- Career Counsel
How to cope with a retired life.
by Jamie Barnes
When Is The Right Time?
It is a dirty little secret, but most, if not all, lawyers do not enter retirement entirely by choice, a fact which shall be ddressed in a moment. Moreover, most lawyers do not recognize the right time to retire because they are not always a good judge of when their skills and passion for work decline to the extent they become more of a cost burden than a benefit to the firm that employs them.
I can remember my own father saying that he did not believe in lingering deaths, that he would take his own life rather than put himself and his loved ones through this. When, at the age of 91, he began his own slow lingering decline into death, which took eight heart-rending months to conclude, he confided to me four months before his demise that after he was back walking again he would have to get back on his stationery bicycle to get the strength back in his legs. What I concluded from my father's by-then irrational optimism is that we are not always honest with ourselves, especially when it concerns our own competencies.
Thus, the question of 'When is the right time to retire?' is, for most of us but a theoretical construct. We shall never know the best time. Quite possibly there is no 'best' time. More likely than not, the decision will be made for us.
How Retirement Decisions Generally Get Made
Let me sketch out a scenario that occurs often in medium to large law firms and see if it resonates with you. The lawyer in question was a graduate of a prestigious law school. He subsequently spent two years clerking for a federal judge before joining his present firm, which he has been with over 30 years.
This lawyer, whom we shall call Joe, was made a partner in his early 30s, based on his consistently demonstrated capacity to bill a minimum of 2000 hours annually for more than six years. In addition, and, in retrospect, equally important, Joe handled office and client politics well.
Somewhat shy and self-effacing, Joe's relationships upward with partners were good. He was upon occasion overly differential but would stand his ground calmly and without rancor when challenged. When confronted with mistakes he had made, his face would redden and he would carry a hang-dog look around with him for days, but he always owned up, never trying to deflect blame to others. His lateral relationships with other associates were exemplary. He seemed to arouse no jealousy or back-biting even when it became obvious he was on a fast track to partnership. Finally, his relationships with support staff were both courtly and egalitarian. He could often be seen joking with paralegals and data systems people and occasionally went to lunch with one or more of them.
Joe married late, several months after his 36th birthday, falling in love with another attorney in the firm, and within three years they had two children, a boy and a girl. The effect of this was a slight reduction in billable hours. Perhaps to compensate, Joe joined a prestigious city club and began bringing in business, small trust and insurance work at first. One of these small clients eventually introduced him to an entrepreneur whose business slowly began billing increasing amounts of work. By Joe's fifth year as partner, he had become personally responsible for slightly over one million in business that he had personally brought in.
Following this initial burst of new-client activity, for a period stretching from his forty-second to fifty-third birthdays, Joe did not bring in any new clients of note; but his existing clients' own businesses grew and with this growth came increased revenues for Joe and his firm.
At Joe's revenue-producing zenith, which came at age 47, he controlled billings of slightly over $1.5 million. He sat on the boards of three small companies. His marriage went through a rough patch, and there were rumors of an affair with a much younger attorney at the firm, but the affair, if there indeed had been one, eventually ended and Joe's marriage endured. Joes' wife had earlier quit the firm and was now spending time raising their children and doing charitable work. His two children were now teenagers enrolled at a local private day school and apparently doing well.
From an outsider's perspective, Joe lived an admirable and obviously successful life. He and his wife had moved to the area's toniest suburb and both drove high-end Lexuses. One of his children was mildly dyslexic, and he now had two chronically ill parents for whom he was the main caretaker, but otherwise he and his family prospered.
It was during Joe's late 40s and early 50s that managing partners noted that his performance remained exemplary but had most likely reached a plateau. This realization partially came about because of the outstanding performance of two younger partners, who in the space of five years generated enough new business to comfortably surpass Joe. Whereas Joe's billings once ranked him fifth or sixth among the firm's 38 partners, he was now in 12th place, and equally alarming, he did not seem threatened by this. Still, nothing was said to him. Joe had been with the firm for over 20 years. He remained a valuable and dependable contributing partner.
In retrospect, Joe had been lucky. His career had not suffered any massive defections from his client base, but finally in his 53rd year, $500,000 walked out the door. The parting was not rancorous. The client was a medium-sized machine-tool firm which had been bought out by a larger competitor. Joe made obvious efforts to increase billings from remaining clients but was not successful. He began once again to spend more time at the office and then, after several months of this, slipped back into his normal schedule of arriving at the office around nine a.m. and leaving about six p.m. By the end of Joe's 55th year, his client base was producing about $1.2 million in revenue for the firm and his partner billing rank has slipped to 30th of the 35 partners who still remained. (Joe's firm, because of the expense of upgrading its data systems, had placed a hold on new partner formation.)
