Posted Apr 1, 2010 3:50 AM CST
By Barbara Rose, Photo Essay by Eileen Kennedy
Philadelphia attorney Robert Heim quickly scanned the list of partners eligible for election to his law firm’s policy committee, hunting for his name. He enjoyed this familiar ritual. Like so many other validations, the list confirmed his leadership at a firm where he made partner three decades ago. He took pride in having won election every year in which he was eligible. But this year would be different. There it was in black and white: ineligible.
At age 64, he could no longer complete a two-year term because committee members had to be younger than 65. He had supported the age cutoff every time the issue had come up. Now that it applied to him, the policy stung.
“It was the first time in my life that I was ever too old for something,” he recalls. “It made me start to think, ‘I’m in the traditional retirement zone without having spent even one day thinking about it.’ ”
That unsettling moment nearly three years ago set the silver-haired litigator on a path familiar to hundreds of thousands of baby boomers nearing retirement. For him and others, the notion of being too old is unexplored territory. Who was he if he was no longer a litigator at the peak of his game? He didn’t feel old. Yet he began to wonder whether it was high time he considered moving on, if there were other things he wanted to do with his life than practice law.
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“Should I be thinking of this?” he asked his wife, Eileen Kennedy, when he got home that evening. “Should we be thinking of this?”
The answer is an emphatic yes. More than one-quarter million lawyers are 55 years or older, according to American Bar Foundation statistics. And, ready or not, they are approaching one of the biggest transitions of their lives.
Common wisdom held that after marching through their formative decades to a different drummer, boomers would approach retirement differently. Rather than slowing down or settling into a life of leisure, they would step with renewed energy into new pursuits. Many would launch sequel careers.
Then along came the worst recession of their lifetimes and, with it, increased financial insecurity. Reinvention is no longer merely desirable. For many, “it’s an imperative,” says Mark Miller, author of the nationally syndicated column “Retire Smart” and an upcoming book, The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security.
After focusing, heads down, on building careers and raising families, they are looking up, startled to find there is no road map for what lies ahead. They are facing limits, tempering ambition, reaching back to youthful ideals and values while moving toward a new stage.
“Many don’t have a clue how to pull this off,” Miller says. “This is a very profound life change, every bit as important as a first job, marriage, kids. It’s a pivotal change, and whatever the pivot is will likely be the trajectory they’re on for 20 years or more.”
Retired Chicago litigator David Melton, 58, sums it up: “I do have a sense that I’m at a dividing line in my life, heading off in a new direction. [But] I haven’t figured out what that is yet.”
Polls show that a majority of baby boomers intend to keep working and earning in retirement, and lawyers are no exception. Sixty-one percent of attorneys surveyed by legal consultants Altman Weil in late 2007 said they would continue to work in some capacity. Forty-eight percent of those who would keep working planned to con tinue practicing law.
Many desire work that combines income with meaning and social impact. Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes personal and social renewal in the second half of life, coined the term “encore career” to describe this increasingly popular choice.
But there is no well-marked path to active retirement. Rather, many lawyers find their way gradually, in a series of epiphanies starting late in their career.
When John Sherman of Brookline, Mass., took the Myers-Briggs personality test 20 years ago, the test typed him as well-suited for his corporate legal work. “It showed I had a certain edge that was typical of somebody who was a litigator and hard-driving,” he recalls.
Now 63, a father of two grown daughters and retired from a deputy general counsel position at National Grid, a global utility where he worked for 30 years, he took the test again and discovered that he has mellowed. “Some of that edge had worn off.”
He had never been comfortable with personal injury cases, and one case a few years before his retirement affected him deeply. It was a mediation that led to a settlement with the family of an employee who was killed in a workplace accident. He recalls looking across the table at the deceased man’s two young daughters, who were crying, and realizing it didn’t matter that National Grid had a terrific legal defense.
“I thought, ‘I’ve been around doing this stuff for 30 years, and what have I done to make the world a better place, to prevent accidents and stop suffering?” he says.
He had no idea what he would do next when he took a buyout in 2008, but he had already laid the groundwork. Several years earlier, National Grid participated in a project sponsored by the United Nations and 13 multinational corporations to find practical ways to respect and protect human rights in business operations. The project resonated.
“My boss told me, ‘I want you involved in this. We need an adult in the room to make sure we don’t make promises we can’t deliver,’ ” he recalls. “I got involved and became a convert. I found I had unique knowledge. I knew litigation, I was familiar with business ethics and it was all about risk management. I could speak the language of law and business, and learn human rights.”
These days, he bikes the 1½ miles to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he works pro bono as a senior fellow on the same project, helping to develop tools such as a computer-based application to help companies recognize human rights risks in various parts of their business.
