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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.

hobbies and the slow stretch of time. Retirement is seen as an opportunity to address

Joe married late, several months after his 36th birthday, falling in love with another attorney in the firm, and within three years

dreams unfulfilled, an endless rest and a

How Retirement Decisions Generally Get Made Let me sketch out a scenario that occurs

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


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? It is a dirty little secret, but most, if not all,

He subsequently spent two years clerking

business, small trust and insurance work at

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

they had two children, a boy and a girl. The

business slowly began billing increasing

choice, a fact which shall be addressed in a 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 forty-second to fifty-third birthdays, Joe did

I can remember my own father saying that 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

tarian. He could often be seen joking with

time raising their children and doing chari-

Thus, the question of ‘When is the right time


continued on back

1. 800. 973.1177


mediately aroused. He did not respond to this

table work. His two children were now teenagers enrolled at a local private day school and

suggestion, and by doing so silently sent his

and his wife had moved to the area’s toniest

How Joe’s Legal Career Finally Ended At general partner meetings, the usual matters got discussed -the outlook regarding endof-year profits, new hires, client deflections and additions, and a lot of general housekeeping concerns. In private, however, the

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

apparently doing well. From an outsider’s perspective, Joe lived an admirable and obviously successful life. He

or sixth among the firm’s 38 partners, he was

refusal. Supposedly to help, when new corporate business came into the firm, which was happening less and less, it would get assigned elsewhere. Joe only slowly caught on that he was being bled dry.

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

his client base, but finally in his 53rd year,

suit, and now that his wife was otherwise oc-

$500,000 walked out the door. The parting was

cupied, he was having to do a lot of this work

not rancorous. The client was a medium-sized

alone, and the managing partner and his two

machine-tool firm which had been bought

compatriots wondered just how effective he

out by a larger competitor. Joe made obvious

would be.

efforts to increase billings from remaining

Joe Says Goodbye The meeting took place on a Winter Friday at 5:30p.m. The managing partner dropped in to Joe’s office unexpectedly and suggested they go around the corner to the managing partner’s city club for a drink. The drink 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

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


the managing partner got pleasantly inebri-

continued on back

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 passionately 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.

Conclusion 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 career 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


Is it Time to Retire?  

Retirement can be a rough situation in the legal profession when forced rather than chosen. Dealing with the realities of your situation can...

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