Lawyer who 'flunked retirement' returns to former firm, will try not to work as hard

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At first, when he retired in 2011 after decades in practice, James E. “Jim” McMahon told friends he didn’t miss his work at all.

But within a year the truth was apparent. “I flunked. I just flunked retirement,” the 62-year-old South Dakota lawyer told the Argus Leader.

Fortunately, he was able to go back to work as counsel to his old firm, Murphy, Goldammer & Prendergast, in Sioux Falls last month. However, the former U.S. Attorney is trying not to work as hard as he did before his “retirement” as he jumps back into litigation and helps others with their cases at the seven-attorney firm.

Like a number of other lawyers, McMahon doesn’t find it easy to turn down a good lawsuit. “A lot of times it’s hard to say no,” he tells the ABA Journal. But this time around, he says: “I’m going to practice saying no and just referring them to somebody else.”

McMahon, an avid hunter and fisherman, enjoys outdoor photography and does some farming, both for himself and for friends. He and his wife also enjoy traveling to visit their three children.

So he had plenty to do in retirement, and “when I first retired,” he says, “I thought, ‘This is wonderful. I get to do all the things you want to do and don’t have time to do.’ ” Eventually, though, such activities became “not quite as special” when he could routinely spend time on them. And, McMahon found, he missed the intellectual challenge of working with other attorneys.

One advantage of practicing in South Dakota is that collegiality is the norm, McMahon notes. “It’s a contested case all of the time, but it’s usually civil the way that we do it. You do the best for your client, but you do it in a civil way, and we all remain friends. I missed that interaction.”

Asked if he had any advice for those just starting out in a legal career, he said that today’s “amazing” technology can be both useful and overwhelming.

In addition to looking for case law online and organizing PowerPoint presentations, an attorney should “take some time to shut off the technology and just think about your case and analyze it,” McMahon suggested. By “thinking through those different scenarios” about what could happen, depending on how things develop in the case, “you figure out how you’re going to present your case and what can go wrong.”

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