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Experience Magazine

When Should a Lawyer Stop Being a Lawyer?

David M Godfrey


  • The decision of when to give up a legal license is complex and varies from one lawyer to another. It involves considerations of identity, costs, options provided by the state, and the responsibility to protect the public.
  • It's a decision that lawyers should make thoughtfully, weighing the personal and professional implications.
When Should a Lawyer Stop Being a Lawyer?
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There’s an old, bad joke that goes, “Old lawyers never die. They just lose their appeal.” In all seriousness, however, let’s discuss a different issue: when lawyers should give up their license.

Like most things related to the law, the answer is complicated, it’s state specific, and it depends on a lot of factors. The choice needs to be made on personal values, the burden of maintaining a license, the options available, and the protection of the public.

Lawyering Never Really Ends

Becoming a lawyer changes us. Law school teaches us to think in a specific and different way than other courses in higher education. Practicing the law exposes us to life’s twists and turns in ways that few professions do. Clients share their deepest secrets with us, much of which we’re honor bound to never disclose.

We work with people on the best day, and darkest days, of their lives. And we can’t help but be changed by that. I don’t think we ever stop being a lawyer.

Many lawyers never stop renewing their license. Being a lawyer becomes a part of their identity. After decades of thinking of themselves and introducing themselves as lawyers, it would be a loss of self to not be a lawyer.

And we all worked hard to get our degree, to pass the bar exam, to pay off those student loans if we had to get them, and to maintain our professional license. For many of us, we’ve been a lawyer longer than we’ve been most anything else. Giving up a license is an unimaginable loss of self for many lawyers.

For others, no longer being licensed marks the passage from work to retirement. These lawyers often describe themselves as “recovering lawyers.” Being a lawyer is beyond a full-time job; it’s a lifestyle, a passion.

Some lawyers decide when it’s time to retire—to step away and block their ability to return to work—by retiring from the bar, surrendering their license, or not renewing. I’ve been told by some that this feels very liberating. It allows a definitive answer of, “Sorry, but no” to requests for legal advice or help.

State Rules Guide Decisions

Various states offer lawyers considering leaving the profession a range of options. Among them:

Inactive status—Some states offer an easy option for lawyers considering how to end their career, and that’s to become “inactive.” The big advantage of inactive status is the ability to return to active status. Requirements for returning to active status vary, but they generally require making up missing continuing legal education and often paying at least part of the bar dues for the inactive years. Some states limit the number of years you can be inactive and still return to active status without retaking the bar exam.

So for many, inactive status allows you to leave the door open to returning to practice should you find the temptation to return to work irresistible. In states where inactive status is available, it’s a good transition option for lawyers who think they’re ready to retire but not certain they’ll never want to go back.

Retired status—Many states offer this option. For the most part—and there are some exceptions—a retired lawyer can no longer practice law and is relieved of all licensing obligations. In most states, returning to active practice from retired status would require readmission to the bar, including passing the bar exam again. Retired attorneys are often invited to participate in bar activities, such as annual conferences or committee service.

Senior status—Some states offer this status, and it’s often based on age or the number of years of active practice. In most states, senior status waives all licensing burdens but also prohibits the practice of law. It may still allow participation in bar activities. As with many things in the law, some exceptions apply, but some states allow senior-status attorneys to provide pro bono service.

Withdrawing from the bar—Other states have two options: remaining actively licensed or withdrawing from the bar. The finality of withdrawing, resigning, or not renewing your license is dramatic. Few of us want to go through character and fitness reviews and take a bar exam again. I expect in states where these are the only options, many attorneys renew for at least a few years after they stop earning a living as a lawyer for that reason.

Fun fact: If you’re licensed in more than one state, you’ll likely have different options in each state.

How Heavy Is the Burden?

Many lawyers weigh the requirements of retaining their license when they’ve stopped practicing. Let’s run through them:

The out-of-pocket cost—The first burden is the cost of bar dues or license fees (states have different names for this). These are the mandatory costs you must pay each year to be actively licensed. The costs are generally not insignificant, but they’re also generally not huge. They’re typically a few hundred dollars per year. To whom this is paid varies by state, with the fees collected by the state, the courts, a mandatory bar association, or some combination of these entities.

Continuing legal education requirements—CLE is required for maintaining an active license in all but five jurisdictions in the country. The number of credits or hours required varies, but it’s typically about 15 credits per year, with many states requiring some of those credits be ethics or other specialty topics.

If you’re buying CLE on a pay-per-view basis, the cost could add up quickly since many pay-per-view or in-person programs can cost $100 or more per hour. There are generally low-cost options available, too. For example, ABA members have access to ABA member-value CLE programs live or recorded as a benefit of membership. If you’re licensed in a state that recognizes ABA CLE programs, $150 a year for an ABA membership as a solo or small-firm lawyer will give you access to more hours than you need.

Some states waive or reduce CLE obligations for lawyers beyond a certain age. But some senior lawyers find that attending CLE is a great way to stay socially and intellectually engaged. And being freed from the demands of day-to-day practice allows them to attend programs in a leisurely way, even turning their phone to silent for a few hours.

However, CLE can become a challenge for lawyers in poor health, though virtual options have made it easier. But for some, no option allows them to fulfill this obligation.

