June 25, 2019 Retirement

Book Synopsis: Second Acts for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

By jennifer j. rose

Today’s senior lawyers remember where they were when Kennedy was shot and what they were doing when the Challenger exploded, and they recognize that Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Dean was not the name of a District of Columbia law firm.

The 1970s were marked by greater numbers than ever attending law school and eventually passing the bar, and embarking upon legal careers. In 1980, the number of lawyers with active bar licenses increased a whopping 15.4 percent over the year before. Now 574,810 lawyers were available to serve a country populated by 226,545,805 souls; 0.25 percent of the population were lawyers. By 2018, the ranks of actively practicing lawyers would swell to 1,338,678, or 0.41 percent of the population.  The need for legal services didn’t grow accordingly, and solo and small firm lawyers’ incomes dropped after being adjusted for inflation. A lot more lawyers were demanding a slice of the pie.

Let’s go back to that great mass of lawyers who started out in 1980. Those who were age 25 then are on the brink of eligibility for Medicare. Some are still plying the profession, some are already receiving Social Security benefits, and some are contemplating what their next move should be. More lawyers than ever are at retirement age, and, at the same time, retirement takes on hues not envisioned by our fathers’ generations. Lawyers may leave the practice, but their skills, attitudes, and approaches bring different perspectives to lives beyond the law office.

How do you know when it’s time to leave? How do you pare down a practice to part-time? How does a small firm move a partner who can no longer perform out of the practice? What are the options for a lawyer who’s just hit his or her late 50s or early 60s and who wants out? What employment options exist for those who don’t have comfortable retirement plans but who really want, and possibly need, to get out of the practice? And, what does a lawyer do after leaving the practice?

Second acts are more frequent. It’s not all about shuffleboard, mahjong, and golf. It’s not about grandchildren and moving to The Villages. Some second acts are for the money, because there’s not enough money to go around. Sometimes the money is necessary to maintain a lifestyle, to supplement a pension and Social Security. Sometimes it’s just to pay for the better things in life, and sometimes the money generated from a second career is just gravy. Some second acts are natural extensions of hobbies developed while in practice. Some second acts aren’t learned until the law practice is closed up for good. And some second acts are nothing more than doing something just for the fun of it. And some really are related to the practice of law, leveraging those skills built up over the years, putting those talents to different uses.

And it’s not always about money or boredom with the practice. “It’s about letting someone younger, the next generation, move on up, just like my grandfather’s generation did for me,” one mature small firm lawyer in a mid-sized town tells me.  “You have to know when it’s time to leave.”

The idea for this book came out of conversations over the past decade with a friend I’ll call Brad, even though that’s not his real name. Unless you count that summer as a camp counselor, Brad, now 64, has never done anything but practice law. After his almost four decades as a lawyer, he is very well respected, rated one of the Best Lawyers in America, decked with all of those badges of honor heaped upon the most successful in his area of practice, writing and speaking on serious topics of substantive law, and consulted on pending legislation, but he’s no longer the star he once was. He has the money to comfortably provide for himself, but he doesn’t know what he’d do if he weren’t practicing law. An appointment to the bench could lead to exiting the practice, but that’s not likely to happen, particularly now that he’s past 60. His tenure may mean that he can practice more efficiently, but he’s no longer as quick on his feet as he once was, he’s been the target of a complaint from the bar disciplinary folks, there was that hint of a malpractice claim, and he was even assaulted at the courthouse by some crazy person. Asked when he’s going to retire, he’ll readily come back with the desire to take a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Just once, and he thinks he has something that’s headed that way. Maybe in another decade. It’s not going to happen.

“I could be one of those lawyers who’s still practicing at the age of 95,” he insists, never mind that octogenarians didn’t run in his family. His service dog and handicapped license plate don’t create a picture of health.

“You’re a solo, practicing with one secretary, and no spouse or progeny waiting in the wings to lend succor,” I tell him. That’s not exactly the kind of team most still-practicing, outlier 95-year-old lawyers might have. Brad admits that keeling over while writing a brief on a Sunday night might not be a bad way to go.

You’re still a lawyer, even if you’re no longer practicing, I remind him. He could still go to bar association meetings, serve on bar association committees, and speak at continuing legal education programs. He could become an adjunct professor, and he could volunteer at legal aid if he wanted.

Or he could do none of the above, and just enjoy his dog, the never-ending hunt for gourmet foods and fine wine, and his boat. And if he really needed to legitimize his departure from practicing law, he could call all of that his second act.

“But I like driving up to my office and seeing my name on that shingle.”

There are some battles you just can’t win. Brad, this book is for you. Please read it and start on your second act.

For some, there is the luxury of planning ahead, transitioning toward retirement, slouching toward the Holy Land of some sunny Southern venue, but for others, the decision isn’t theirs to make. Cognitive decline, boundaries eroded, partners no longer willing to cover up an older lawyer’s slipups, and bar disciplinarians can all push a lawyer out of practice.

A second act isn’t necessarily retreat from the practice of law. Solos may reformat themselves to part-time practitioners, of counsel positions, and even as partners in larger law firms, and others may teach or volunteer.

The lawyers who contributed to this book come from a broad range of practice settings and styles in big cities and small towns. Some are just barely 60, and some have already celebrated their 70th birthdays and beyond. Some have already left the practice of law, some are only recently retired, some teach and consult, and some are still toiling in the grassy pastures. Each has had hands-on, practical experience owning and operating a solo or small law firm, and each has shared his or her expertise generously in the development of this book.

Let’s see what other lawyers have to say about Second Acts for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers:

No two lawyers interpret “retirement” the same. This book lays out the various “definitions” and options available to you. The most challenging part of the consideration is when and how to retire; another challenge is whether your family is part of the thought process. This book will start you on the path toward the many thoughts you need to consider, including the “when,” before you “slow down,” “hang it up,” or otherwise declare yourself off the main track of accepting new matters.
- Ed Poll, California, LawBiz® Management
A group of very talented lawyers have worked hard to put together a lot of practical information on all aspects of “retirement.” Whether you are retired, thinking about retiring or dealing with a lawyer in the office who should be thinking about retiring, this book is for you.  Covering numerous topics, this book has something for everyone and definitely something for you.
- John P. Macy, Managing Partner, Municipal Law & Litigation Group, S.C., Member, State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyer Division Executive Board
All a lawyer needs for retirement is awareness, common sense and a plan. That is the central theme of this excellent guide for lawyers at or near the age of separating from the profession.  Editor jennifer j.rose has assembled a first rate team of legal practitioners to tackle this theme with provocative, yet practical ideas in accessible and engaging writing.  Well recommended!
- Elio F. Martinez, Jr., Florida
Deciding if and when to retire from practicing law is a real struggle for most lawyers – particularly those in small firms. This practical book addresses the sticky issues – from financial concerns to the problem of cognitive decline. It also offers realistic alternatives to law practice for lawyers who still have an enthusiasm for work. It’s never too soon to start thinking about what your second act will be.
- Courtney Troutman Director, Practice Management Assistance Program, South Carolina Bar, since 2002


jennifer j. rose serves on the ABA Senior Lawyers Division Book Board and Voice of Experience Board. She is the editor of Second Acts for Solo & Small Firm Lawyers. She edited the first and second editions of How to Capture and Keep Clients and Effectively Staffing Your Law Firm. She has been list manager and den mother for Solosez, an ABA listserve, for twenty years. For some reason, she has always been unable to resist the siren call of the title “contributing editor” to a broad range of publications, few of which have actually changed her tax bracket.