I remember it like it was yesterday...
the absolute assurance of my bar review instructor that once we passed the bar exam, we would be entering a highly rewarding and challenging profession. We would work hard at building a successful legal career, earn lots of money, and at some point experience a wonderful transition to retirement. In retirement we would golf every day, read our favorite novels while basking in a sun-kissed hammock fanned by a tropical breeze, sip banana daiquiris, and travel the entire recorded world. Thirty years after that assurance, it became clear to me that I had in fact been blessed with a successful career, had made enough money to stop working, and had arrived at the point in my life where I was ready to retire.
The only problem was that I was little fuzzy on this concept called retirement. I was unaware how long a time it takes a practicing attorney to morph into the role of ordinary citizen. (This being the kind of person who doesn’t throw out Latin phrases or quote the law when requested, or even on a
sua sponte basis.) There was no definitive course or set of rules that completely and absolutely apply to the retirement transition. So, at age 54, I set out on my own personal journey to find how to transition away from a long and busy legal career. I believe my experience has granted me a little insight and the ability to make a few helpful observations on the process.
Preparing to Do the Deal
Like most of my fellow attorneys, it was second nature to plan the course of my legal work and make lists of items to be done. As a criminal defense trial lawyer, and later as a public attorney, the “five Ps” had been clearly ingrained in my head: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” It applied to case work, and it applied to the retirement process.
I used yellow pads and made computer lists to address issues that would pop into my head, such as the financial considerations in retirement, health insurance strategies and the technical extrication of myself from the practice of law. These were topics that had practical solutions and could be reasonably accomplished by objective planning. The important thing to keep in mind here is that when the financial planners say that items in retirement will always cost more than you plan, they are so right!
But even though I thought out many objective aspects of my retirement, I must admit I was unprepared for some of the more subjective reactions of my public law office co-workers when I gave my notice to retire a few months out. I immediately sensed that I was being pushed to the sidelines, that the need for my input was greatly diminished. I encountered resentment that I was leaving sooner than some felt appropriate. Some were glad to get rid of me, while others expressed genuine sadness. If I were awarded a do-over, I would have given two weeks’ notice, which would have been a cleaner departure.
Other attorneys took over my cases, so I was spared the difficult task of ending client relationships, but it was still very difficult to tell many of the hardworking social workers, my former clients, that I was leaving. At my retirement dinner, I was awarded a plaque that came with both expressions of thanks and tears of sorrow. This is when it became clear to me that my retirement was actually happening. It was a done deal, and it was time to get on with a new phase of my life … maybe the last phase. I was even having a new start in a new home in a new state. I had officially terminated my status as a working attorney.
What I didn’t know then was that I had omitted an important planning component.
Drawing Heart from a Chain Saw and Hawaiian Smiles
The omission concerned the mental and emotional aspects of going from being a busy attorney to a person with the luxury of time on my hands. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks on the first Monday morning following my retirement. My wife and I had driven up the coast from crowded Southern California to our newly built home on 12 wooded and secluded acres in southwest Washington State. On that fateful first day, I awoke with a jolt, ready to put on my suit and head to the courthouse for a day full of problem solving, arguments and dealing with co-workers. I could literally feel my heart rate increasing and my whole persona gearing up for the workday. A few seconds later it struck me that I no longer had a job, I didn’t have a court session to attend, and I didn’t have any co-workers with whom to interact!
I felt an extreme sense of loss, something I had never expected or even made a plan to guard against. It would take months to overcome this feeling—and to convert from my Type A lawyer personality to a Type B+. I would have to learn to appreciate that not everyone in my rural area enjoys being thoroughly cross-examined about everyday issues.
One of my first coping mechanisms was to retreat within our lands and replace my former legal work with good old physical labor. Having purchased a large parcel of previously untended forestland, it was relatively easy to throw myself intensely into projects around our property. A chain saw and other assorted tools became my best friends. I even prepared lists of projects I wanted to complete, along with an expected completion date for each task. I was pursuing my retirement with the same intensity of defending a homicide case. Strangely, this physical effort gave me a sense of accomplishment equal to many of my previous cases.
I also attempted to hold in my head a powerful image of a retired couple whom my wife and I had observed years earlier on the Big Island of Hawaii. We saw them leisurely sitting on a large log, sipping coffee and smiling, enjoying each other’s company and life in general. It was an image of two people reaching a state of unhurried joy. Conversing with them, we learned they had both retired from successful professional careers and were extremely proud that they had grown the coffee beans for the cups they were now enjoying. They became a mental role model for me. Unfortunately, a similar nirvana was not to be attainable by me without further work and introspection.
It was also my retirement goal to focus on my health and get in the best shape of my life. I never was much of a golfer, preferring the faster pace of tennis. So I joined a local tennis and fitness club and began a planned program of playing a high level of tennis and working out in the gym regularly. But as luck would have it, within two months I needed to have arthroscopic surgeries on both knees. Being out of tennis for almost five months seemed a cruel fate. This was not going according to my plan. I felt disappointed and a bit depressed. What else could I do? Would I have to take up golf? Fortunately, I have a wonderful and sage-like wife, who sat me down for some insightful marital therapy. She threatened to banish me to a faraway corner of our property with only my chain saw unless I could focus on finding joy in everything and anything I wanted to do. She told me that for my retired life to be worthwhile, I would need to attain a sense of self-worth as a person distinct from my former attorney persona.
Finding Delight in What Comes
I would like to say I had a sudden epiphany and was an overnight success in transitioning from attorney to a retired person—but such was not the case. I have now been retired for over two years, and each day brings more personal acceptance and calmness. More opportunities and pathways rear their heads all the time. I am back playing tennis, tending our property, reading and writing, and traveling a bit. But I have still not been able to make a complete break with the law. I communicate with former co-workers by e-mail. I read law journals and articles. And I have signed up as a member of the local county bar association, just so I get to talk with real attorneys, go to CLE courses and discuss legal issues. I guess I am not legally dead yet!
At one moment, I seem to have finally found resolution in being retired. In the next minute, I contemplate doing volunteer legal work or opening a part-time practice. The joy in this ongoing analysis is that I don’t have to come up with an immediate answer or, in fact, any answer at all. Procrastination here can be my friend. I need only find acceptance and joy in the things that I choose to do, even if that is simply reorganizing my sock drawer. I don’t think I would change a thing. I have a great wife, a great life, and many legal stories to dredge up when the time and audience are right. It feels wonderful to savor life without having to continually look at my watch.I have now come to realize that retirement is not a static state of being. It is a balance between savoring the joy of having time on your hands and doing those things that continue to contribute to your sense of worth. It is not something that can be completely planned, but it is something that has to be allowed to enthusiastically unfold in many directions. It is my current hope that if someone drives by our wooded paradise, they might very well find the two of us sitting on our own log and smiling, enjoying each other’s company, sipping a glass of good local wine in lieu of coffee, and wondering what tomorrow may bring. I will even get over the fact that we didn’t grow the wine grapes … this year.