The victory lap: Why I still go to the office after retirement
These days, a lot of what is written about law practice is negative.
“The practice of law has become the business of law.”
“Lawyers don’t command the respect they once did.”
“The firm regards the hours of my life as inventory.”
BigLaw firms are especially easy targets.
I want to focus on something positive about the profession.
Half a century ago, I joined the major firm where I was to spend the lion’s share of my career. But my first experience at a law firm was when I clerked for a Wall Street firm during the summer before my third year of law school.
Even before my first day, I knew some lawyers were associates and some were partners. For the most part, it was easy to distinguish between the two. Age and office size were usually dead giveaways.
But there was a third category of lawyers that I hadn’t been aware of: a few older men (yes, all were male) who generally arrived later and departed earlier than the other lawyers. Compared to associates and partners, they radiated an enviable aura of unhurried calm.
They were called of counsel. I was puzzled by the term. “Counsel” was easy to understand, but why the “of”? Fifty-plus years later, I remain mystified by the preposition.
Today the term “of counsel” has no precise definition, covering a wide range of relationships between a law firm and a lawyer. ABA Formal Opinion 90-357 states only that there is a “close, regular, personal relationship” between the firm and the lawyer.
But in the firm where I clerked that summer, there was no ambiguity. The of counsel were, without exception, retired partners. Although retired, they occupied their own offices (usually less desirable than in pre-retirement) and had access to firm resources. Chief among those resources was secretarial support. This was, after all, decades before the revelation that men can type.
I had no idea what they did, but I was impressed that although they were retired, they chose to suit up and arrive at the firm every weekday. I was also impressed by the firm’s loyalty to its former partners—even more so by the legal profession itself as I learned that it was not uncommon, at least among larger firms, to offer such an arrangement. I knew of no other profession that did so in such a significant way, and I still don’t today.
Now retired, I have the same arrangement with my firm, albeit with the straightforward title “retired partner” rather than “of counsel.” Like those older men I observed in 1970, each weekday I suit up, report to my small office and spend a few hours at my desk.
What do I do? The answer is easy: whatever I want. For me, that means writing. I write for various publications, most of them law-related; serve on the editorial advisory boards of bar association publications; write monthly columns for two publications; and, proving that an old dog can learn a new trick, record a monthly podcast for another professional organization.
Irony of ironies, in retirement I’m more active in professional organizations than when I was still practicing! But I couldn’t do so without the support of my firm. True, I could think and write in my home study, and I could buy my own recording equipment. But I wouldn’t have access to the dozens of publications I review each day, in search of information and ideas to write about. And how could I survive without the help desk?
But the main reason I prefer to do my writing at the firm is that it’s what I’ve become accustomed to over the span of 50 years. I like the discipline of reporting to the office each morning, working without the distraction of a nearby television or my bulldog, Albert, and narrowly focusing on whatever I’m writing at the moment.
I’ve also become accustomed to the ambiance of the law firm: the orderliness, the relative formality and the restrained comradery of lawyers and staff. I didn’t fully appreciate that factor until the coronavirus pandemic closed our offices from March to July 2020. True, I was able to do my writing and podcasts from home, but it wasn’t the same. Frankly, even now that the offices have reopened, it’s not quite the same, because most of our lawyers and staff still choose to work from home.
As for why I devote several hours a day to writing, that answer is also easy: I enjoy it. For me, writing was always the best part of practicing law. These days, when my time is my own, that’s how I choose to spend it. (By the way, I believe that my wife enjoys my mornings at the office as much as I do.)
I know that many, perhaps most, lawyers reaching retirement have no interest whatever in continuing to report to the office. Many may have abandoned office practice long before reaching retirement. Indeed, the very concept of the traditional office—a central physical location from which the lawyers in a firm gather to conduct law practice—may be doomed. I hope not.
My unsolicited advice, nevertheless, is that if your firm offers the opportunity to maintain an office after retirement, give it serious consideration. If the offer is to maintain a virtual relationship, consider that, too.
Think of post-retirement with the firm as I do: the victory lap. As you arrive or log in each day, say to yourself in the words of 2 Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Norm Tabler is a retired lawyer in Indianapolis, where his practice focused on health law. He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the ABA Health Law Section’s The Health Lawyer, the ABA Senior Lawyers Division’s Voice of Experience e-newsletter (for which he writes the column “Adventures in the Law”), and the Indiana State Bar Association’s Res Gestae (for which he writes the column “Annals of the Law”). He writes and records a monthly podcast,The Lighter Side of Health Law, for the American Health Law Association’s Health Law Weekly.
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