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									   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                      1.800. 973. 1177

Is it Time to Retire?
[Jamie Barnes]
Retirement can sometimes be a rough situation, forced rather than chosen, in the legal profession. Dealing with the realities of your situation can help
ensure that you go out on top.

It is normal to dream about a utopian future         to retire?’ is, for most of us but a theoreti-      paralegals and data systems people and
in which the pressures of earning a living,          cal construct. We shall never know the best         occasionally went to lunch with one or more
supporting a household and maintaining a             time. Quite possibly there is no ‘best’ time.       of them.
chosen lifestyle disappear. In such a vision,        More likely than not, the decision will be
all that remains is the pleasure of friends,         made for us.                                        Joe married late, several months after his
hobbies and the slow stretch of time. Retire-                                                            36th birthday, falling in love with another
ment is seen as an opportunity to address            How Retirement Decisions Generally Get Made         attorney in the firm, and within three years
dreams unfulfilled, an endless rest and a            Let me sketch out a scenario that occurs            they had two children, a boy and a girl. The
final escape from career and family respon-          often in medium to large law firms and see if       effect of this was a slight reduction in billable
sibilities.                                          it resonates with you. The lawyer in question       hours. Perhaps to compensate, Joe joined a
                                                     was a graduate of a prestigious law school.         prestigious city club and began bringing in
When Is The Right Time?                              He subsequently spent two years clerking            business, small trust and insurance work at
It is a dirty little secret, but most, if not all,   for a federal judge before joining his present      first. One of these small clients eventually
lawyers do not enter retirement entirely by          firm, which he has been with over 30 years.         introduced him to an entrepreneur whose
choice, a fact which shall be addressed in a                                                             business slowly began billing increasing
moment. Moreover, most lawyers do not rec-           This lawyer, whom we shall call Joe, was            amounts of work. By Joe’s fifth year as part-
ognize the right time to retire because they         made a partner in his early 30s, based on his       ner, he had become personally responsible
are not always a good judge of when their            consistently demonstrated capacity to bill a        for slightly over one million in business that
skills and passion for work decline to the ex-       minimum of 2000 hours annually for more             he had personally brought in.
tent they become more of a cost burden than          than six years. In addition, and, in retrospect,
a benefit to the firm that employs them.             equally important, Joe handled office and           Following this initial burst of new-client
                                                     client politics well.                               activity, for a period stretching from his
I can remember my own father saying that                                                                 forty-second to fifty-third birthdays, Joe did
he did not believe in lingering deaths, that         Somewhat shy and self-effacing, Joe’s rela-         not bring in any new clients of note; but his
he would take his own life rather than put           tionships upward with partners were good.           existing clients’ own businesses grew and
himself and his loved ones through this.             He was upon occasion overly differential but        with this growth came increased revenues
When, at the age of 91, he began his own             would stand his ground calmly and without           for Joe and his firm.
slow lingering decline into death, which took        rancor when challenged. When confronted
eight heart-rending months to conclude,              with mistakes he had made, his face would           At Joe’s revenue-producing zenith, which
he confided to me four months before his             redden and he would carry a hang-dog look           came at age 47, he controlled billings of
demise that after he was back walking again          around with him for days, but he always             slightly over $1.5 million. He sat on the
he would have to get back on his stationery          owned up, never trying to deflect blame to          boards of three small companies. His
bicycle to get the strength back in his legs.        others. His lateral relationships with other        marriage went through a rough patch, and
What I concluded from my father’s by-then            associates were exemplary. He seemed to             there were rumors of an affair with a much
irrational optimism is that we are not always        arouse no jealousy or back-biting even when         younger attorney at the firm, but the affair, if
honest with ourselves, especially when it            it became obvious he was on a fast track to         there indeed had been one, eventually ended
concerns our own competencies.                       partnership. Finally, his relationships with        and Joe’s marriage endured. Joes’ wife had
                                                     support staff were both courtly and egali-          earlier quit the firm and was now spending
Thus, the question of ‘When is the right time        tarian. He could often be seen joking with          time raising their children and doing chari-

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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                               1. 800. 973.1177