The insurance duty—Does your state require you to carry liability or malpractice insurance? Not all states require insurance; some require the disclosure of the absence of insurance. Even if you’re not required to procure insurance, it’s wise for two reasons. It protects the client if you make a mistake, and it protects you in the same event.

Malpractice insurance is easily the most expensive part of being licensed. For most of us, while we work, our firm or employer provides this coverage. In retirement, the cost can be up to us. If you haven’t yet retired, be sure to ask about continuing coverage after retirement, often called tail coverage. It covers claims that arise after you retire for work you did before you retired.

Staying in Through Pro Bono

About 47 jurisdictions have some form of a rule that allows pro bono service by attorneys who are retired, inactive, or on senior status. These rules lessen some of the licensing burden, generally:

  • Waiving or reducing bar dues
  • Often waiving CLE or requiring the pro bono host agency to provide CLE
  • Increasingly requiring the pro bono program or legal aid host to provide malpractice coverage

These rules are sometimes deemed a license status. In other states, they’re an option to allow pro bono service by persons with a qualified license status. The number of states with these rules has about doubled in the past the 15 years.

Because of the way states collect license data, little is known about how many attorneys participate or how many hours of pro bono service these attorneys provide. One thing we do know is that the need for free legal assistance far exceeds the ability of legal aid programs to provide help. Many turn away at least one qualified client for every client they help.

Most states’ rules require that the matter be placed through a qualified or recognized pro bono or legal aid program, and the level of support these programs provide varies. But these rules allow many lawyers to pursue the kind of “make a difference in people’s lives” work they dreamed of doing when they went to law school.

Check the options in your state. And remember, if you retire and move to another state, check your new home state, too. Many states allow retired attorneys who are licensed in any state to volunteer for pro bono work.

The Need to be Current

Another factor to consider is that the practice of law is, in many ways, a lifetime commitment to ongoing learning. The law changes slowly, sometimes subtly, and sometimes dramatically. There’s a concern that less-active attorneys are less likely to stay current on changes in the law, placing their clients at a disadvantage.

I remember one of my law professors getting a cell phone call from her lawyer spouse, who was asked to cover motion hour for an associate who had an emergency. He hadn’t been in a courtroom in a decade and was calling to ask, “We’re the defendant; what table do I stand behind?” (It was an embarrassing moment for her spouse and a teachable moment for the professor, who answered the call in the middle of class.)

Protecting the public must always be the first obligation of the legal profession. Part of that is maintaining or obtaining currency in law and practice or declining representation when you haven’t met that requirement.

There are some amazing specialists who practice law part time by focusing on a narrow area in which they’re undoubtedly the best prepared. The greatest risk is when we think we know what we’re doing, but things have changed since the last time we practiced or studied in that area of the law. As an experienced lawyer, it can be humbling to ask for help. But it can be essential to protecting our clients.

Remaining Mentally Sharp

Many years ago, I bumped into a lawyer friend at the gym. He asked for advice about a case he was working on. He’d been retained to sort out the practice of a local legend in the courthouse who’d continued to practice law as dementia settled in.

My friend described a frightening scene of intake notes with retainer checks paperclipped to them, dozens of them dating back nearly a year stacked up in a desk drawer. Without sharing our clients’ names, we quickly realized I was consulting on the same case on the possible need for a guardianship filing.

The comments to Rule 1.14 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct urge lawyers to consult with other professionals when working with a client with diminished capacity—and my friend and I were doing that. With help, my friend sorted out the legal practice, ensuring that no clients were harmed. And family and friends figured out how to divert the lawyer from additional practice without public embarrassment. The malpractice insurer supported wrapping up the practice as a means of claims avoidance.

Clearly, the lawyer had practiced beyond the time when he should have stopped. No one had noticed how bad things were until a local judge bumped into a member of the family and mentioned how far behind the lawyer seemed to be on work. In this case, the lawyer never stopped being a lawyer, but there was a time when he needed to stop practicing law.

Another resource would have been the state bar association’s lawyer assistance program. We think of LAPs mostly for lawyers experiencing substance-use or mental health issues. But the principles of protecting the public while helping the lawyer in a compassionate way apply to diminished capacity, from any cause, to safely practice law. If I were consulting on the same case today, I’d have consulted with the state’s LAP.

When to Become Unlicensed?

The answer to that question is before we need to. It’s before we present a danger to clients. For many of us, that’s never. Many lawyers practice safely and successfully until their final illness or unexpected death.

Beyond that, it’s a question of personal values. Is being a lawyer worth the burden if you’re no longer doing it for a living? Do you want a clean break from the practice of law with no option for return? Does your state offer the option of returning after you leave? Can you volunteer to help clients who could never afford to pay, maybe fulfilling that dream from years ago that drove you to study late into the night in law school?

I’m afraid I’m leaving you with more questions than we started with. I’m planning retirement in a few years, and I’m uncertain what I’ll do. I’m licensed in a state with limited options, and I won’t be old enough for senior status when I intend to stop working for a living. I’ll likely renew for a few years after retirement because not being a lawyer would be giving up a part of my identity. However, at times, the clean break with no chance of return sounds tempting.