Finding a Healthy Way to Transform Our Lives as We Retire

By Stephen P. Gallagher

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Many older lawyers feel they have only two retirement options open to them: either continue in their primary career path working full time or retire from it. This is based on the traditional meaning of retirement that is a single event – “withdrawal” from the workforce into leisure, relaxation, a slide into the end of life. Terms such as retirement transition, planning for retirement, post-retirement employment, volunteer service and health and well-being have rarely been included in traditional retirement dialogue.

The combination of longer life expectancy and technological advances is opening new expectations and new possibilities for all retirement planning. Today, retirement can be better defined as a period of transition that starts for some people around the mid-50s and lasts well into the mid-70s. Caveat: It’s important for law firms to protect against age discrimination claims by making any pre-retirement/retirement/post-retirement program strictly voluntary, along with safeguards to ensure that older attorneys who choose not to participate will not be penalized. This developmental stage can be a time of great personal growth and development, or it can degenerate into just the opposite.

Transition is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. This planning process should start much earlier in every law firm experience in order to better serve those lawyers looking to transition away from full-time practice; mid-career professionals who are themselves looking to secure their own places in the firm; and young lawyers looking to find their own purpose in the profession – while they struggle to pay off their law school debt.

Providing greater flexibility for this period of transition will become an important part of this “renewal strategy” that will benefit attorney well-being in a number of ways. Unfortunately, many law firms have been following the mistaken idea that the best way to help people through life transitions is to deny the transition is taking place. By better managing life’s transitions throughout an attorney’s career, firms can help individuals make these difficult periods less painful and disruptive. Better managed transition will also benefit the law firm itself.

We have to stop viewing retirement as an end-point but rather to begin thinking of retirement as a series of developmental steps taken by individuals over an extended period of time. Everyone who holds a license to practice law needs to be involved in this important dialogue if the profession is going to solve the problems associated with the aging workforce.

Unexpected multi-generational family assistance is becoming the new retirement wild card, so law firms need to build in support systems to help key people through these periods of transition. Increasingly, we are seeing pre-retirees who now must balance their retirement plans with the possibility of having to support aging relatives, adult children, grandchildren and siblings.

Volunteer work has always been a viable option for retiring lawyers, but more boomers will be looking for some form of money paid for work or service. There has never been much of a market for part-time lawyering, but with the number of lawyers living well past traditional retirement age, the legal profession needs to create greater opportunities for lawyers to “retire” with the open invitation to return to work on a part-time basis if individuals choose to do so.

Advice for improving attorney well-being in retirement

  1. With so many experienced lawyers positioned to leave the profession over the next three to five years, it is critical that law firms look more closely at the age profiles of all attorneys, but particularly those in the ownership ranks. This will help put a human face to the situation, and it should put the firm in a much better position to take appropriate actions.

Appropriate actions may include: reducing billable hour goals while expanding time devoted to mentoring relationships; introducing partners or senior associates to client-base by a set date in time; and providing coaching for all senior lawyers looking to transition away from full-time practice.

  1. Through transition planning initiatives, law firms could be in a very strong position to actually begin helping lawyers develop new life skills needed to manage individual career transition beyond the traditional retirement timeline.
  2. Firms that prize the interdependence and mutual responsibility among all generations are much better prepared to help their pre-retirees through this period of transition. These firms are more inclined to encourage their senior lawyers to tackle fresh assignments designed to offer variety and challenge and to stimulate new skills development. Senior lawyers in these law firms seem to approach retirement as a way of gaining renewed purpose in their lives.
  3. Law firms now need to adopt “design thinking” principles that will encourage lawyers to explore new life roles built around personal experiences. Firms will need to begin thinking of life design in terms of building “prototypes” or “models” over an extended period of time in which individuals progressively design and build their own lives, including their work careers that increasingly are extending well beyond traditional retirement age.
  4. Law firms will need to adopt new strategies and tactics that emphasize greater human flexibility, adaptability, and confidence in the change process that has simply never existed in law firm culture. Rather than looking at career growth as a fixed sequence of stages, design thinking now approaches career development and pre-retirement planning as individual scripts compiled over an extended period of time.

The key to success in this new approach to retirement is how well a person prepares for it. Senior lawyers no longer have to prove to anyone what they’re made of. Now they only have to answer to their own life goals, their own interests, their own calling, and their own passion.

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