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What Do You Do When You're Not Practicing Law?: A Sabbatical From Retirement

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By Judge Mel Dickstein (retired)

Throughout my career I tried not to be a prisoner to work. Of course, I worked hard—perhaps too hard. But it wasn’t unusual for my wife and me to take weeks off to hike the Himalayas in Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, or mountain ranges throughout Europe and South America. From time to time we also relaxed on Caribbean beaches and scuba-dived and snorkeled in the Caribbean’s clear waters.

But work was also an important part of my sense of worth, whether in practice or on the bench. As a result, it came as no surprise to those who knew me that when I reached mandatory retirement age for judges in September 2018, I was not yet ready for a life without work.


When I reached mandatory retirement age for judges in September 2018, I was not yet ready for a life without work.


I decided to fashion my own definition of retirement. Before I “retired,” I completed a 170-hour course to teach English as a second language. I planned to volunteer at a local school for recent immigrants while ramping up my mediation and arbitration practice.

My practice started up more quicky than I had expected. But I kept going to the language school whenever I could, assisting and acting as a substitute teacher. I received more from teaching than I could have imagined. Ahmed was one of my favorite students. He was the first one in language class every morning. He walked the 15 blocks to school every day regardless of the weather—rain or snow, hot or cold. Ahmed always had a smile on his face and an eagerness to learn. I met intelligent, hardworking people like him from all over the world united in their effort to obtain a command of English. It was uplifting, satisfying, and enjoyable.

In February 2020, I went to Debrecen, Hungary to teach a short course on mediation. Teaching in Hungary was equally satisfying. I taught sophisticated, eager LLM students from all over the world. I had planned mock mediations on the last day of the program—when suddenly the U.S. announced it was closing its borders in 48 hours due to the pandemic. That evening I was on a train to Budapest for a flight home the next day.

When law offices closed due to the pandemic, my practice slowed. Unacceptable, I thought. I didn’t know how long the slowdown would last (not very long, it turned out) but knew I had to fill the time in a constructive manner. I began a two-year course of French study at the University of Minnesota. Beginning at 8 a.m. (with a group of 18-20-year-olds), I attended class Monday through Thursday with virtual work on Fridays along with a couple hours of homework each day.

Suddenly, I was busier than I cared to be. My practice morphed from an emphasis on mediation to include a heavy share of arbitration and Special Master work. I began to write lengthy opinions. At the same time, my fourth semester of French focused increasingly on difficult grammatical forms and reading and writing assignments. I knew it was time for another change.


I’m beginning a sabbatical from retirement. If all works as planned, my wife and I will live in Paris for up to a year.


I’m beginning a sabbatical from retirement. If all works as planned, my wife and I will live in Paris for up to a year. I’ll stay busy—but in an entirely different manner. Now, we won’t have to travel as far to our destinations. I hope my French will improve (it can only get better!). The unexpected will doubtless occur.

I have had the pleasure to work with many of you these last four years—talented lawyers and judges. I thank everyone for all of the good work you do, the immense effort you expend. But I also want to urge you to take advantage of the wonders the world has to offer, each in your individual way. Life, I am reminded, is short.

So I’m turning the page. A new chapter is about to begin. I’ve no idea exactly where it’s headed. Wish me luck.


Dickstein 150Judge Mel Dickstein (ret'd)
mel@meldicksteinadr.com 

Judge Mel Dickstein (ret'd) began his legal career as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.  He was thereafter a partner at Robins Kaplan, a Hennepin County District Court Judge and upon his retirement an arbitrator, mediator and Special Master.  His most recent hike, pre-pandemic, was around the Torres del Paine in Chile. He now resides in Paris France.

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