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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Practice Innovations: Preparing your senior partners for retirement and taking control of your law firm’s future

Sharon Meit Abrahams  Legal Talent Development Expert / Legal Talent Advisors, LLC

· 5 minute read

Sharon Meit Abrahams  Legal Talent Development Expert / Legal Talent Advisors, LLC

· 5 minute read

This is the first of a two-part “Practice Innovations” blog series that will look the role law firms can play in preparing their more senior partners for retirement and providing for succession planning

Many attorneys approaching retirement age find themselves resisting the idea of stepping away from their legal careers, even as most people eagerly anticipate retirement.

“Lawyers who have something to look forward to in retirement and realize they have many options ahead, readily plan for it, says Ida Abbott, the author of the book Retirement by Design. “But some lawyers have worked so long, so hard, and so successfully, that their work has become their primary source of purpose, value, and identity.”

Teresa Rider Bult, Administrative Partner and General Counsel at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, concurs, adding that for many lawyers, it may be “daunting to move from practicing 60 to 80 hours a week to doing nothing.”

There are four main reasons why lawyers avoid retirement, which typically emerge as they get closer to retirement age.

      1. Loss of identity — Lawyers grapple with the question of who they are beyond their legal roles.
      2. Resistance to exit — The thought of not showing up at the office becomes unimaginable.
      3. Fears about transitioning — The uncertainty of moving away from a familiar routine looms large.
      4. Failure to succession plan — Many attorneys lack a clear roadmap for the next phase of their lives.

To guide attorneys toward retirement, it is essential for their law firms to help them grapple with possibilities beyond their legal practice. Michelle Shultz, Managing Partner at Schulz Trade Law, agrees that the thought of retirement may be difficult for lawyers. “Aging and retirement are a challenge for anyone regardless of their profession,” she explains. “[For] lawyers, it could be even more difficult because their identities are very much tied to their profession and it’s hard for them to let go.”

What are the options?

Many attorneys derive intellectual stimulation from their active law practice, and they often worry that retirement would entail losing this mental engagement. The key lies in having something to retire to rather than merely a desire to retire from their legal practice, as astutely observed by Timothy J. Ramsey, a principal at Bodker, Ramsey, Andrews, Winograd & Wildstein. Visualizing a fulfilling retirement — whether it involves penning mystery novels or spending hours on the tennis court — can make the transition smoother, he adds.

Firms can play a pivotal role in supporting attorneys during this phase by introducing novel and intriguing activities for their post-practice life. Firm leaders should consider the following possibilities for their retiring attorneys:

      • Exploring new careers — Some attorneys may choose to leave their law practice for an entirely different career path
      • Part-time fun jobs — Working part-time in an enjoyable role can provide a balance between leisure and productivity
      • Lifelong learning — Returning to school to acquire new skills or simply for the joy of learning is an enriching option
      • Financial optimization — Reducing living expenses to sustain retirement through social security, investments, or savings
      • Wanderlust — Traveling to explore new horizons
      • Volunteering — Contributing expertise to mentoring organizations like SCORE or other business-focused agencies
      • Relocating — Moving to areas or countries with a lower cost of living
      • Family time — Spending quality moments with family, especially grandchildren

As attorneys approach retirement age, their law firms should encourage them to step back from regular practice and explore alternative ways to leverage their experience. “The practice of law provides great flexibility,” says Michael Downey of Downey Law Group. “Lawyers often appreciate having some way to use their experience, or to continue to earn some money.” He recommends that retiring attorneys consider more pro bono, arbitration, or mediation work.

David Ernst, who retired after 30 years of practice and became a consultant focusing on law firm succession planning, says that he decided to “start consulting in this area after finishing my own succession journey because I wanted to help normalize discussions around succession planning in law firms.” And Jim Pagliaro from Morgan Lewis decided in his 50s to take art history courses, then years later embraced retirement by becoming an art museum docent, passionately sharing his love for art.

Law firm support

Firms can provide valuable support by designating a key leader, external consultant, or coach to engage with senior attorneys as they approach their 60s. These professionals initiate discussions to assess several critical aspects, including:

Envisioning retirement — Senior attorneys are encouraged to describe their vision for the first week of retirement and reflect on their emotions associated with this transition.

Spousal perspectives — For those who are married or have significant others, understanding their partner’s feelings about retirement becomes essential.

Residence considerations — The choice between staying in their current home or relocating to a warmer or colder climate merits thoughtful consideration.

Health assessment — An honest evaluation of their current health status also informs retirement planning.

Legacy or financial priorities — Attorneys must weigh whether they wish to leave a lasting legacy or prioritize financial security.

Navigating retirement can indeed be daunting, and candidates benefit greatly from robust support as they embark on this significant life transition. “Having a fair, transparent and effective retirement planning process is in the firm’s interest,” says the author Abbott, adding that proactively managing the firm’s partner retirements “increases the firm’s chances of retaining those partners’ clients,” which can be key to ensuring a firm’s future.

There are, of course, necessary synergies between retirement and succession planning. Planning for retirement almost always requires a succession plan as well. However, there are certain aspects of succession planning that don’t rely on retirement. While closely related, there are sufficient unique considerations for succession planning that merit discussion of their own.

In the second part in this “Practice Innovations” series, we will look at how firms can more adequately provide for succession planning.

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