five hobbies that you love, that you think you will love, or that you regret that you have never had enough time to pursue fully. Consider all of the above objectives in choosing these hobbies. Once chosen, get involved in these hobbies, as you were previously involved in your cases. Learn everything you can. Assume leadership roles in hobbies that have organizations. You might want to create an organization where none exists. Through proper planning, this is your opportunity to grow the best orchid, to view the best post-Impressionist painting, or to become the best mineral collector in your state.

In your retirement planning process, take into account others in your life. Humans are social animals. Without social interaction, humans wither. Make a list of friends with whom it is important to remain in touch. Make new friends. It is a great idea to establish a regular schedule of breakfasts, lunches, or dinners with friends who are local. Anthropologists have determined that a single dog, without companionship, dies. You are not that different.

One of the beautiful things about transitioning to retirement is spending more time with loved ones. You may have lamented the fact that you do not have enough time with your spouse, partner, children, or grandchildren due to the press of work. The last third of your life creates an excellent opportunity to become much closer and more intimate with the people who are most important to you.

Consider yourself and your needs. Consider your relationship with each of your adult children and their personal needs. Plan carefully so that you can strike a correct balance that makes the most of the opportunities afforded by retirement.

You also must consider your needs for intellectual challenge and fulfilling interests. All trial lawyers know that their bodies and their hearts are not their most prized assets. Trial lawyers live primarily by their brains. Trying cases is one of the most intellectually challenging occupations on this planet. It is important that the transition to retirement not allow the brain to weaken. Make sure that your plan for a happy retirement includes the challenges that trial lawyers need and crave. Pick a mission or a cause. Go after it relentlessly. The life of a trial lawyer is about advocating for people and causes. You likely can never break this habit. Your plan for a happy retirement must keep this part of your past life high on your list.

Listen also to your heart in planning the remainder of your life. Many have strong spiritual needs and interests that may be fulfilled by joining a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or other spiritual center. Many have more personal yearnings. Think deeply and examine your personal needs. You may wish to consult a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. A happy retirement is a journey, and you must plan to take full advantage of it. This is literally the chance to pursue the importance of sleep and dreams. Think of a happy, safe place, and go there.

Travel is one interest that many trial lawyers find fulfilling. Going to new places and seeing new things are stimulating activities for most trial lawyers. It allows you to meet new people and to understand and appreciate different points of view. It allows you to taste new foods and experience unique cultures. Remember that you are no longer young. This means that a vigorous travel schedule may not be as exciting as it was in the past. Consider good accommodations. Bicycling and hiking travel are great for many of us, but marathons and mountaineering should be cleared by your medical advisor in advance.

Most important of all, your retirement should focus on happiness—feeling alive. Many unhappy retirees remember their days in trial as the best time in their lives. Happy retirees consider their current lives to be equal to or better than their careers. This is not an easy goal to achieve. It involves digging deep into your soul and extracting what is most important to you. The good news is that the planning skills that make you a great trial lawyer can now be put to use to make you a happy and whole retired person.

Type-A trial lawyers love the law. They have tremendous passion and excitement for what they do. Trying cases, to those good at it, is an incredibly fulfilling career. However, all of the stress that fosters and creates challenge also predicts waning excitement. The body and the mind thrive on stress, but not forever. Somewhere in your career path, it will be time to stop. Stay in touch with your body and your mind to make this calculation. The good news is that retired trial lawyers can have a fulfilling retirement. The passion for law is not exclusive. Most type-A litigators have hobbies, travel plans, and a myriad of other things that they would love to pursue more fully. Be ready for it, plan as you would for a trial, and go for it.