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Retiring Gratefully and (Fairly) Gracefully

By Anonymous

Allow me to jump to the end and tell you retirement from private practice is good, enjoyable and filled with as much as I choose. Looking back, I see how the tools I learned in recovery over the years, and the principles taught in recovery, helped me make the transition from active practice to retirement. I’d like to share my story and how I used some of those tools with the hope it might help someone else.

Sometime during my 35th or 36th year of law practice, I started thinking more regularly about retirement. I hadn’t set a date, and my physical and mental capabilities were not pushing me toward retirement. But I was not like a few colleagues I’d heard over the years who wanted, they said, to practice until they died. One lawyer friend attributed this desire to his deep love of the practice.

I’m not sure I believed them, but even if it was true for them, it wasn’t for me. To cut to the nub, I didn’t want to be defined, beginning to end, as a lawyer. I felt privileged to be a lawyer and to have enjoyed my career as a private practice attorney. Lawyering was my profession, but lawyering is not my total identity. I am more than a lawyer. One way for me to realize this rebellious inclination was to retire and let the rest of my life unfold. Also, I wanted to be young enough to do what I chose without significant physical limitations that often come with living into your seventies and eighties.

To state the obvious, this would be a big change for me. I don’t like change! In his book The Way of Transition, Bill Bridges proposes that it is transition we don’t like, rather than change because transition involves letting go of a piece of ourselves or part of our identity, whereas change is a situational shift. Well, I didn’t like either one. I’d learned through my years in recovery that when I’m resistant to things like change, I need to start looking for fear – there’s something I’m afraid of that is holding me back.

The first fear I identified was what we call the “fear of financial insecurity.” Using the recovery tool of doing the next right thing, I made a simple strategy that allowed me to transition into retirement gradually. I was able to join a small firm (back then I had been practicing solo) as a non-equity partner with the expectation that, over a few years, I would slow down my practice until I retired. It was a good fit with respect to personalities and practice areas. I was quite fortunate.

The next step was to meet with a financial planner to be sure I had not missed anything in my own analysis and that I could, in retirement, continue to live the way my wife and I wished. We are not lavish spenders, but we do like to travel, and we feel an obligation to give part of our income to our church and a number of local and national non-profits.

Of course, looking at the financial side of retirement is a prudent thing to do. It’s something I’d recommend to any client of mine in a similar situation. But it also pre-empted any fear I might have of economic insecurity. One of the ‘promises’ associated with the ninth step set forth in the book Alcoholics Anonymous is the assurance that the fear of economic insecurity will leave us, and it did leave me for the most part. But these insecurities have a way of coming back sometimes, particularly in the face of such a substantive change.

I have a friend who is a retired lawyer, and when he retired from his insurance defense practice, he just walked out of the office on the agreed upon Friday, and the next week his partners and associates took over every case without missing a beat. My practice was different: business law and estate planning. No one else in my office handled those areas. If my clients wanted it, I felt obligated to introduce them to another lawyer who could handle their affairs.

So, I set a date to stop practicing one year out and spent that last year finishing up matters, referring clients to other attorneys, delivering original documents to their owners, and tying up loose ends. I knew I excelled in procrastination when fear was involved, so it was important to set that calendar date, announce it and stick to it.

During that last year, I thought more and more about what life would be like after my last day in the office. I believe my higher power was looking after me in a number of ways throughout this transition including direct advice from a psychologist I did not know.

It came out of the blue after a yoga class in which we both participated. I was talking to our instructor about my upcoming retirement when the psychologist, who had overheard me, came up and asked if she could give me some advice. She told me that after I retired, I would be uncomfortable and disoriented for some period of time. It could be a couple of months or longer. Don’t try to fix it, she said. Live with the discomfort and know that it is normal. Things will sort out in time the way they should.

And she was spot on. That was some of the best advice I have ever received. That first morning I had the entire day with no client to call, no LLC to form, no estate planning docs to draft, no associate knocking on my door with a question, no Bar Association committee meeting to prepare for, no unpaid receivable to pursue. It was empty! And I was uncomfortable.

