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Retirement: How to Handle It

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By Barbara Jones

A lawyer’s wife once told him he was retired. This was a surprise because, although he was not practicing law, he had a full schedule of coaching clients and meetings. But his wife told him, you like what you do, and you do it freely. The income is a fringe benefit. It’s obvious that you’re retired.

Well. If only it was that simple to retire and stay retired in a fulfilling way.

It’s not simple, but it is possible.

The Hennepin County Bar Association has added a new section for senior lawyers and judges to help them find community and a way to contribute to the profession, or a way to leave law and follow the road not taken.

The section is a way for colleagues to discuss issues about aging, including the retirement stage of life and how to make it work for you. Finances—the elephant in the room—may be part of the conversation. The section welcomes ideas from members or future members about programming. If you have an idea, please contact the HCBA. (kharo@mnbars.org)

“Senior” is defined as a lawyer who has been admitted to practice before the Minnesota Supreme Court 37 years or more or is over 62 years old. Retirement is not a prerequisite.

To date, the section has hosted two seminars about retirement and/or aging in the profession, both approaching the topic from a personal or psychological viewpoint. The first was called “Who Am I When I’m No Longer Doing What I Did?” and the second was “Retirement: Are We Having Fun Yet?”

Where to Start?

Some people stride right up to the threshold of retirement, open the door, and walk in. Others approach more hesitantly, circling around and looking for an exit. Everyone’s different.

Start with the basics, advisors say. After you figure out how much money you have and how much you need, start putting together your own plan, which may be more like a map with a lot of intersections that lead in a variety of directions.

Maybe start by taking some time off for long vacations or resuscitate hobbies like painting watercolors or playing guitar. “It’s a big mistake to go cold-turkey,” said Roy Ginsburg, an attorney coach who advises clients on selling or leaving their practices. “Even in large firms you can slow down. While some law firms have mandatory retirement ages, as do judges, if possible, plan for a transition,” Ginsburg said.

“Many lawyers want to ‘die at their desk,’ but that’s problematic for many reasons, primarily that it leaves a mess for their clients, colleagues, and family,” Ginsburg said. Lawyers who are nearing retirement age also need to consider their health and what it costs in time and money to stay healthy.   


“Many lawyers want to ‘die at their desk,’ but that’s problematic for many reasons, primarily that it leaves a mess for their clients, colleagues, and family”


“I think that once you hit the early 70s, all bets are off. You can’t assume that you have at least five good years left to practice without a substantial risk of a serious health problem,” he said. Ginsburg suggested in a blog post that solo or small firm-lawyers who want to continue practicing may wish to consider a different environment, such as an of-counsel spot. That’s not perfect but may be necessary, he wrote.

Stay Flexible

Flexibility is important. Make a plan that considers various contingencies but also be prepared to change it. Plans only go so far. “Man plans and God laughs,” Ginsburg said.

A plan may offer ways to replace the community and belonging that are part of work and that can be lost in retirement.

Author and therapist David Alter of Minnetonka, speaking at the “Are We Having Fun Yet?” seminar, noted that the origin of the word “retire” meant to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion, like retiring from a battlefield. “You’re on the sidelines, you’re a bump on a log,” he said. “This is risky for a person who defines herself as “what I do,” Alter said.

This is where the plan, and the flexibility to depart from the plan, becomes important. Another step on the path of retirement is determining what resources the retiree can apply to achieving meaning, mission, and purpose, Alter said.

Work also is about status, prestige, and relevance, noted attorney coach and consultant Dennis Coyne of St. Louis Park. “Be aware of your own conversation with yourself. We can be seduced into being irrelevant,” said Coyne.

We can also be complicit in creating our own irrelevance, Coyne said. Beware of conversations that end up assigning you a role. “If you say you’re retired, there’s an assumption about your path. You can be relegated to those who are no longer contributors.”

“Retirement is a process, not an event,” said Coyne. “There does come a day when you turn in your keys, but that’s just one of the steps on the path of retirement.”

The steps should follow the thread of other activities or goals that can help you form new communities when the workplace no longer provides that, Coyne said. “Be led by your interests and energy.”

At the “Who Am I” seminar, attorney Howard Tarkow said that a volunteer project at the Maslon firm, where he practiced, led him to consider “What do you want to learn about next?” Tarkow decided he wanted to know why there is hunger and pursued activities that educated him about food insecurity. But not everybody has to take on serious socio-economic problems, he emphasized. “This is not cookie-cutter stuff. Follow your interests,” he said.

You Don't Go it Alone

Another important part of your plan must be the other people in your life. “You can’t think about it alone,” said John Orenstein, moderator of the “Are We Having Fun Yet?” panel. “Community and socialization are critically important in retirement,” Ginsburg said.

“But the conversations with a spouse or partner can be quite complicated and difficult,” Coyne said. “Sometimes it’s best to meet with a trusted listener like a counselor or therapist to help read the tea leaves.”

“The retirement transition may be difficult for some couples when the retired person turns to the partner to provide relevance that no longer comes from work,” said marriage and family therapist Renee Segal of Plymouth. “If connections between the partners were subsumed by work, this can be a time of crisis,” she said.

“You have to learn to solve problems with your partner. Feeling alone is incredibly stressful,” Segal continued. “Getting the support you need will help you in your retirement.”

One important source of support is Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, said executive director Joan Bibelhausen. It provides confidential support to lawyers, judges, law students, and families who are facing a variety of situations including stress or mental health issues.

At the end of the panel discussion, Orenstein asked the panelists to list the most important take-away from the discussion. Segal said it was the importance of meaningful relationships. Bibelhausen said it was to ask for help. Alter said it was to practice humility. “We’re all in this together,” he said.          


Barbara-Jones-150Barbara Jones
Barbarajones14@comcast.net

Barbara Jones is a 1982 graduate of William Mitchell College of Law and thus is a member and secretary of the senior lawyers and judges section of the HCBA. After practicing law for about 15 years, she joined Minnesota Lawyer and served most recently as editor. She is retired but is a freelance writer in St. Paul.

 

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