A funny thing happened on the way to my retirement
It dawned on me that although the law is indeed a jealous mistress, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story famously said, it also is flexible, and retirement doesn’t have to be abrupt. After much consideration, I realized I didn’t have to quit the law “cold turkey.” In fact, lawyers can retire in stages, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
My attorney friend Ron Taylor, the former general counsel of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Texas, once advised me not to retire from something “unless you have something to retire to.” That struck me as a truth, and I am fortunate to have other passions to pursue; for you see, my mistress, the law, gave me the freedom to develop them without totally giving her up.
While many senior lawyers are resting on their laurels and leaving the legal profession, I’m still going strong after more than 41 years of practice as a civil defense lawyer, defending companies in mass casualty high-exposure cases. As I approached my 65th birthday last year, I struggled mightily with how to end my 41-plus year romance (43 including law school) with the law and the law firm, Wilson Elser, I have loved for 30 of those years.
In considering my retirement strategy of retiring in stages, I reflected on my career to identify and prioritize them. As co-founder of the Dallas office in May 1992 and its managing partner for 28 years, I grew the office from four to more than 50 lawyers, served as the regional managing partner for the Southern and Southwestern regions at different times, served as an executive committee member for some 20 years, and the lateral hiring partner for a dozen years, helping to open many offices and bring in talent across the firm. So, I certainly have sufficient laurels upon which to rest.
I decided that the first stage would be to retire from firm management, so I stepped down from my roles as regional managing partner of the Dallas office and Southwest region and unwound from firm administration. I then decided that my next stage was to give up my equity partnership, becoming a senior counsel, beginning this year. This allows me to assist in my own transition and be a mentor to my successors. In other words, I can be a resource available to them for advice and counsel. At the same time, it allows me to rebalance my own life, enabling greater flexibility to do those things that I had long postponed, such as spending more time with my family as well as traveling, speaking and writing.
At this point in my career, I also want to give back—and not just by allowing other deserving talent to move up in their own careers. It also is about giving back to the community I have served for so long by actively becoming involved in nonprofits primarily involved in giving financial resources and scholarships to send deserving high school students to college—among other things.
Other possibilities open up
Suddenly, freed from administrative and management burdens, other avenues opened to me such as writing and speaking about areas of legal interest to clients and prospective clients of the firm, including how to handle a billion-dollar bet-the-company case; crisis management of a mass casualty event; COVID-19 and jury trials; infrastructure issues; and the role of AI in risk management. I was also asked to be co-chair of the firm’s National Trial Team to mentor young trial lawyers in the firm. Heady stuff!
I was able to put my 41-plus years of experience, skills and abilities to good use in a new and meaningful way. I even have developed a new business niche in monitoring catastrophic high-exposure mass casualty cases for my clients. So I am retiring in stages but continuing to evolve as a lawyer; doing things I love and about which I am passionate. Retiring in stages doesn’t mean stepping out of law; to the contrary, it means stepping into something else that I’m thriving at—and so can you.
Retirement as a misnomer
When considering retirement, you can stage and prolong and enhance your career in the process, but to do so, you must first understand that in some ways, retirement for lawyers is a misnomer. It can perhaps better be framed as, “What do you want the next stage of your career to look like?” Retirement is an intensely personal matter, and the answer to this question depends on your interests inside and outside the law and what you want to do now.
At the core of this process is the ability to allow yourself to step back from what you were doing before in order to make more time for other things, such as your outside interests and hobbies. This is an opportunity to rebalance your life and to give you more time to do things outside the law while extending your career inside the profession. Work less at what you were doing before and do more of what you are passionate about. In other words, mix them up to suit your new reality. This can and should be a win-win situation.
Take your own deposition to gain clarity
Where do you begin? I took a novel approach—I took my own deposition! As a trial lawyer I’d taken thousands of depositions in my career but never one sitting across the table from myself. Lawyers are great at asking questions—after all we are trained in the Socratic method—so why not make a little exercise of taking our own depositions regarding this important decision? The goal is to “know thyself” and what thyself wants to do next.
Questions to ponder:
- • How much longer do you want to work?
- • Do you have any unfinished goals or projects you’d like to complete?
- • What alternate legal work matches your skills and abilities, such as alternative dispute resolution?
- • What legal topics interest you that you’d like to know more about?
- • What bar activities would you like to pursue?
- • Are there any pro bono projects that interest you?
- • Would you like to teach law students?
- • How about that book you were going to write inspired by your legal experience handling cases and closing deals?
There’s an incredible wealth of possibilities.
In cross-examining ourselves, we can arrive at clarity as to what comes next. You’ve given most of your life to the law, so put your experience to work for you. Make a plan based on your answers to your own personal deposition and follow it into your transition.
Execute your plan
Consider alternate legal work based in your own experience to enhance your firm’s and your own personal reputation at the same time. Consider developing complementary but alternate forms of legal work. I was able to put considerable trial experience to work as monitoring counsel for companies and insurance carriers, for example. This allows me to stay in traditional law practice without quitting altogether. Had I fully retired at the end of last year, I would have missed these opportunities. It also would be a shame to just let your own experience go to waste. Harness it.
Transition from a full-time traditional law practice and mold it into a practice that gives you less stress and more personal rewards. In making your transition plan, indulge your legal fantasies and make them a reality.
You’ll be a lot happier and fulfilled, and you can extend your career in the process. Then, when you’re ready, you can make a graceful exit. Like me, you may be very pleasantly surprised at what comes next.
Stratton Horres is senior counsel at Wilson Elser in its complex tort and general casualty practice. He focuses on crisis management and catastrophic high-exposure cases. Horres is also co-chair of Wilson Elser’s national trial team. He is based in the firm’s Dallas office. His email is [email protected].
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