In a survey that it acknowledges is unscientific, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly asked subscribers "When do you foresee yourself retiring from the practice of law?" More than a third responded that they would work at least part-time "until I literally no longer can." Almost a quarter plan to retire between ages 70 and 80. A quarter will retire between 65 and 70 and the smallest group, 16 percent, plan to retire before age 65.To paraphrase the saying about soldiers, "old lawyers never die, they simply fade away." Why do almost 60 percent of the attorneys who responded plan to work past age 70 and what does it mean for you, the client? There are many reasons for a later retirement and any particular attorney may be planning to keep working at least part-time for a combination of them. They include:
- Not being able to afford to retire. With few attorneys having generous pensions and the possibility that they or their spouse may live to 100, they (like most other workers today) need to have a significant amount of money saved to make sure that they don't outlive their nest egg. Some lawyers make so much money that retirement at age 65 or earlier is not an economic issue, but for most lawyers and non-lawyers it is. The later anyone retires, the less money they need saved up because there will be fewer years of not working to finance.
- Really liking what they're doing. While some lawyers either don't like the work or are ready to move on after several decades of practice, many relish the intellectual challenge and social involvement inherent in any law practice. They can't foresee any other activity being as rewarding.
- The absence of other interests. Some attorneys can't think of any other equally fulfilling activity because they have no other fulfilling activities. Just playing golf every day could get pretty boring.
- Having the option of continuing to work. While many of the reasons some lawyers keep working until they drop could apply to anyone, the fact that many attorneys own their own businesses either as solo practitioners or as part of small firms means that there's no forced retirement. They can keep working for as long as they like.
- And the flexibility to work part-time. Many lawyers don't stop working but do cut back, coming in to the office fewer days a week, getting home for dinner, and escaping northeast winters. To some extent this happens organically. As their referral sources and clients age with them, their sources of business may begin to decline, reducing the lawyer's workload just as she prefers to work less. Again, being the owner of the shop can permit the lawyer to create his or her own work schedule.
- Wanting to continue to contribute.There are a lot of ways to make a difference, whether working or volunteering, but certainly continuing to provide needed service and counsel to clients is one. Some lawyers use their many years of experience continuing to practice while others provide pro bono representation, often doing what motivated them to go to law school in the first place before they were detoured by the need to make a living.
- Needing to maintain a professional identity. In addition to providing income and a sense of purpose, jobs also provide status. Some people (people who become lawyers?) feel the need for this more than others. They may cling to their role as an attorney in order not to feel like a "has been" and maintain their sense of importance in the world.
So, why does any of this matter to you as the client? On the up side, it can mean continuity if your lawyer stays on the job for a long time. On the down side, it can mean that he stays on the job too long and loses some acuity over time or fails to keep up in changes in the law or its practice.
More likely, the problem will be that your lawyer will have no exit or succession plan. This can mean that one day he's no longer there when you call for advice or need your estate planning documents. He may have retired, become ill, or faded away with no forwarding contact information. While it may be uncomfortable to ask, as a client you have the right to know what will happen if your lawyer stops practicing. If she's part of a firm, there's probably back-up. But every solo practitioner needs to have a plan in place to take care of clients and client files in the event the she can no longer practice, whether due to an emergency or a planned retirement. Don't be afraid to ask.