January 01, 2019 Feature

What Retirement Looks Like for These Attorneys

By Marilyn Tucker

The very word retirement may connote retreating. However, retirement doesn’t mean the end but rather the beginning—the beginning of a new phase and a time to rewire and refire. Retirement is a time to shift gears and leave behind some activities while moving toward new adventures, new paths, new experiences, and a new identity.

Various paths

Various paths

Recent surveys have found that more than two-thirds of American workers envision a flexible transition to retirement. However, very few employers offer the opportunity to shift from full- to part-time work as you phase into retirement. If that’s your vision, too, it’s going to be up to you personally to figure out how to work part-time in retirement.

What might you want to do with your new-found time? Have you done any thinking or planning about next steps, or are you hoping it’ll just hit you as you move toward retirement? Think about it, talk to some retired lawyers and other professionals, and let go and dream: How would you like to spend your later years?

My advice is to stretch yourself and even take a chance on failure. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t succeed, that’s not going to take away from the successes you’ve already built or the reputation you already have. So try something you’ve always thought about. If not now, then when?

Recently, I talked with dozens of soon-to-retire or recently retired lawyers about what they’re doing or planning to do, and I’ve been fascinated by the wide range of activities they’re enjoying. These “careers” have provided them with a sense of purpose, structure to their days, and a way to use their minds so they continue to feel vibrant and productive in their “unretirement.”

Lawyers doing the unexpected

Some retired lawyers are teaching—in middle school or junior high—or they’re working part-time teaching or as substitute teachers. Other retirees aren’t working but have gotten very involved in taking classes through Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes or community adult-education programs.

My college roommate, now retired, is taking classes she’d never have taken as a college student. As a result, she’s meeting dozens of like-minded retired professionals whom she wouldn’t otherwise have met. She’s excited and energized and loving being a student again. Moreover, since her lawyer-daughter works abroad, my friend is free to visit her daughter whenever she can.

Still another soon-to-retire lawyer friend has been practicing on a reduced schedule for many years and teaching current events at a community center near her house. Not only does this force her to be up to date on what’s happening in the world, but she continues to get rave reviews from her students, who’ve absolutely begged her not to retire.

Other retired lawyer professionals have looked for the perfect part-time job, but when they didn’t find it, they started their own business. Here are just a few examples:

  • Knitting a path to happiness—My long-time friend, also a retired lawyer, always loved knitting—and the accolades she received from others regarding the fantastic knitted dresses and suits she created. Now that she has retired from a legal practice, she’s giving knitting lessons to women in homeless shelters.

She’s teaching them to make sweaters and has found friends, colleagues, and other retired lawyers willing to donate things like the wool and the knitting needs. She’s enjoying herself, feeling good about what she’s doing, and helping women to develop their own self-esteem.

  • Personalized cards take off—Debbie is one of the hardest-working lawyers I’ve ever known and, thus, someone I thought would never retire. However, several years ago, her health deteriorated, and she made the decision to move on. Not surprisingly, she went through the angst of, “Now what?”

As teenagers, Debbie and I used to dream about owning a stationery and card store. Once retired, the idea resurfaced, and Debbie created an online stationery business. Through her legal and business contacts, she already had a network of busy professionals who might value the opportunity to have personalized holiday cards they could design, order online, and even have delivered already addressed.

Debbie is running this business from her home, and to her own amazement, the business has grown by leaps and bounds. Now, during holiday seasons, she enlists her husband’s help to stay on top of the many orders.

  • The future is in clay—Olivia, a high-powered litigator, had to find a way to relieve the intense stress she dealt with on a daily basis. In spite of all of the well-meaning advice from friends about a regular exercise program, yoga, or the like, Olivia wasn’t good about making time to exercise. Consequently, I was beyond surprised when a neighbor convinced her to take a potting class at the local community college.

Eventually, when Olivia did finally retire, she bought herself a wheel and started to pot. She soon found there were no local clay dealers. Olivia, always shrewd and creative, decided this could turn into a profitable business—and indeed she was right. Now Olivia supplies clay to all the local schools, community centers, and colleges with art programs.

She has been enjoying this new career far more than she remembers enjoying her law practice. And while there are stresses, Olivia is a different person than she used to be. Moreover, she has found that her law degree has been a huge bonus in this entrepreneurial endeavor.