table work. His two children were now teenag-                                                        mediately aroused. He did not respond to this
ers enrolled at a local private day school and    How Joe’s Legal Career Finally Ended               suggestion, and by doing so silently sent his
apparently doing well.                            At general partner meetings, the usual mat-        refusal. Supposedly to help, when new corpo-
                                                  ters got discussed -the outlook regarding end-     rate business came into the firm, which was
From an outsider’s perspective, Joe lived an      of-year profits, new hires, client deflections     happening less and less, it would get assigned
admirable and obviously successful life. He       and additions, and a lot of general house-         elsewhere. Joe only slowly caught on that he
and his wife had moved to the area’s toniest      keeping concerns. In private, however, the         was being bled dry.
suburb and both drove high-end Lexuses. One       managing partner and two of his high-billing
of his children was mildly dyslexic, and he now   compatriots would meet and discuss the part-       By Joe’s 61st year, his billings had fallen to
had two chronically ill parents for whom he       ners themselves. Joe’s name began to come          $750,000, last among all partners. He began
was the main caretaker, but otherwise he and      up more often. He was putting on weight. His       thinking about retirement. He had almost
his family prospered.                             oldest child had been accepted by Duke and         two million dollars in assets, 40% of this in
                                                  his younger child was at a community college       his house. He would soon be in senior citizen
It was during Joe’s late 40s and early 50s that   and struggling. Joe’s wife had gone back to        status at his city club, meaning his monthly
managing partners noted that his perfor-          work as the head of some non-profit founda-        dues would drop by half. The same would
mance remained exemplary but had most             tion which provided medical supplies to dev-       soon be true at his country club. His house,
likely reached a plateau. This realization        astated areas. As a consequence, her name          would be paid off in four years: This had taken
partially came about because of the outstand-     was in the newspapers a lot and she traveled       so long because he had taken out home-im-
ing performance of two younger partners, who      alone or with her staff to foreign countries.      provement loans to help pay for his children’s
in the space of five years generated enough       Joe seemed both pleased and somewhat               private school and college expenses, an
new business to comfortably surpass Joe.          nonplussed about his wife’s emergence as a         in-ground pool in his back yard, various club
Whereas Joe’s billings once ranked him fifth      subject of local media scrutiny.                   memberships, and once to pay off his wife’s
or sixth among the firm’s 38 partners, he was                                                        credit cards, which, during the rough patch in
now in 12th place, and equally alarming, he       More disconcerting was the lack of movement        their marriage, she had run up into the tens
did not seem threatened by this. Still, nothing   in Joe’s accounts. Joe attended to his romanc-     of thousands. As Joe saw it, if everything re-
was said to him. Joe had been with the firm       ing of his clients as always, never being too      mained as it was, he could comfortably retire
for over 20 years. He remained a valuable and     extravagant, but always managing to take a         in his 66th year and continue to live the style
dependable contributing partner.                  client and his wife to a nice dinner at Joe’s      of life he had accustomed himself to. But it
                                                  country or city club, arranging for tickets at     didn’t work out that way.
In retrospect, Joe had been lucky. His career     local pro sporting events, and the like. This
had not suffered any massive defections from      kind of client schmoozing was not Joe’s strong     Joe Says Goodbye
his client base, but finally in his 53rd year,    suit, and now that his wife was otherwise oc-      The meeting took place on a Winter Friday at
$500,000 walked out the door. The parting was     cupied, he was having to do a lot of this work     5:30p.m. The managing partner dropped in
not rancorous. The client was a medium-sized      alone, and the managing partner and his two        to Joe’s office unexpectedly and suggested
machine-tool firm which had been bought           compatriots wondered just how effective he         they go around the corner to the manag-
out by a larger competitor. Joe made obvious      would be.                                          ing partner’s city club for a drink. The drink
efforts to increase billings from remaining                                                          turned into a dinner at which both Joe and
clients but was not successful. He began once     Joe’s practice area was Corporate, and it was      the managing partner got pleasantly inebri-
again to spend more time at the office and        now, from an accounting point of view, losing      ated. The upshot was that Joe was to become
then, after several months of this, slipped       money. As a result, when two Corporate asso-       ‘of counsel’ and could keep his individual
back into his normal schedule of arriving at      ciates left for other jobs, the firm decided not   clients whereas the bulk of his corporate
the office around nine a.m. and leaving about     to fill the open positions. Joe protested but to   business would be divided among others. In
six p.m. By the end of Joe’s 55th year, his       no avail. His response was to spend more time      talking about the drunken dinner later with
client base was producing about $1.2 million      at the office and do a lot of the work himself.    confidents, the managing partner alluded to
in revenue for the firm and his partner billing   Because his billing rate was over $400 an          how difficult it was to bring a fellow attorney’s
rank has slipped to 30th of the 35 partners       hour, several of his clients began to complain.    career to an end, especially considering that
who still remained. (Joe’s firm, because of the   Casually, during a golf outing, it was suggest-    this fellow attorney had been an exemplary
expense of upgrading its data systems, had        ed that Joe allow another partner and several      producer for over 30 years.
placed a hold on new partner formation.)          associates to help. Joe’s suspicions were im-      At the time his article was written, Joe is now

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       CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                            1.800. 973. 1177

68. He still comes to his office three or four          been written here. When you retire has nothing
days a week. His firm continues to pay many             to do with being financially ready, although
of his benefits, and still gives him a slice of         being financially ready is obviously a big
the profits, but this decreases by a set amount         advantage. You will retire when outside forces
yearly and will end when Joe reaches the age            make other alternatives either unattractive or
of 70. Joe’s career, in most respects, is over,         impossible. The good news: after the inevi-
although he has yet to fully admit this.                table mourning over what has been lost has
                                                        subsided, most men and women adjust well
Joe has effectively been retired but tells              to their new lives. Successful competitors and
himself he still has the best of both worlds, a         achievers for most of their careers, the realiza-
job and more leisure time. Truth is, he does            tion dawns on such attorneys that one’s sense
not use this leisure time very well. He never           of self as valuable does not disappear after
developed outside interests. His work was his           work ends. It continues, finally stripped of its
life and his work is how he still defines himself.      superficialities and baggage, so that the rest of
He has started traveling with his wife to various       one’s life can begin.
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 pas-
sionately 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 ca-
reer 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

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