Commentary: Do attorneys really retire when they retire?

The time to plan your post-practice relevance is now.

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  • | 5:20 a.m. January 2, 2020
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Why don’t lawyers in private practice retire? Is it because they just love what they do?
Why don’t lawyers in private practice retire? Is it because they just love what they do?
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Michelle Bedoya Barnett, JBA president-elect
Michelle Bedoya Barnett, JBA president-elect

By Michelle Bedoya Barnett, JBA president-elect

When was the last time you attended a lawyer’s retirement party?

I have attended lots of birthday parties, celebratory dinners and other gatherings for lawyers in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s, but I have attended only one retirement party and I can attest that the lawyer wasn’t really retired.

With the talk of lawyer mental health and the stress of the profession, you would expect people to be retiring in droves. I haven’t reviewed any empirical data, but I am litigating against someone well into their 70s and have litigated against a lawyer in his 80s. I also regularly work with mediators in their 70s and 80s.

I think it begs the question: Why don’t lawyers in private practice retire? Is it because we just love what we do?

Is it because we’d like to stay happily married? Is it because we haven’t saved enough money to retire?

Is it because we’ve never stopped the hamster wheel long enough to figure out what we would do in retirement and how we would spend our time? Is it because we as lawyers have the need to feel relevant and practicing law fills that need?

In a previous Bar Bulletin, I wrote about taking a sabbatical and the joy and stress of planning for it. I’m happy to report that my sabbatical was awesome, wonderful, healthy and more necessary than I ever imagined. I ran out of time and am already looking forward to my next sabbatical.

It also gave me the tiniest glimpse into retirement. I liked it. In fact, I loved it. I was still a lawyer while on sabbatical and lawyered in many ways, but I wasn’t billing time or responding to clients. I took care of myself during this season.

Despite being middle-age and still having some time until retirement, it is a subject I have been thinking about a lot. I want to make sure that when the time comes, I am ready.

I suggest that there are two main reasons why lawyers don’t retire: First, they can’t afford to do so. Second, they need to feel relevant.

Regardless of your age, the time to start planning financially for retirement and the time to start managing your relevance is now. My involvement in the Jacksonville Bar Association has very much nurtured my need to feel relevant over the years. I’ve received great personal satisfaction in planning events, providing input and participating in service projects.

There are so many ways to be involved in our profession and in our community that do not involve the traditional practice of law.

Some of us coach our kids’ ball teams, others serve on nonprofit boards. Others participate in prison ministries or are active in their places of worship.

Some of these opportunities evaporate as our kids grow older or as we progress in life, yet other opportunities come along. Whether it’s through the JBA or elsewhere, we as lawyers have so much to offer our community. We are relevant.  

How will you set yourself up so that you feel relevant in retirement? The people that I know outside of our profession who are retired and happy have found a way to reinvent themselves and remain relevant.

They are teaching, they are giving, they are remodeling, they are growing and they are continuing to learn. Travel, reading, golfing, cooking and gardening might help fill our time.

I challenge you to start thinking about what you will you do to not only stay busy during retirement, but to stay relevant.

Michelle Bedoya Barnett is a founding partner of Alexander DeGance Barnett P.A. focusing on labor and employment law.



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