October 23, 2012

Journeying in the Neutral Zone

Law Practice Magazine

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Retirement Special Issue

Your Next Managing Partner

Succession Planning Strategies: Dos and Don'ts.

 Table of Contents

December 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 8 | Page 35

Reflections On Retirement

Journeying in the Neutral Zone

A former managing partner's first year out means a shift into the chaotic, creative neutral zone.

It’s extremely hard to envision life at 20 mph while you’re going 80 mph. I had learned this, at least in theory, from William Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Da Capo Press, 2004). Bridges describes transitions as requiring three stages: the ending, or letting go of the way things used to be; the neutral zone, a chaotic but potentially creative stage when things aren’t the old way, but also aren’t the new way yet; and, finally, the new beginning, which means taking hold of a fresh way of doing things. Over the course of the past year, I have been experiencing the real-life meaning of these stages.

The Downshift Officially Begins

On December 31, 2006, just a few days after my 64th birthday, I retired both as managing partner and as a partner of the Rocky Mountain firm Holland & Hart. I had been managing partner for six and a half years, which, being a full-time job at the firm, had required me to move to our Denver office. So I had totally given up my practice in our Colorado Springs office and had no desire to try to rebuild it now.

I was determined to postpone planning what I would do in my retirement while still engaged full-time in law firm management. Instead, the first year of retirement was to be that neutral zone in which I would let go of the old and consider how to reorient myself in my new life.

As I soon discovered, that’s easy to say, but hard to do.

Once I announced my retirement, every one I knew asked what I planned to do afterward. Those asking were neither ready to hear an exposition of Bridges’ theory of transitions nor to have me say I had no idea, that I was going to spend my first year in a chaotic but potentially creative neutral zone. Lawyers are expected to respond to such questions in a very concrete and positive, confident way. So I developed a swift response, saying I would return to my office in Colorado Springs and start a mediation practice. After innumerable repetitions of this mantra, I came to believe it.

Then as the end of the year approached, I became quite concerned about waking up on January 1 to the reality that I was no longer managing partner or even a partner in the firm. That day is not my favorite day in any event, and the thought of lying around watching college bowl games really bothered me. So on December 26, my wife and I headed to New Zealand. Thanks to time zones and the international date line, I really had no idea of the exact moment the monumental transition occurred. More important, in that foreign land, it seemed a lot more interesting on New Year’s Eve to sample the fabulous Sauvignon Blanc that New Zealand had to offer. Could this absence of anxiety possibly last beyond our vacation? I discovered the answer was yes.

Stress Falls Away, Options Open Up

Even after our return to our Colorado Springs home base, I found myself surprisingly unconcerned about the loss of power, prestige and whatever else I thought my titles conveyed. I found myself much more interested in figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. And the immediate cessation of stress was well worth whatever loss of power and prestige accompanied it.

As the early weeks progressed, I resumed thinking in the Bridges’ way, considering my options and being careful not to make any permanent commitments during this first year. I knew I wanted my activities to be within the legal profession. I liked being back in my Colorado Springs office, which brought me in daily contact with many of my best friends. I began taking the steps to build a mediation practice.

But I remain open to other options. For one, when somebody asked me to act as an arbitrator, I accepted and found that to be a fascinating experience. Also I was recently appointed as discovery master in a local case, and I am intrigued by that work. In addition, I became more active in the ABA Law Practice Management Section and the College of Law Practice Management. I have done some pro bono work for local organizations as well.If each of these activities continues to grow, I will soon run out of time and begin to feel stress again. So some choices may have to be made. But for now, I am content to remain in the chaotic and creative neutral zone, secure in the knowledge that on this New Year’s Day, I’ll be able to enjoy the bowl games.

Note: Ed Flitton reports on his firm’s program for transitioning senior partners in this issue’s, “What It Takes: Making Retirement a Transition Rather than a Jump Off a Cliff - How One Firm Pumped Up a Flex-Time Program for Senior Partners”.

About the Author

Edward H. Flitton is former Managing Partner and now Of Counsel to Holland & Hart LLP. He is a member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board and the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council.