He also mentors Kennedy School students, travels to world capitals to speak at legal forums, participates in peer reviews of human rights cases and collaborates on a project to define the cost of social conflicts. “It’s kind of a rich potpourri,” he says. “I’m never quite sure what I’m going to be doing from week to week.”
His family’s cat, too old to follow him up the stairs to his study, naps in the living room while he becomes so immersed in his work, his wife has to remind him to come down for dinner. One of the few vestiges of his corporate career is a bright-yellow hard hat in the trunk of his car, required whenever he visited company plants. Like his law books, some of which are hopelessly out of date, he’s not ready to get rid of it.
Sherman’s fear that retirement would leave him isolated proved unfounded. “I have a huge network of people, and I’ve got more than I can do interacting with them daily,” he says.
Retirement also has allowed him to come full circle to the intellectually and socially engaged man that his wife met in college, says his wife, Barbara, an interior designer for an architectural firm. “The human rights work absolutely caught his heart. He’s utterly engaged, his mind is always going. In many ways he’s not retired.”
A majority of workers 65 and older say the main reason they continue to work is to feel useful, and stay active and connected with others, according to a Pew Research Center study in late 2009. Yet income plays a role for nearly half, as 27 percent report they want to work but also need income, and 17 percent say they work mainly because they need the money.
Diversity consultant Carl Cooper never thought he would live long enough to see retirement or become rich enough to enjoy it. Growing up in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, the son of working-class parents and the only one of five children to go to college, he watched many of his elders die before reaching 65.
“People I knew who lived longer were poor,” says the 65-year-old. “You would work until you couldn’t work anymore, and then they put you in a nursing home.”
Cooper held many jobs over the years—including positions in government, academia and private practice—before being named chief diversity officer at K&L Gates in 2003.
He founded a diversity consulting practice in 2007 to advise bar associations and law firms on developing pipelines of minority talent. Business slowed when the recession hit, but he’s confident it will come back when the economy rebounds.
Even if Cooper could afford to quit working and maintain his comfortable lifestyle in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, with a getaway villa in Jamaica and a time-share in the Bahamas, he can’t imagine not working. “I would really feel guilty,” he says, quoting Shirley Chisholm: “Service is the rent you pay for room on this earth.”
He takes his computer, books and notes for articles he intends to write when he goes to Jamaica, but inevitably his 10-mile morning run flows smoothly into breakfast, then lunch without his having so much as thought about life beyond the moment. “Then literally after two weeks I’m ready to come back,” he says.
His hardest lesson after a lifetime of striving is learn ing how to stop aspiring to a higher status. “When you go into retirement you’re not stepping up, you’re not really stepping down; it’s like you step aside. Nobody talks about what you do when you step aside.
“People still seek you because you have expertise, and if you’re in good health you can still do things. [But] I’m not going to run for president. I’m sure I want to achieve things, but it’s not the kind of achievement aspirations I had five years ago.”
When he looks to the future, he envisions finding ways to link mentoring and teaching to his diversity consulting. Meantime, he seems to be getting the hang of “stepping aside.”
When a friend called recently to ask whether he’d be interested in joining a coaching venture on coping with stress, he thought for a moment before answering, “I don’t have a lot of stress in my life now.”
Like Cooper, Deborah Saxe broke societal barriers to get where she is, and she’s not ready to quit striving even though there’s not a lot left for her to achieve. She’s among the first generation of women to become partner at a major law firm and combine her demanding practice with raising children. The 60-year-old employment lawyer at Jones Day in Los Angeles routinely makes the top-lawyer lists such as the annual Super Law yer designation for her region.
Saxe was 41 when she took maternity leave for the birth of her first child, and she couldn’t wait to get back to work. “I cleaned my garage, I put 40 years of photos into albums—I really was bored,” she recalls. “With the second I pretty much worked straight through the maternity leave from home.”
Her consultant husband worked from home. She didn’t always agree with his child-rearing choices—she recalls arriving home from the office at midnight to find him dancing in the living room with their 1-year-old—but she knew her two daughters were well-cared for, and their family thrived. “We made it work,” she says.
As a newer lawyer she worked seven days a week, and only in the last decade has she cut back to six. She usually takes Saturdays off to spend with family and goes into the office on Sundays. The work, while no longer new, remains satisfying. “I feel fortunate to be working where I can be proud of what I’m doing every day,” she says.
A TIME FOR REFLECTION, RELAXATION
Sitting on the patio of her family’s home in the foothills north of Los Angeles, near a pot of orange-red geraniums that belonged to her late grandmother, she can see beyond her large garden to the San Gabriel Mountains. She wonders why her avocado tree looks sickly and how one harvests and pickles capers. “I like the idea of growing them. And if I had more time, I’d figure out how to actually eat those things rather than just look at them,” she says.