  • Creating sweet success—Andrea was contemplating leaving her small-firm practice but was worried about what she’d do with her time. At the time, one of her lawyer friends was also considering retiring from her law practice, and the two of them decided to get together and share ideas.

They met at a local coffee shop and sat for several hours sipping coffee, munching on cupcakes, and laughing about the frivolity of starting their own cupcake business. On one hand, the idea enticed them; on the other hand, it simply wasn’t “substantive” enough for these lawyers.

I never learned how they overcame that concern, but each of them left their legal practice, and together they started a small cupcake business. In fact, they started the business while continuing to practice on a reduced schedule. Soon they realized that between law and cupcakes, they were working harder than ever.

Eventually, they hired someone to do the baking, and they gave up practicing law completely. They’re now more involved in growing the business. While they’re certainly not making a great deal of money doing this, nor are they working full time. But they are having oodles of fun.

  • Car talk for fun and pay—Robert, a well-regarded litigator, reached a point at about age 72 when he wanted to do other things. His somewhat younger wife wasn’t ready to retire, so what was he going to do all day? Robert has been a car aficionado his entire life. He talked with all the car dealers within a 20-mile radius of his house hoping one might be willing to hire him for a few days a week.

Eventually, he arranged to work part-time for a nearby car dealer. Robert loves showing people different cars, taking them on test drives, and explaining new features. He feels like he’s being paid to do what for him is fun. Moreover, it gets him out of the house, he’s not feeling isolated or lonely, his advice is listened to and respected, and he couldn’t be happier.

  • Baseball is now very good for him—Mark was a hard-charging and well-respected tax lawyer who had more than 40 people working under him. That responsibility was wearing on him. He told me that not one single day went by when he wasn’t worried about screwing up. He couldn’t wait to retire and get “this weight off of his shoulders.”

At a very young age, he retired. From my perspective, he retired too early. When I asked him how he planned for that move, he responded, “Honestly, Marilyn, I never thought about it. My only thought was that I wanted to relax and stop being stressed on a daily basis. I knew I’d figure something out later.”

Mark has been a baseball fan his entire life—something I didn’t know about him. Recently, when I talked with him, he said that in 2005, the confluence of events was serendipitous: Washington got a baseball team the same year he retired. Today, he and his wife attend 50–60 games per year.

He loves having the time to get involved in the world of baseball. He submits electronic comments to the Washington Post and has become involved with the Society for Advanced Baseball Research. Recently he attended its national convention, and I suspect he’ll attend next year, too. I’ve certainly never met anyone who knows more baseball trivia than Mark.

Their focus is giving back

Most of the retired lawyers I’ve interviewed wanted to give back to their communities, and many are doing that. Here are just two examples:

  • History buff turned docent—Jason has always been a history buff. I used to tease him about being on a TV show like “Jeopardy” or “It’s Academic.” When he retired from working as a partner in a large, Washington, D.C., law firm, he decided he could give back and simultaneously enjoy himself by become a docent at the Library of Congress.

He was required to take an extensive training program, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and now he loves taking people around the building, explaining the history, showing off the beauty of the interior, and having a schedule and a purpose.

  • Seeing a way to calm others’ fears—Another lawyer, whom I don’t know and didn’t interview, is one I learned about from several colleagues. He’s legally blind and volunteers at a low-vision clinic. Folks who come into the clinic are petrified, beyond scared, and worried they’re losing their sight.

I understand that this recently retired lawyer has been able to reassure the patients and help them understand that, even with vision issues, life goes on. Apparently, it has been wonderful to see the change in attitude in the clinic’s clients after their discussions with this retired-lawyer volunteer.

Many lawyers about to retire dream of leisure, exotic travel, time to engage in personal hobbies, and so on and often believe these will be the key to their retirement happiness. Based on my interviews, the opposite appears to be true for a large number of folks. It’s in giving back that you may find the most happiness in retirement.

All of these retirees were at a loss as to how they were going to find fulfillment in retirement. None of them were any more prepared than you are in thinking through how they wanted to spend time in retirement. But they found contentment, and I’m convinced you can, too.

Marilyn Tucker

Marilyn Tucker is the director of alumni career services and international internship programs at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of Success Tips for Lawyers Leaving Practice: Rewire, Refire — Do Not Retire.