Thinking about your retirement? If you are in your 60s or older, you should be. Even if you are in your 50s, it’s a good idea. In fact, whether it’s far in the future or just around the corner, there are many reasons to start thinking about retiring long before you actually do it.
Three critical reasons are:
- Health. No matter how fit you are today, medical problems may appear, perhaps suddenly and without warning. Serious physical or mental health issues — whether your own or those of someone who needs your care — may require you to give up your practice, or cut back significantly.
- Job loss. You may want to work forever. But your firm or company might decide that despite your many contributions over the years, it is time for you to go. The reasons may be kind or cruel, personal or business-driven, but they may force you to leave. Even if you are a solo practitioner, your principal clients might retire, be acquired or go out of business, leaving you without sufficient work or revenue to continue your practice.
- Proper planning. Leaving law practice after decades, without something to look forward to, can be jolting. You know you should be planning for as much financial security as possible, and it takes time to do that well. But what about planning what you’ll do for the rest of your life? At first, it may be a treat to sleep in, play golf, do some traveling. But you may have 20 to 30 years or more ahead of you. What will you do all day every day? The sooner you start exploring possibilities, the easier it will be to answer those questions when your retirement date approaches.
To some extent, health problems and job loss are beyond your control. If they occur, they force your hand and limit your options. Whether or not the decision to retire is up to you, thinking in advance about life after practice will help you make the transition with greater ease and confidence. Instead of finding yourself unprepared, starting right now to lay the groundwork allows you to retire enthusiastically and on your own terms when the time comes.
Why Lawyers Avoid Planning for Retirement
The legal profession has traditionally honored lawyers with long careers. It is common for lawyers to practice well beyond the customary retirement age of mid-60s. If you love your practice and continue to thrive professionally, you may see no reason to envision anything else.
But many lawyers avoid the subject of retirement out of fear. Retirement signifies the end of the professional road you have spent a lifetime creating. It portends the loss of vital facets of your life: professional identity, status, the firm community, a sense of purpose, client relationships that have been nurtured over many years, stimulating intellectual challenges, a place to go every day.
Many lawyers’ lifelong interests and activities have revolved principally around their work, with their careers focused on becoming indispensable to their clients and the firm. Retirement raises the prospect of becoming unimportant, obsolete, bored and financially insecure. Plus, it forces you to confront your own aging and mortality.
Retirement is different from other career transitions. When you progress through a career, every new move builds on what you have established; changes keep you moving forward and upward, and you have some sense of what to expect in the next stage. Retirement represents the downward curve of your career arc. As a senior partner facing retirement from the job that has been at the center of your identity for decades, the future seems like entirely uncharted territory, full of uncertainties and without guideposts.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Retirement is a natural career stage. There are resources available to help, including personalized assistance from a mentor or coach. Exploring your options can reveal long-forgotten abilities and passions and re-ignite a sense of purpose and adventure. When you realize the joys, benefits and options open to you, you can look forward to retirement and engage in the transition with enthusiasm.
How to Start Planning for Retirement: Three Steps
Whatever your age, there are some simple steps you can start to take right now so that you are psychologically ready, maybe even eager, for whatever comes next. The main point of these exercises is to awaken your curiosity and help you explore options. Then, when the time comes to plan your retirement, you will have all the pieces in place and deciding will be that much easier.
When you retire from practice, a world of possibilities will open up to you. The key is to explore and learn what the best possibilities are.
1. Make a personal interest list. Long before my friend and former physician Rob retired, he started to keep a running list of anything and everything he came across that he might want to look into more deeply when he had the time. This list, which I dubbed a “personal interest list” (PIL), included items he heard about at medical conferences and cocktail parties, in the news and in casual conversations. It included subjects to study, places to visit and projects to pursue. When you are ready to retire, a list like Rob’s makes the process easier. Rather than a “bucket” or to-do list, it is a handy reference. It reminds you of the many things that have piqued your interest over the years, which you can now take time to investigate.
Trying to come up with an entire list of possibilities as retirement looms can add to your stress. But a PIL, compiled over years, provides comfort and guidance. The entries are made in the course of you being naturally curious, not when you feel forced to find things to do when you retire. You can review your entries at your leisure, reflect on their importance to you now, and pick, sort and prioritize the items. This can facilitate planning for a fulfilling retirement.
2. Consult your network. As a lawyer, you know a lot about what lawyers do. But what else is out there that would allow you to use your professional skills, awaken dormant skills or learn new ones? It’s useful to learn about what other people do that might be a good fit for you. This process takes time, and the more lead time you give yourself, the more you can learn. If you have reached the point in your career where retirement is on your mind, you have likely amassed a large network of legal and business contacts. Reach out to those who have already retired to seek advice. Find out what they are doing. Are they volunteering, taking classes, traveling, caring for grandchildren? Are they using retirement to shift gears and try new kinds of work?
Many lawyers stay busy and productive after they leave practice by consulting, doing project-based work, assisting nonprofits, mentoring, teaching or a host of other activities. If you are intrigued by what you hear, invite them out for coffee and find out more about opportunities in that area. Ask them what their retired friends are doing, too, and if it’s something that sparks your interest, ask for an introduction.
At the same time, refer to your PIL. Choose a few items that sound most exciting to you and reach out to someone in your network who is in the field or might know someone who is.
3. Find what you love. Some lawyers have a host of interests they have been unable to pursue because of the demands of practice. They look forward to retirement as a time when they can finally give serious attention to those longtime passions. But many lawyers have been so devoted to work that they have neglected hobbies, interests, talents and other pursuits that might give them pleasure or add meaning to their lives. Part of your exploration is to think about the things that get you excited — or that energized you sometime in the past. It can involve sports or the arts, a political cause or a religious charity, a spiritual search or an entrepreneurial urge. It may be one thing or several.
Look for patterns, happy experiences, reasons for your excitement, what gave you particular satisfaction or a clear sense of purpose. When you discern what makes you feel happy and fulfilled, you can look for similar activities to pursue.
These three easy steps will prepare you for retirement whenever the time comes. Instead of dreading an unknown future, you will have ideas, activities and projects to look forward to, and can plan for a retirement filled with pleasure and purpose.
More Timely Advice from Ida Abbott
Ida Abbott speaks directly to men in this timely best-selling book designed to arm them with the tools and perspective they’ll need to usher professional women into the top ranks of their firms. Visit the Attorney at Work bookstore to order your copy of “Sponsoring Women” — and click this link to find related articles on how to find a sponsor and understand the difference between mentorship and sponsorship.
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