Unlike her husband, who retired at age 60, full-time retirement is years off for Saxe. But her idea of how she will get there is becoming more concrete. As a litigator, Saxe prides herself on winning. She’s lost only two cases of the dozen or so that have gone to jury trial, and one loss was reversed on appeal. But she’s discovered another side to her personality as a volunteer arbitrator and mediator.
“I like the opportunity to think about who’s right and who’s wrong from a fairly neutral position,” she says. “I do see both sides of most things. The role of neutral is more me, I think.”
Saxe envisions a phased retirement where she’ll work as an arbitrator and mediator, giving her more flexibility and time with family. “It’s not work as I know it,” she says. “It’s being independent and self-employed. I will do that as long as I can, maybe until I’m 70.
“It’s certainly where I’m going next,” she adds. “I look forward to it very much but I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel.”
David Melton, by contrast, had vastly different feelings about his legal career. He was a partner at several large firms in Chicago before retiring in 2008. Over his 32 years in practice, Melton often thought about doing something else, but the law provided a good living and, he says, the intellectual and political issues tied to his work held his interest enough to keep him going.
But the demands of his intellectual property litigation practice took their toll on Melton. As he neared retirement, the 12-hour-plus days demanded more than he could give, physically and mentally. One particularly complex case required so many late nights of preparation that he struggled to stay awake during the trial. “I tended to rationalize it, but it was embarrassing,” he says.
Melton felt too young to retire but too old to continue at the pace demanded of workhorse lawyers like him. “I recognized there was less and less room for me in big firms as I got older,” he says. “They’re looking for business generators. I’d used up my usefulness in a lot of ways.”
Now, several years into retirement, Melton has no regrets about his decision to retire while in his mid-50s without any other plans. “My mental image was that I’d practice until 60. I almost made it,” Melton says rather matter-of-factly, while sitting in the sunny living room of his 140-year-old house in a historic district of Evanston, just north of Chicago.
Melton’s wife, Nancy Segal, retired at age 50 in 2004 from an administrative career in the federal government and started a management training and consulting firm for federal agencies that also does outplacement coaching for employees. Her business has thrived, giving Melton time to breathe.
He plans on going back to school to explore certification to teach math and history in a public high school. “It would give me an excuse to take some courses I’m curious about,” he says.
Meanwhile, Melton says stepping off the treadmill has given him time to reflect, to read, and to be a better husband and father (he has two daughters). “I always had the excuse before: ‘I don’t have time or energy because I have to pour it into this job in order to succeed.’ ”
WHERE HE WANTS TO BE
At 67, Heim still believes the law is his perfect calling. He continues to practice at Dechert, where he started his career. “Law is so much a part of me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let loose of it,” he says.
As a boy, the stories of early American lawyers such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster excited him. “The idea of law as something that bound society together—maybe part of it was living in Philadelphia—all those things came alive for me,” he says.
Sitting recently with 10 lawyers on an advisory committee to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, listening to the discussion and savoring the moment, he felt he absolutely is where he belongs.
Still, there are aspects of work he doesn’t like, like staying up past midnight to prepare for a hearing. “I wish there were a way to put all that into my head without having to read it all,” he says. “But then when I stand up in court it’s still like the first day. When it comes time to say, ‘May it please the court’—that excitement has never gone away.”
He’s considered starting a mediation practice, but unlike Saxe, who looks forward unreservedly to her transition, he wonders whether he would miss the competitive aspects of being an advocate.
Heim’s wife, a former tax lawyer turned professional photographer, is exploring his stage of life in a series of photographs titled “Beyond Success.” She captures his dilemma with a quote by Tennessee Williams: “There is a time for departure even when there is no certain place to go.”
To be sure, Heim has destinations in mind: spending more time with his grandchildren, boating at his vacation home in Maine, championing judicial reform and working on behalf of the Free Library of Philadelphia. But he’s not convinced any of that would be sufficient to replace what he would give up if he were to leave Dechert.
His collaboration on the photo project, which will become a book, helped Kennedy understand “just how big a thing it would be if he gave it up,” she says. Her photographs attempt to capture what it’s like to be poised between “loss and possibility,” she says. “You’re so into it, the mastery that it’s taken so long to achieve, it’s still hard to see what could be there.”
For now, Heim lingers between the familiar and everything that lies beyond. “Every time I set a timetable for a decision,” he says, “I move it.”
See these websites and books for those considering retirement.
Second Season of Service
The American Bar Association offers help for lawyers who are leaving full-time practice and want to stay active and committed to their communities. Volunteer opportunities and resources are available through the Second Season of Service, which was launched in 2007 by then-ABA President Karen Mathis.
Barbara Rose is a freelance journalist in Chicago.