Here is where trust came in. A tough act for me, to trust. I want to know the deal, how things will turn out, what the alternatives are, the worst-case scenario. I don’t want any surprises. Suddenly I had a day, a week, and I didn’t know what I’d do or how it would unfold.

Every morning during my meditation routine, I recite the “Third Step Prayer”. I’m offering myself to my Higher Power to build with me and do with me as it wants. Do I mean it? If I do, I told myself, I just need to be attentive to opportunities and signals for the next right thing to do and do it. The action part is essential, but sometimes it must be preceded by patient waiting (and talking to my sponsor or other trusted person in my life).

One of the most important truths recovery taught me is that my real purpose is to be of maximum service to God and the people about me. Years before I retired, I’d found myself unhappy with my practice. I was in a medium-sized firm and my partners were good lawyers and fine people. But the focus to maximize return, measuring time in tenths of an hour, plus firm management duties made my law practice burdensome and unenjoyable. So, I went solo (leaving on good terms I might add).

It was what I needed at the time. Law practice still frustrated me until one day a voice in my head (I am not crazy) said: go into each client relationship asking how can I be of service. Then do excellent legal work at a fair price and things will work out. They did. Granted, I made less money solo than if I’d stayed in that firm, but I was much happier and, dare I say it, fulfilled.

Heading into retirement, that suggestion about being of service continued to guide me. I looked for opportunities to “be of maximum service” in the relationships I had, the communities I was a part of (church, AA, golfing cronies, non-profits, etc.). Somewhere along the way I was asked to chair a committee and to join a non-profit board (they love lawyers on their boards). Little by little my time began to fill up. I had scoffed when I had heard retired people say, “I don’t know how I had time to practice law, my days in retirement are so full!” Now it had become true for me.

Did I miss anything? Absolutely. I sorely missed people in need of help asking me for help. Asking for my advice. Often making very important decisions in their lives based on what I told them. What a privilege that is. What a gift! We take it for granted when we are practicing. But when it ended, I missed it and I realized again how grateful I was to have been in the role of counselor to many people.

That loss was balanced by relief granted from the stress of always having to be right. Not 70% or 80% right, but completely right, day after day, in advice given and documents prepared. Always. That is a lot of stress that we accept because it just comes with our profession. One morning some months after I retired, as I sat with a second cup of coffee and watched cardinals out back, I realized that stress was gone.

I waited a few years before petitioning the State Bar to allow me to go inactive. Before that, occasionally, I’d have the opportunity to respond to a question or situation as a lawyer, and it was essential, of course, that I be licensed. But truthfully, I think it was a little like Linus’ blanket – keeping my license active provided a little security, whether real or imagined.

My life now and since retirement has been full, fun, humbling and rewarding. Of course, it’s life so there have been ups and downs, sorrows and joys. But I am both grateful I was privileged to be a practicing lawyer and I am grateful I no longer practice.

If you told me you’re thinking of retiring and you invited my input, here’s some of what I would say.

Stay connected with your communities all the way through and into retirement. And have communities! Don’t isolate or you’ll miss opportunities to be of service. Be intentional about meeting with friends and colleagues for lunch, to work out or whatever your preference is. But stay actively in touch with people you can talk to and who know you.

Trust. Trust that things will go well, and when (not if) you hit a bump or a wall, trust that you will be able to navigate over or around it.

Stay in shape, physically and spiritually. Whether walking in the neighborhood or training for a senior iron man, be active. And stay connected to the spiritual part of living and, if it is your practice, to the spiritual part of your faith tradition. And if you have no spiritual part of your day-to-day living, get one, in whatever form is right for you.

Be hopeful and optimistic. I’ve learned in my latter years that being hopeful takes work and practice.

Be grateful. Gratitude is a superpower. At least that is my experience. And there is always, in every situation, something for which to be grateful.

And be of service, in whatever form that takes for you. You are needed. You have unique-to-you life experiences which need to be shared for the good of us all. Don’t hide them away.

I could go on, but I bet I’m telling you what you already know.

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