How Joe's Legal Career Finally Ended
At general partner meetings, the usual matters got discussed -the outlook regarding end-of-year profits, new hires, client deflections and additions, and a lot of general housekeeping concerns. In private, however, the managing partner and two of his high-billing compatriots would meet and discuss the partners themselves. Joe's name began to come up more often. He was putting on weight. His oldest child had been accepted by Duke and his younger child was at a community college and struggling. Joe's wife had gone back to work as the head of some non-profit foundation which provided medical supplies to devastated areas. As a consequence, her name was in the newspapers a lot and she traveled alone or with her staff to foreign countries. Joe seemed both pleased and somewhat nonplussed about his wife's emergence as a subject of local media scrutiny.
More disconcerting was the lack of movement in Joe's accounts. Joe attended to his romancing of his clients as always, never being too extravagant, but always managing to take a client and his wife to a nice dinner at Joe's country or city club, arranging for tickets at local pro sporting events, and the like. This kind of client schmoozing was not Joe's strong suit, and now that his wife was otherwise occupied, he was having to do a lot of this work alone, and the managing partner and his two compatriots wondered just how effective he would be.
Joe's practice area was Corporate, and it was now, from an accounting point of view, losing money. As a result, when two Corporate associates left for other jobs, the firm decided not to fill the open positions. Joe protested but to no avail. His response was to spend more time at the office and do a lot of the work himself. Because his billing rate was over $400 an hour, several of his clients began to complain. Casually, during a golf outing, it was suggested that Joe allow another partner and several associates to help. Joe's suspicions were immediately aroused. He did not respond to this suggestion, and by doing so silently sent his refusal. Supposedly to help, when new corporate business came into the firm, which was happening less and less, it would get assigned elsewhere. Joe only slowly caught on that he was being bled dry.
By Joe's 61st year, his billings had fallen to $750,000, last among all partners. He began thinking about retirement. He had almost two million dollars in assets, 40% of this in his house. He would soon be in senior citizen status at his city club, meaning his monthly dues would drop by half. The same would soon be true at his country club. His house, would be paid off in four years: This had taken so long because he had taken out home-improvement loans to help pay for his children's private school and college expenses, an in-ground pool in his back yard, various club memberships, and once to pay off his wife's credit cards, which, during the rough patch in their marriage, she had run up into the tens of thousands. As Joe saw it, if everything remained as it was, he could comfortably retire in his 66th year and continue to live the style of life he had accustomed himself to. But it didn't work out that way.
Joe Says Goodbye
The meeting took place on a Winter Friday at 5:30p.m. The managing partner dropped in to Joe's office unexpectedly and suggested they go around the corner to the managing partner's city club for a drink. The drink turned into a dinner at which both Joe and the managing partner got pleasantly inebriated. The upshot was that Joe was to become 'of counsel' and could keep his individual clients whereas the bulk of his corporate business would be divided among others. In talking about the drunken dinner later with confidents, the managing partner alluded to how difficult it was to bring a fellow attorney's career to an end, especially considering that this fellow attorney had been an exemplary producer for over 30 years.
At the time his article was written, Joe is now 68. He still comes to his office three or four days a week. His firm continues to pay many of his benefits, and still gives him a slice of the profits, but this decreases by a set amount yearly and will end when Joe reaches the age of 70. Joe's career, in most respects, is over, although he has yet to fully admit this.
Joe has effectively been retired but tells himself he still has the best of both worlds, a job and more leisure time. Truth is, he does not use this leisure time very well. He never developed outside interests. His work was his life and his work is how he still defines himself. He has started traveling with his wife to various distressed areas of the globe, but he does not enjoy this much. Part of him still struggles with the reversal of marital roles, his wife now passionately filled with the challenges of her work while Joe's challenges have shrunk to almost nothing. Joe has only recently been telling people that he is retiring at his own pace and has never been happier.
Joe's career has been told here to illustrate the main point of this article -that retirement comes not only from internal desire but from outside forces as well. It is when both internal and external forces converge that retirement takes place. It is often difficult to tell if outside influences cause us to think about leaving work or if we generate this desire internally because our personal time clock tells us it is time.
What I think is that outside forces dominate in this process. We think of retiring because we don't get the same kick from our work that we once did; and we don't get the same kick because the rest of the world has noticed that we have become more complacent and have metaphorically 'lost a step.' In short, our career contentment and loss of passion become the internal force that kick-starts the external process that brings about our career demise.
This is a radical view of how retirement works but any reader will, I hope, reflect on what's been written here. When you retire has nothing to do with being financially ready, although being financially ready is obviously a big advantage. You will retire when outside forces make other alternatives either unattractive or impossible. The good news: after the inevitable mourning over what has been lost has subsided, most men and women adjust well to their new lives. Successful competitors and achievers for most of their careers, the realization dawns on such attorneys that one's sense of self as valuable does not disappear after work ends. It continues, finally stripped of its superficialities and baggage, so that the rest of one's life can begin