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Leverage your JD in retirement

How do you know when it’s time to leave your law practice? And what’s out there for a lawyer who wants out? And what about those who don’t have enough saved for retirement but who really want – and maybe even need – to leave the practice?

The ABA-published book, “Second Acts for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers,” edited by Jennifer J. Rose, aims to answer those questions by laying out the myriad of options available for those looking for an active retirement to supplement a pension, pay for some luxuries or start a new career.

“Without attempting to decipher the various factors underlying this phenomenon, one can safely say that at a certain point mid-career, many, if not most, lawyers consider their options for their future paths: continue on the same course; scale back; change specialties or focus; start or join a sideline business; teach instead of or in addition to practicing; ditch law practice altogether; or mix it up in other ways,” writes David J. Abeshouse, one of the 17 lawyers from a broad range of practice settings who contribute their expertise.

The book’s 21 chapters cover everything from a five-year plan for retirement, strategies for dealing with a lawyer who refuses to discuss retirement, RVing for retired lawyers to strategizing your social security claim.

Rose is a former solo practitioner in rural Iowa who now lives in Mexico. Active during her practice in the ABA GPSolo Division, she now serves on the Senior Lawyers Division’s book and voice of experience boards.

YourABA asked Rose for tips on teaching before and during retirement, joining a nonprofit board, doing pro bono work and more.

You write that taking on pro bono work is a good way to segue into retirement. What are some of the options available?

The ABA Center for Pro Bono has a motherlode of resources for senior lawyers, cataloging pro bono programs throughout the land. ABA Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal advice clinic that requires very little commitment. The State Bar of California’s Pro Bono Practice Program offers lawyers the opportunity to contribute their legal experience to Californians in need.

Ohio lawyer Joan Burda takes the reader on an excursion through emeritus lawyer programs, legal aid programs, hospice organizations, court pro se programs, limited scope representation and bar association opportunities. Pro bono is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some lawyers may segue into pro bono as their practices downsize, others may venture into pro bono only after they’ve fully retired and still others may use pro bono as a way of exploring new practice areas.

Giving back to the community is one way semi-retired and retired lawyers can stay productive. What due diligence should be performed before serving on a volunteer board of directors?

Oakland, California, lawyer Jeffrey Allen discusses the difference between serving as a compensated member of a board of directors and serving on a volunteer board as well as the similarities. There are six points of due diligence that a lawyer should undertake before serving on a volunteer board:

  1. Learn about the organization and how it operates.
  2. Become comfortable with the type, nature and scope of the organization’s activities.
  3. Consider the likelihood of conflicts of interest regarding former, current and potential clients.
  4. Check out the organizations’ directors’ and officers’ liability coverage.
  5. Determine whether the organization uses outside counsel or simply expects the lawyer in the room serving as a director to serve as counsel. And, if it’s the latter, be clear about what is director activity and what is paid representation. And finally, check your malpractice coverage, because some policies limit or exclude coverage for lawyers who serve as directors while representing an organization.
  6. Understand that fundraising activities do extend to directors, which means that you’ll likely be expected to donate.

What are some opportunities that bar associations provide retired lawyers looking to stay involved?

Marvin S.C. Dang, immediate past chair of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division, spells out the opportunities the ABA provides and the reasons for continued involvement in the bar. The ABA alone is rife with possibilities and openings for retired lawyers’ involvement at all levels, and it’s never too late to get involved. The Senior Lawyers Division is always on the prowl for new talent and energy, and prior experience in bar leadership isn’t a requirement.

Recognizing that the great mass of lawyers who joined the profession in the late 1970s is now graying, many state and local bar associations also have sections dedicated to senior lawyers. And those sections aren’t just dedicated to organizing tributes, fêting one another at luncheons and planning trips to exotic venues. Those groups of mature and Medicare-eligible lawyers are tackling serious issues facing an aging population, issues unique to aging lawyers and their families, elder law, workplace issues and law practice management directions.

Many lawyers seem to consider alternative dispute resolution (ADR) an accessible route to a second act. Is that as easy as it sounds?  

Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that ADR is something that a lawyer simply slips into as a second act. Cautioning that thinking of neutral work as a semi-retirement career to be picked up a mere couple of years before retirement is unrealistic. New York lawyer David J. Abeshouse explains that the paths and preliminaries needed to become a neutral arbitrator and mediator necessarily begin years before retirement. It’s a career path all its own and not something that’s easily or casually picked up. It demands more than just a single 40-hour training course, it must be operated as a business, skills must be honed, and a reputation developed. Thirty years or more as the best lawyer in the world may well qualify a lawyer for many accolades and positions, but it doesn’t prepare a retired lawyer to succeed as a neutral.

Planning, deliberation, and preparation are essentials to create that second act in alternative dispute resolution.

Experienced lawyers can provide law students with real-world insight into how law is practiced. What considerations should go into choosing to teach?

Joan M. Burda explores the world of adjuncts in law school, who share in-the-trenches experiences with students, delivering students more than just textbook law, teaching them how to perform basic tasks that are never addressed in law review articles or the bar exam. Even though adjuncts’ salaries are somewhat less than what could be earned for less time behind the counter of the local 7-11, there is a certain liberty enjoyed by adjuncts who can create their own teaching materials, develop curricula and take the learning process to a level that tenure-track professors may feel shy about approaching.

But, as Burda explains, teaching isn’t limited to law schools. Colleges, universities, community colleges and adult education programs offer plentiful opportunities for a lawyer in search of teaching opportunities. Writing and content creation are other avenues for lawyers inclined to educate others.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive about creating the book are the myriad routes taken not only by the lawyers who contributed chapters to this book, but also from the comments of those who read the book. Second Acts aren’t just about retirement, they are about retooling and re-charting a lifepath different from the one that immediately followed becoming a lawyer. One lawyer, in her 40s, said that the book would be important to her, since she was looking at leaving her solo practice in another decade. Another, in his mid-50s, tired of being a criminal lawyer, was looking for a law-related job, but was far more relaxed about the job search than most applicants, because he felt that he still had gainful employment until the right opportunity came along. These lawyers will do just fine.

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