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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: January 2023

Sage Advice: Elder Senior Lawyers Share Their Wisdom

Seth D Kramer and Rod Kubat


  • Three senior lawyers offer advice on retirement and staying engaged in the profession, emphasizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this phase of their careers
Sage Advice: Elder Senior Lawyers Share Their Wisdom Stankovic

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It is often said that Asian cultures respect their elders and honor them appropriately. The rap on us in the West is that we tend not to treat elders with respect and deference. And maybe that’s true. Americans—as a rule—do not generally view their elders as role models. However, the Senior Lawyers Division (SLD) is in a unique position. Membership in the Division starts at age 62—an age generally viewed by the vox populi as “old.” But even within the SLD there is a wide age range, with junior members who may benefit from a greater appreciation of the wisdom of their elders.

And what advice do the more “senior” members of SLD have for the “younger” members?

Often, the best advice is to show by example. And by that measure, here are three individuals who offer diverse ways to enjoy both work and life in their 60’s and beyond.

At 103, Selma Moidel Smith is one such individual. Admitted to the California Bar in 1943, she was a very active lawyer for more than four decades. Shortly after being admitted to the bar (the same day, in fact), Smith joined the Southern California Women Lawyers Association. Smith served as president of the Association in 1947 and 1948, and was later honored by it for lifetime achievements. She took particular interest in planning continuing education programs focusing on courtroom skills. During this time, Smith had a very successful civil litigation private practice.

Smith retired from lawyering in 1986 and was able to increase her activity with the ABA, which included being on the SLD Council and serving as Editorial Chair of Experience magazine. And her retirement from active lawyering allowed her to give more attention to her “other life”—as a composer of music. Smith’s works include almost one hundred piano pieces, often in dance forms such as waltz, tango, bolero, or samba, with some arranged for orchestra. Performances of her works have ranged from a piano recital at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., to three orchestral concerts by the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In 2021, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music established an annual piano recital in her name.

Smith’s words of wisdom to a 60-something lawyer thinking of retiring: “Now is the time to do what you find rewarding, not necessarily what others expect of you.”

Another example of living your best life: At 93, Chuck Collier now considers himself fully retired. Essentially, his retirement was done in stages. One of the reasons Collier was able to stage this transition is that his firm—Los Angeles-based Irell and Manella—had a partner emeritus status that allowed him to continue to practice on a much-reduced basis for many years at reduced compensation. “The transition was uneventful,” Collier said, “as I kept the same office and secretarial assistant.” This allowed Collier to slowly move into a fully retired status at his own pace, which took about 15 years.

This process worked so well for Collier that he suggests attorneys who work for a law firm “determine if it has a partner emeritus status” and if so, whether it will work for them. Throughout his career, Collier has been deeply involved in bar activities. He has served as chair of the Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Section of the State Bar of California, as president of the American College of Trust and Estate Law Counsel, a council member of the ABA Section of Real Property Probate and Trust Law, and for the past twenty years, he has held various leadership positions in the Senior Lawyers Division, including chair and its representative on the ABA Board of Governors.

Collier believes that even after fully retiring, an attorney should remain active in the profession. “I strongly recommend,” Collier says, “that a retiring or retired lawyer stay involved in bar association activities as a way of continuing to contribute to the profession, keeping up contacts with other lawyers, as well as meeting and working with lawyers.” And in addition to his bar-related activities, Collier still finds time to—among other things —"read many books of interest, work on family history, travel more extensively, attend plays and other performances of interest, and work in [his] garden.”

And some attorneys, like John Clark of Dallas, never seem to retire.  At 84, Clark has had an illustrious career. He served over 20 years in the ABA House of Delegates and over the years chaired several ABA standing and special committees. For many years he has had an AV preeminent rating from Martindale-Hubbell. And since 1983, Clark has volunteered as an Associate Judge on his local municipal court. However, retirement is not something he is doing. Currently, he is involved in a complex RICO case. As Clark says, he keeps his office open, with “a somewhat slower practice, but still profitable.”

So, clearly, one size does not fit all for 60-something attorneys considering the next phase of their careers. Some may want to stay the course and never stop working. Others may scale back over a period of time but stay engaged with their practice. And some may see retirement as a time to embark on a different endeavor altogether.