Transition to Retirement

Sooner or later everyone retires. Thousands of "boomer" lawyers will be retiring in British Columbia in the next 15 years. The types of retirement these lawyers experience will likely be very different from those of their parents, who retired in the 1980s. Retirement at that time often meant an abrupt and total cessation of work at 65, followed by a leisurely retirement.

This has changed. Now, relatively few lawyers retire before 65, and when they do retire, it is more like a transition to a new epoch in their lives. Recent research and books such as Lawyers at Midlife by Michael Long, from the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, have given us a more accurate picture of how this generation of lawyers will retire.

One of the main drivers of this change is the fact that people are maintaining a much higher level of mental and physical functioning through midlife and late adulthood. The average healthy 65-year-old is functioning mentally and physically at the level our parents' generation functioned at when they were 50. This period, which was formerly the end of middle age (roughly 50) and what is the beginning of real physical old age (after 75), is a new stage in adult life, one that has never existed before as a generalized experience for large numbers of people.

What are lawyers doing with this extra life time? My personal situation is illustrative of this new type of "retirement". I practised law for 25 years in Victoria and retired from the practice of law in 2000 at the age of 50. Believe me, this was not due to the fact that general practice in Victoria had made me fabulously wealthy. I had gone back to school in my 40s to pursue a counselling degree and got an opportunity to teach, which I did for the next four years. I retired from teaching at age 54, when I had a chance to pursue my interests in psychology, teaching and law all at the same time, and I joined LAPBC as a counsellor. I am already well into in my second post-law career.

This pursuit of an avocation and other passions is typical of what many lawyers do in their "retirement". Those who remain in private practice typically retire in a phased fashion, working part time or reducing case-loads in their 60s, including taking much more time off. Many lawyers will work into their 70s.

The recent retirement surveys by the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program give us details of what lawyer retirement will look probably look like here. These are some highlights:

  • 40 per cent plan to practise full time after the age of 70.
  • 11 per cent plan to practise full time until they die or are no longer capable of practising.
  • The main motivator for continuing to practise is the sense of stimulation, sense of purpose and satisfaction it provides; but for about 10 per cent it is due to economic necessity.
  • Boomer lawyers are quite optimistic about the next chapter of their lives, with 50 per cent being very optimistic and 39 per cent somewhat optimistic about their retirement years.
  • 71 per cent of lawyers see retirement as a time to begin a new chapter in life, being active and involved, starting new activities and having new goals.
The Psychology of Transition to Retirement

In the process of researching and designing our "Retirement" workshops, I quickly realized that retirement is much more multifaceted than simply quitting the day that you have enough money or when your pension kicks in or when you get a scare because a friend or colleague dies (particularly if that person is a few years younger than you!). Most lawyers overestimate the role of money and underestimate social and psychological factors.

To have a successful retirement requires planning in a number of dimensions, including understanding the psychology of transition as well as the changes in relationships in retirement. Studies of retirees show that the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction in retirement is the size of a person's social network. In the process of meeting many lawyers in or near retirement at our workshops, there is one group that has trouble with it: those lawyers who don't have many friendships, interests and hobbies outside of law. Some of these lawyers tried it, but lasted only a year or two, and were at our workshops to prepare themselves for their second attempt.

The transition to retirement involves dealing with many endings and losses, such as lack of structure and purposeful activity, a loss of a sense of usefulness and value, a lack of intellectual stimulation, a loss of social network and community, coping with the leisure paradox (leisure ceases to become leisure if you do it all the time) and handling the inevitable loss of mental and physical functioning. Altogether this can be described as a loss of identity, and it affects lawyers in different ways.

Some lawyers will have a lot of trouble going from "being important in the eyes of the world to being a nobody", as one lawyer put it. For some lawyers, getting out of law will be more difficult than getting in! Of course, healthy transitions also involve creating a vision of what you are retiring to in your retirement, such as new social networks, new structure, a new purpose and focus.

Changes in Relationships in Retirement

In past "Retirement" workshops, this topic was usually the most popular. It is often overlooked or minimized, but it will have a huge impact on the quality of your retirement. The old joke about having "twice the husband for half the money" is true and belies many changes in primary relationships.

Family law lawyers know that this can be a dangerous time for relationships, especially for those couples that have drifted apart during the working and child-rearing years. Social networks based solely on work will largely end, and older lawyers often talk about the sadness that comes with old clients and friends passing away. Relationships with children and grandchildren are also impacted, but few parents discuss their retirement plans with their children. My own parents retired younger than anyone expected, and when they did, they promptly left the country! We were all happy for them, but to say we were shocked is an understatement. (Yes, they did leave a forwarding address!)