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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: February 2023 | Transition

Seasons of Change: Transitioning to New Beginnings

Rod Kubat


  • Questions and considerations for preparing to transition away from practicing full-time, such as mandatory retirement age, client transitions, health, finances, and estate planning.
Seasons of Change: Transitioning to New Beginnings

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King Solomon, claimed by many to be the wisest man who ever lived, said,There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven… And so it is with a lawyer’s career. A time for preparing (law school), a time for developing (the early years), a time for thriving and reaping what has been sown (the middle to early late years), a time for mentoring and reflecting (the later years), and a time to pass it on (the transitioning years). This article focuses primarily upon the transitioning years, with the goal of providing a general overview of important questions and considerations that will be either addressed voluntarily by senior lawyers or thrust upon them involuntarily by unexpected or uncontrollable circumstances. This article is not a “one-size fits all” recipe for transitioning through the later stages of a senior lawyer’s career. No such recipe exists. My hope is that by presenting the questions and considerations that follow, senior lawyers may find a smoother path for transitioning to the next phase of their careers.

Transition-What is it?

A simple definition of “transition” means to change from one state or stage to another. That change has been described by Mike Long, Attorney Counselor for the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, as entailing three predictable phases, i.e., endings, acceptance and reorientation, and exploration and new beginnings.  To paraphrase Mr. Long:

The “endings phase” is saying goodbye to the old hopes, dreams and beliefs, which may result in feelings of shock, numbness, confusion and anxiety, a certain sense of disorientation, fostering the question, “Who am I if I am not who I was?”

The “acceptance and reorientation phase” is the in-between period, a sort of “neutral zone” or “the pit” with feelings of confusion, anxiety, feeling stuck or lost, lots of back and forth and resistance to change; a period that must be effectively navigated by surrender to these feelings rather than fleeing from them.

The “exploration and new beginnings phase” is the period of exploration that follows accepting what has ended and letting go of the past that no longer fits your current circumstances; it may involve trial and error exploration of a life-long dream, a volunteer or professional opportunity, new languages, new skills and the like.

As Mr. Long explains: “Transitions don’t have clearly predictable timelines. We each move through transitions in our own way.”

Transition Triggering Events

For some senior lawyers, health issues, age, or law firm policies force transitions to a new phase. For others, it is a voluntary choice as the result of lifestyle changes, achieving financial security for retirement, changes in values, and the desire to spend more time with family or pursuing other interests that have been put on the back burner, and the like.  Whatever the triggering event may be, the senior lawyer will be making a change to something different.

Transition Planning

Nearly everyone with whom I have spoken, and many of the articles I have read, encourage developing a plan for retirement and to retire “to something” and not “from something.” As a lawyer and leader in my firm, planning has been an essential part of what I have done and continue to do. Planning for retirement ought to come easy for me, right? Frankly, it has not. A number of issues relating to retirement have been beyond my control or required time to develop, and along the way, there have been setbacks and delays that have caused me to rethink my plan. To me, one of the benefits of retirement is the freedom from a regimented schedule and to spend my time as I choose. As a result, I have had mental resistance to developing a “plan” for spending my retirement time and have delayed developing the “plan.” I have been working through it mentally, but not crystallizing it on paper in any sort of formal way.

What does a “plan” entail? It is as diverse as are the circumstances of each senior lawyer. There are a number of considerations that could affect your plan. Here are some that you may encounter along the way:

  1. Are you subject to a mandatory retirement age? If so, then you need to plan accordingly so that when you reach that age, you are ready for the next phase. Knowing that there is an end date may provide more impetus to plan.
  2. Does your firm offer practice continuation options with reduced time commitments and compensation? Some firms offer “emeritus status” or “Of Counsel” options for senior lawyers to continue practicing with less time commitment, normally including reduction in compensation. If you are part of a firm that offers these options, they can be useful tools for you to still contribute to the firm while transitioning clients to other lawyers and searching for the “something” to replace your practice.
  3. Do you need or will you have professional liability insurance? If the firm you are leaving is continuing in existence, then this becomes less of an issue. If it is not, or if you are not part of a firm, then tail insurance coverage becomes important. A full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, but the question is an important consideration in transition planning.
  4. Will your clients be properly serviced by remaining firm lawyers and who will those lawyers be? When we cease actively practicing law, we have an ethical obligation to ensure our clients’ legal matters are properly handled.[v] Transitioning clients to a new lawyer requires not only that the new lawyer possesses the skill set to handle the clients’ matters, but also that the clients and the new lawyer can work together. Both of these factors can take time to develop and will affect your timeline. I believe it is necessary to begin this process about five years before the formal transition occurs in order to ensure a smooth transition.
  5. Are you healthy or do you or loved ones have medical conditions that require you to stop or keep working? Do you have the desire and energy to keep up the pace or are you ready to slow down? Maintaining your health during your career can be difficult given the nature of practicing law. It is important to do so to provide a quality of life not only during your career but also in retirement. Sometimes medical conditions dictate that you continue your legal career in order to have health insurance available or because you need the additional income to pay the costs for the medical care you or a loved one may need in retirement. If you suffer a severe medical condition, you may be forced to retire, as you are physically incapable of continuing to practice. In addition, the mental component (including lack of desire or energy) required for successful legal practice may dictate whether you continue, slow down, or stop. If you are experiencing diminished mental capabilities, the decision to retire could be forced upon you. If you are healthy, congratulations! Your retirement will likely be richer because of it.
  6. Are you financially able to retire? Having the financial ability to retire is a key question to address. Obviously, your retirement financial plan needs to start early in your career and hopefully, yours did. Unless you are or have become independently wealthy so as not to need them, taking maximum advantage of a 401(k) and other retirement plans available to you, as well as saving and investing additional funds and maximizing social security benefits, while minimizing taxation of your retirement funds, are key sources for long term retirement income. Whether you manage your retirement funds personally or utilize a financial planner or other third-party service, establishing and regularly reviewing your financial plan in order to have a secure retirement is an essential part of retirement planning.
  7. Is your estate plan in place? Hopefully, you have reviewed and updated your estate plan, beneficiary designations, medical directives, health care powers of attorney, and general powers of attorney regularly through your career. If not, a review to ensure that you have properly addressed these essential items is an important component of your plan.
  8. What will provide the substitute purpose for the legal career you are leaving? What will you do with your new free time? What passions or interests do you have that you want to pursue? While all of the preceding considerations may be part of your plan, the answers to these questions may be what motivates you each day. These are, at least in part, the “something” that you are “retiring to”--special projects for your firm, mentoring and coaching other lawyers, continued involvement with the ABA or its Senior Lawyers Division or your state or local bar association, a life-long dream, a volunteer or professional opportunity, learning new languages or developing new skills, traveling, writing, reading books, spending more time with family and friends, or other passions and interests that are part of the “exploration and new beginnings” phase discussed previously. Trial and error is permissible and expected in this stage. Many are fortunate to know the answers, while others, like me, will need to explore.

Senior lawyers possess many skills that are transportable to other endeavors. They also possess something that their younger counterparts do not–a resource that is invaluable, but oftentimes overlooked, and cannot be duplicated–their EXPERIENCE.

Whether you “plan” your journey or simply set sail on the sea of exploration, you can be assured that others, like me, will be journeying with you.