As a 67-year-old attorney, I am getting asked more and more, when are you going to retire? This is certainly an important question for all of us baby boomers. When can we retire? And what do we need to consider and plan for in being able to retire? I also think it is better that we consider how to gracefully exit at a time when we still have a fully functional body and mind to enjoy retirement, rather than work until we break down and someone must haul us out. When attorneys continue to hang on beyond their ability to properly practice law, it is painful for associates, clients, and family to behold.
The issues I think we need to consider as a part of our retirement planning are in the following areas: our health, our retirement funds, our community, our practice, and our identity. All of these factors are important in deciding when we can (or should) retire. I hope you will consider the following in preparing for your own retirement.
1. Am I healthy enough to continue to work full-time and manage the stress of a legal practice?
How long can I physically and mentally handle competently working as an attorney? Being in my 60’s I’ll admit that I haven’t spent enough time working out physically, and I do have some aches and pains that could be helped with a better diet and exercise. The good news is I am young enough that, by walking more and modifying my diet to include more vegetables and water, I will have more stamina to handle the day-to-day stress of being an attorney and have a better quality of life. If you have spent a lifetime with poor eating habits, little exercise, and smoking and/or drinking, all of these habits will start showing up as illness in the body in your 60’s. This much I know, that even after years of neglect, starting to pay attention to our bodies, giving them healthy food to eat and drink, and increasing our physical activity will increase our satisfaction with life.
Then there is our mental well-being. An attorney with Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers recently said that being an attorney is the only profession other than professional boxing where we are up against a skilled opponent whose only job is to take us out. Face it, this profession is emotionally and mentally stressful. Attorneys routinely rank highest in addictions and mental illness. So, we do have to consider whether or not we have the mental stamina to continue our legal practice. If you are stressed, then seek out Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers or other support group to find support. There is an amazing podcast called the Trauma-informed Attorney that discusses ways we can help alleviate some of the stress of being an attorney. I have developed a daily meditation and mindfulness practice as a way of coping with the stress of family law. But at some point, we must admit that the everyday stresses of being an attorney are simply not worth it to our mental and emotional well-being, and that we need to consider retiring. And, of course, we owe an ethical duty to our clients and those with whom we practice to keep ourselves in good mental and physical health to enable us to practice within the applicable standard of care as long as we continue to practice.
2. Can I afford to retire?
The next issue that we need to consider before retirement is thinking about when we can financially retire. The magic age put out by the Social Security Administration is generally considered full retirement age. But for those of us who have been largely self-employed as attorneys, that answer needs a more thoughtful response. For me, while I could retire at 66 ½ years of age to receive “full” social security benefits, I have had to weigh several options affecting whether that is financially feasible. By waiting until I am 70 to start receiving social security, I will have $1,000 more a month to live on. I still need to live beyond 84 to make that worthwhile. It's okay for me since I have good genetic background and will likely live well into my 90’s (there are no guarantees however). But, my twin brother took early retirement at 62 because he felt he needed more money than he would see if he waited until full retirement. Each of us is different and has different financial needs. What is important is to have a conversation now with a financial advisor who can explain how social security works and what other financial products you need to start or continue to contribute to now in order to reasonably provide adequate retirement income in the future.
3. Who needs to know I’m retiring and how this will affect them?
Most of us can’t simply say, “I’m retiring today,” walk out the door, sit in our lounge chair, and look out the window. We need to think about how our retirement will affect others. Right now, I work five days a week and rarely see my adult children. How will they handle having me more available to spend time with them? Several of my colleagues have spouses and complain about how much their spouses are underfoot once they retire. Then there’s your staff to consider. Will your retirement cause them a job loss or significant life change? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are your clients, to whom you owe an ethical duty to see that their needs are met. Who will handle their case if not you? Abandoning them is not an option. All of these people will be affected by your retirement, and you need to talk with them and make a good plan that considers their needs as well as your own before you retire.