If the thought of retirement worries, rather than excites, you, don’t fret. You’re in good company.
As a lawyer, you’re trained to focus on worst-case scenarios. Your role is to build protections to mitigate the impact of what might happen and provide remedies for when bad things do occur. This ability to see problems at every turn is a fundamental skill for success in the legal profession, but it takes a terrible toll on your overall approach to life.
A steady diet focused on what could go wrong dulls your ability to see the positive possibilities; it adversely affects your mental and physical well-being. How could it not?
However, developing a possibilities-based personal mindset regarding retirement is the key to ensuring a smooth transition into your post-practice phase of life. Don’t wait for your firm to offer succession and retirement planning; be proactive about mapping out a plan of action for yourself. Here are tips to help you do that.
You’ve been here before
As 10,000 baby boomers a day reach age 65, we’re poised to redefine what it means to retire. We defiantly reject the tired images of retirees as old people slouched drooling in chairs. It’s interesting to note that it was the Social Security Act of 1935 that established 65 as the official retirement age, when the life expectancy for Americans was 61. Today, the average life expectancy is 79. With 60 accepted as the new 40, it’s simply another transition to a new and exciting stage of life.
Retirement is likely to last as long as your career, so it warrants comparable preparation. But retirement is disorienting because it creates a void. What was, no longer is and, unlike other career stages, there’s no clear path for what it ought to be. Fear of the unknown is ubiquitous, making this particular transition especially unsettling and scary.
While many boomers believe it could be liberating to shed a familiar work identity to explore other sides of ourselves, we also realize it can be terrifying. How do we even begin to let go of who we are for who we might become?
To mitigate the fear, think of the major career transitions you’ve already navigated successfully. For example:
- Adjusting to law school
- Entering the bar and joining the workforce
- Morphing from an inexperienced lawyer to a skilled, seasoned lawyer
- Leaving jobs and settling into new ones
Some of these moments were likely expected and voluntary; some may have been brought on or complicated by unexpected external life forces or events. Whatever the catalyst, each transition point likely required a new way of thinking about yourself and the world.
Take a moment to reflect back and remind yourself how you felt and the coping strategies you used to adjust. That reflection will provide you with the energy you’ll need to confidently embrace the unknown possibilities that await you. Slowly, you’ll begin to believe that there is life after practice.
Rethink your view of success
The next step is to consider what troubles you most about the thought of retirement. Before you can attempt to reframe your concerns, you must be bold enough to acknowledge them.
Research suggests the two most challenging aspects of retirement for baby boomers are finances and defining a sense of purpose. These two issues are intertwined for many successful lawyers because they believe their compensation is their sense of purpose; it reflects their level of competency, the strength of their client relationships, and ultimately their self-worth.
In a post-practice world, you must develop a new and different way to think about and measure your personal success beyond the familiar money-power-status paradigm. It’s hard to determine what the new standard ought to be, but your only limitation here is your imagination. It can be whatever you want it to be.
More concerns you may face
In addition to the finances and purpose dilemmas, there are two additional, yet typically unexpressed, fears to navigate: Your views of health and aging and your evolving social systems and relationships.
None of us wants to think about getting old—it reminds us of our mortality. However, the reality is that aging is the greatest gift we’re given. Still, we worry about the daily discovery of new aches and pains and the impact unhealthy life choices throughout our career may have on our longevity. Yet rather than address it, we decide not to think about it.
Whether you choose to admit it or not, aging and health issues will affect your post-practice life. Individual circumstances and genetics will determine just how much and when. It’s important to face these issues head on rather than to ignore them and force someone else to step in to point out your emerging limitations. Be bold enough to control your own future.
Your move into a post-practice life will also affect your social systems and relationships. You’ve likely spent more time with your “work” family than with your loved ones. As one client said to me, “I’ve spent so much time at work, I’m not even sure how to really be with my spouse or children anymore.” Knowing who you’ll be spending your retirement hours with is as important as knowing how you want to be spending those hours.
Each of these fears tap into highly charged emotional issues, and let’s face it, lawyers are better equipped to think than to feel. (This is precisely why so many need retirement programming to help unpack these complicated emotions.)
Consider how you can implement these five action steps on your own to create a vision for a fulfilling post-practice life:
1. Control the narrative of your transition. Being asked “What do you do?” for the first time as a retiree is a pivotal moment in the post-practice transition. The common, “I used to be….” response reinforces your loss of status and feeds your fear of being irrelevant. You need to create a new and powerful “elevator pitch.”
Consider answering that question as they do in the military. No one ever says, “I used to be a general.” They say, “I’m a retired general in the U.S. Army.” Their identity and status isn’t diminished by the fact that they no longer serve in active duty.
The same will be true when you introduce yourself as “a retired M&A lawyer” or “a retired [firm name] partner.” It affords you the space to explore all the other possible ways to introduce yourself based on how your post-practice phase unfolds.
2. Imagine what retirement could look like. It sounds easy, but this is the hardest step for many lawyers. Perhaps you truly can’t imagine a life beyond practice because you’ve been so busy lawyering that you haven’t had time to pay attention to your innate talents, interests, and abilities. As a result, you’re likely unaware of the multitude of options available to you.
Believe it or not, lawyers have more flexibility than most. You can work for different clients in different settings. You can launch an entirely new career path using transferrable skills and expertise. You can travel, study, volunteer, play golf, spend time with your family—the options are limitless. But until you can see the possibilities, you’re likely to cling to what’s familiar. Remember, a good ending is the gateway to a new beginning. Allow yourself to dream.
Ask yourself what you want to do, see, and experience. Create a curiosity list. At this stage, resist the inclination to censor your thoughts with, “I can’t because…” thinking. Instead consider, “How might I…?”
Consider hiring a coach to help you explore latent talents and interests, navigate potential obstacles, and create a new mindset. Check out workforce50.com to get your creative juices flowing.
3. Consider your financial needs. It’s great to have a dream, but you want to make sure you can pay for it. As one retiree commented, “I have enough money to live comfortably until about age 78. Then someone is going to have to smother me with a pillow.”
What adjustments to your lifestyle are you willing to make? Is “right-sizing” a possibility? How about working a reduced schedule? Everything is possible if you’re willing to make the necessary choices. Check in with your financial advisor as early as possible to map out a sound fiscal plan.
4. Maintain social relationships outside of work. Human beings are social creatures; we need to be part of a tribe to survive. As you segue out of the world of work, your relationships with co-workers and clients will change. You want to fill that void with other relationships.
In a perfect world, you’ve maintained strong external relationships with family and friends and now will have more time to devote to them. Even if you haven’t done that, explore ways to reconnect with those people, meet new people with shared interests, and strengthen your tribe. It’s important to avoid isolating yourself during any transition. Isolation leads to loneliness, which leads to sadness, depression, and other mental health issues.
5. Get a checkup. No matter how old you are at this moment, you can start making healthier choices right now to increase the quality of your life.
The transition from “retirement to re-launch” into the next phase of life takes time, creativity, and a plan of action. Think of it as a process, not an event; it’s an evolution and a redefining.
While there’s no magic age that you should begin to think about your post-practice life, the sooner you get started imagining the possibilities, managing your finances, tending to your physical and mental well-being, and nurturing your personal relationships, the more flexibility you’ll have to enjoy the post-practice phase of your life.