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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: May 2023

Thinking About Retirement

Susan Jean Mundahl


  • Many factors go into deciding when and how to retire: health, retirement funds, succession planning for your practice, and identity (what you want to do in retirement).
  • Get your will and health care directives in place and updated.
Thinking About Retirement Hansen

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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.

4. What about my law practice?

I have had my own law firm since 2011. I have carefully tended it through excellent marketing, and it has a brand that consistently brings in clients in need of assistance in family law matters. So, I have been thinking about my options – Do I sell it? Do I work with my associates to enter into a long-term buyout agreement? Do I simply plan to close the practice doors the day I retire? To utilize any of the above options, the first thing we all need to know is what the practice is worth and if there is someone interested in taking the business. Having that base information will assist us in planning what happens next. In the meantime, we all should have a succession plan in place just in case the unexpected happens and we are incapacitated or pass away before our time. The old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine” is still important today and especially as we age.

5. Who am I once I am not an attorney?

So many of us have a strong identification with being an attorney. We enjoy the respect and recognition that comes with being a good attorney to whom people can turn to when they are in trouble. Once we are no longer practicing law, who are we other than just a former lawyer? I think the answer is to diversify our interests and activities. Spend time on the other areas of your life that bring you meaning and connection with others. That will bring you satisfaction and continuing relevance as you hopefully age gracefully. I live in an active senior community now. The apartment complex offers a variety of activities from pickle ball, swimming, table tennis, yoga, bridge, canasta, and weekly get-togethers to socialize with other folks my age. Getting into this community is really helping me make the transition from working full-time to having time to play and relax, while still being in the company of others. Being retired doesn’t have to be lonely or feeling disconnected. Since most of us consider the practice of law to be a life of service, once we retire, we can now spend more time volunteering for all those causes that we have supported financially through the years. My retired friends volunteer at local food shelves, their local library, sit on non-profit boards, take part in local theater productions, and sing or play instruments in local groups. All of these and more can provide new meaning and connection when you are no longer a practicing attorney.

6. Extra Credit – Preparing for our end of life.

It is important to remember that retirement does not mean the end of your life. It does mean that you are entering the last quarter of your life here on Earth. The question to ask yourself is, do you want to be in denial, or do you want to be well prepared so that when the end comes, you can say, “I lived a full life, and I am satisfied”? In order to do so, you need to get your will and health care directives in place and updated. You should also make conscious decisions about whether you want to choose to spend these years close (and how close) to family. Your family should not have to carry the full burden of figuring out what to do with you and your stuff because you wouldn’t make a plan. While it can be a difficult subject, you should try to have a sensible plan regarding the extent to which your family will care for you. And, for the ultimate touchy subject, you need to consider the consequences of your (inevitable) passing away. In my community alone, we have seen six sudden deaths of men living here in the past three months. We all die, it’s best when we have prepared for it so our families can have only good memories and are not left with burdensome memories…

So, there you have my thoughts in a nutshell. I hope they assist you in thinking about when to retire and all that means. See you on the pickle ball court.