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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: February 2024

“It Won’t Happen to Me”

John Trimble


  • Life can change in a moment.
  • Every lawyer should plan for retirement at an early age.
  • Regardless of age, retirement plans should consider unexpected health issues, the health of a spouse, aging parents, and financial obligations.
  • Retirement planners, financial planners, American Bar Association (ABA) resources, and a few tips can help lawyers plan for the future. 
“It Won’t Happen to Me”
Brooke Fasani Auchincloss via Getty Images

Jump to:

Imagine that you are 65 years old. You have a booming practice in a good firm, and your plan is to practice to age 76 so that you can hit the 50 year mark. You have had annual physicals; you have had every vaccination; you have never smoked; you have eaten reasonably well, exercised regularly, gotten your rest, and managed anxiety. Nevertheless, you develop a cough which your doctors believe to be asthma. Then, one day you notice that you are getting fatigued and short of breath. You see your doctors, and after testing, they tell you that you have advanced lung cancer and related heart failure. In a moment’s notice you are facing an early death or immediate retirement. 

If this happened to you, would you be ready? Would you have enough saved so that you and your spouse could live comfortably for the balance of your lives? If you die, would there be enough for your spouse and dependents to survive without you? Are you saying to yourself that, “It won’t happen to me?”

I am here to tell you, this happened to me.

Before you take pity, there is good news. I was referred to an excellent oncologist who had worked with Eli Lilly & Co to develop a targeted drug therapy that was a perfect match for my cancer. Within 60 days of beginning the drug, my cancer was 90% gone,and today, the cancer is not visible on scans, and I am stable. With cardiac rehab, my heart returned to normal. After five months of short-term disability, I returned to work, and at age 68 I just enjoyed my third Christmas and New Years with family. I am now willing to call myself a “cancer survivor.”

The week after my diagnosis I called my financial planner from my hospital bed to let her know what had happened. I asked her whether my wife and I would be okay if I died or had to retire. I was relieved to hear that we would be fine. From then on, I concentrated on getting well, and I did not lie awake at night worrying how we wouldmake it.

I am sharing this story with lawyers of all ages to urge you to plan for retirement. If this happened to me, then I assure you, it can happen to you.

Much has been written about lawyer retirement planning. The sad fact is that a majority of lawyers do not plan for retirement…or they wait too long to begin planning. There are many reported reasons why lawyers do not plan, and number one on the list is one word: DENIAL. In general, we love what we do; we enjoy the status we hold in our communities; we are intoxicated by the feeling of being needed by clients; and, we assume that because we use our brains for a living, we can practice late into life. We also have the financial burdens of student loans, mortgages, education for our children, and the lifestyle of law, so we don’t save enough, and we constantly tell ourselves that we will start saving later. We tell ourselves that we won’t need to retire. But the reality is that accidents, unexpected health problems, and the health of your spouse, aging parents, or dependents can suddenly force you to slow down or leave your practice.

I had the good fortune to have a friend who encouraged me to begin planning for retirement at an early age. I was introduced to a financial planner when I was in my 30’s. She made sure that I invested in life insurance and disability insurance. She also encouraged me to contribute as much as I could to the law firm 401(K), and I began putting as much as I could into long term investments. There were many ebbs and flows in my retirement saving as the financial commitments of life occurred, but over time, I gained confidence that I could retire when the time came.

Regardless of age, every lawyer should be planning for the unexpected and planning for retirement. Here are a few tips for you to consider:

  • Get a referral to a retirement planner. Look for someone who charges bythe hour or who gets paid a percentage of the assets they manage for you. (Commission based planners will want to sell you investment products)
  • Have your financial planner assist you to assess your financial assets and make a projection for you of how much you will need in retirement at varying ages. A projection can help you see whether you are on track or whether you need to take measures to catch up.
  • Find a lawyer who has retired, and interview them about the issues that they confronted in the process of preparing to retire and the problems they have experienced in retirement.
  • Do your research on retirement. The ABA has many helpful resources, and your state and local bar associations will too. Get educated.
  • If you have been managing your own savings, have your financial planner or a CPA advise you as to what you need to do to structure your savings so that you can minimize taxes when you reach the point when you are ready to start spending your savings.
  • Have your financial planner advise you on the right time to apply for Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare.
  • Ask your financial planner to instruct you as to how and when to liquidate certain of your assets so that you do not overspend and run out of money and so that you do not unnecessarily incur taxes.  
  • Set a date to retire. The date does not have to be etched in stone, but it can be a general time frame that you can establish as a marker for planning purposes.
  • As you approach retirement, establish a “glide path” to retirement. Your personal glide path may be that you start working less and start taking more time away from work. You may decide, like me, to start doing mediation and less of something else. Start handing off matters that you do not want to handle any longer.
  • Make sure that your law firm co-workers and clients know your plan. (Believe me, as you get older, they will be wondering, and they need to plan for your successor.)
  • “Test drive” your retirement before it begins. Set a budget for what you  expect to spend annually in retirement, and experiment for 6 months to see if you can live within the budget.
  • Take stock of your interests outside of law so that you will take comfort in knowing that you will be able to keep yourself occupied and stimulated after you step away from law.

My fervent hope for everyone reading this article is that what happened to me will not happen to you. But, if it does, you need to be ready.  Look after yourself and your loved ones. You owe it to yourself, your family, your colleagues, and your clients to be ready to retire. It is never too early or too late to get started.