We need to rethink retirement. The common concept of retirement is loaded with negative implications. It suggests withdrawal from work and meaningful activity, and evokes images of doddering old people whose lives are marked by irrelevance, boredom or senility. It’s no wonder lawyers dread the prospect of retirement. Senior partners have spent decades as leaders, rainmakers and trusted advisors. They have no interest in riding off into the sunset or having all they have built come to an end. Yet retirement can also be seen as a gift: a chance to shift gears, explore interests, or pursue adventures that have long been deferred. We need to re-frame the idea of retirement so that senior partners who would like to retire but feel too threatened, embarrassed or unable to imagine what else they could do will embrace the future with eagerness and excitement.
Retirement allows you to make choices about what you want to do in the future without regard to billable hours, demands from others, new technologies or office politics. At a certain point in your career, it is important to consider what you will do next and when you will start. Whether it’s at age 55 or 75, only you can know what that point is.
It is most desirable to enter retirement when you are mentally, physically and financially sound. Life is messy, though; unexpected things happen and people find themselves pushed into retirement earlier than expected. So, it’s a good idea to think about your interests and options and start planning for life after practice sooner rather than later.
What does “retirement age” mean today?
The whole concept of “retirement age” is an artificial social construct based on myths about “old age” that have little meaning today. It comes from the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, which set the retirement age at 65 (later reduced to 62). At that time, the average life expectancy in the US was 61. Today people are living much longer. The average life expectancy is now about 79 (81.1 years for women, 76.1 years for men), and life spans are even longer for those in the top income brackets, where lawyers tend to be. If you are 60 years old today, you have a 50% chance of living into your 90s.
People are also remaining healthier and able to remain active, fit and productive well beyond their 60s. While some functions might slow for some people, no specific age can be viewed as a natural “end point” for a lawyer’s ability to work and competently represent clients. Most adults in the US plan to work well past the traditional “retirement age,” and it has always been common for lawyers to work well into their 70s and beyond. Sometimes the need or desire for money is the driver, but most lawyers who keep working that long really enjoy what they do, feel competent to do it, and want to keep serving their clients. Their clients don’t care about their age and in many cases, neither do their partners. In some firms, lawyers in their 70s and even 80s are top billers and rainmakers.
Still, at some point, many lawyers would like to work less, do something different or stop working altogether. The negativity surrounding the concept of retirement and the emotional distress of being old enough to reach “retirement age” make it hard for them to leave practice. That’s why we need to reframe the notion of retirement to emphasize the opportunities it presents after a long and successful legal career to spend time doing what we want and living in ways that will engage us, keep us stimulated and give our lives purpose.
Reframing the idea of retirement
Facing retirement requires some mind-shifting. Rather than the “end” of a career, it is the beginning of a new way of life. Retirement presents countless choices in most aspects of life. This can be overwhelming – or it can be fun. You can become an adventurer, exploring and experimenting, or use your time to start a business or care for your grandchildren. Much depends on how well you have prepared, both financially and psychologically, as well as your health, your family’s needs and your social network. Giving yourself ample time to prepare means there’s no rush and there doesn’t have to be a specific goal; you can move at your own pace in any direction that appeals to you.
Lawyers move into retirement in myriad ways. Sometimes they start using one approach then shift to another. Here are some common patterns:
- Ease in. Some lawyers just want to relax. For decades, they have had busy schedules, worked extremely hard, and been accountable to others. Now they have the time to take it easy and do just what they want without feeling guilty about it. They might play golf every day or watch hours of movies on Netflix. They take each day as it comes.
- Stay involved in law. Many lawyers want to stay active in the profession but on a modified basis or in a different way. They might do occasional work for their firm or a legal clinic, teach a class somewhere, serve as an expert witness, advise a new legal tech start-up, or mentor young lawyers through their firm or a bar association.
- Start an encore career. Many lawyers want to keep working but not in law. They might become entrepreneurs and start a new business or take a job in field that interests them outside law, perhaps in a non-profit.
- Seek new adventures. Adventurers view retirement as a chance to try something completely new and different. They might pursue an unrealized dream or a new passion. They might travel to new places, write a novel or take up a challenging sport.
- Study. Lawyers like to learn and there are any number of programs and courses in most communities and online that feed that desire. Many lawyers study for the sake of learning, while others hope to acquire new skills in order to pursue new types of paid or volunteer work.
- Search. For many lawyers, the best way forward isn’t at all clear. They spend time exploring and experimenting, trying out new ideas to see what sticks. They might or might not find something to settle on. It doesn’t matter; for them, the journey itself can be fulfilling.
Preparing to retire
There is no one right time or right way to retire. But one thing is certain: retirement is a major life transition and without preparation it can be highly unsettling. You know you should be planning for as much financial security as possible, and it takes time to do that well. But it is just as important to plan what you will do for the rest of your life. You may have 20-30 years or more ahead of you. You have spent decades building and enjoying your law practice and reputation. Leaving without something to look forward to can be jolting. But when you view the future as filled with promise and possibilities, and you have designed it on your own terms, the prospect of retirement can be exciting and revitalizing. The sooner you start preparing, the easier it will be to transition into an enjoyable and fulfilling retirement when the time comes.
If you would like assistance and support in planning for your transition into retirement, contact me and let’s discuss how I can help you.