Take The Fear Out of Retirement

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As I was writing my new book, "Life After Law: What Will You Do with the Next 6,000 Days?" it struck me that, as far as many lawyers are concerned, "retirement" is the most feared word in the English language.

As one law-firm partner explained to me, retiring means going from "who's who" to "who's he?" For many lawyers, their career is a large part of their identity.

But once you stop practicing law, you're no longer a lawyer. So what are you?

You can still be a "who's who" in retirement, not because the world knows who you are, but because you can get a sense of who you are. Whether it's being on the board of a nonprofit, pursuing a hobby or just working in the garden, retirement opens a host of new options.

As with most areas of life, the fear is in the unknown, so don't let it take you by surprise. Where do you want to go, and what do you want to do? If you don't know the answers to those questions, you're going to be afraid to make the change.

Making a retirement plan is difficult, because whereas so many successful lawyers and workers in general have spent a career focused on and passionate about serving others, the emphasis in retirement suddenly shifts to personal satisfaction, self-worth and well-being.

Leaving your current practice by retiring is an emotional process. Luckily, a successful transition is dependent on the same traits that define success as a lawyer: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment. Each person's approach will be unique and can change over time, so don't feel you've burned bridges to your past life.

When coaching lawyers who want to leave the practice, I typically start with several questions that set the stage for all further deliberations. The questions resonate differently with each person:

  • Why do you want to leave your practice (not why do "people" leave; why do you want to)?
  • What do you want to do once you leave?
  • Do you want to quit working altogether or start a new career adventure?
  • Could you achieve the same objective without leaving the practice of law? Would you want to?

Trying to decide your future all at once often produces self-defeating fear and paralysis. A thousand-mile journey is nothing more than a series of steps. Take them one at a time. Assess the reality of your financial resources and your physical health. Consider your estate plan, create trusts to conserve assets and minimize tax impact, and properly value the practice for estate tax purposes. Assess your current situation before trying to do anything else.

Assuming you've made all the appropriate preparations, from lining up a successor to crafting an effective estate plan, only you can decide how to make your transition. Will you seize the opportunity to begin anew, or be warehoused and wait to die?

With life expectancies being extended as they are today, and likely to increase, there will be a great deal of time left to occupy yourself with other activities. What will they be? You won't simply stumble upon all the answers as the journey is underway; you have to ask yourself the right questions before you depart.

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