The aging lawyer: how to redefine a life in the law

Matthew J. Marcus and Alex L. Moschella, BridgeTower Media Newswires

We met in the early ’90s, as student and adjunct faculty member at Suffolk University Law School. A few years later we became colleagues, for five years, as sole practitioner and associate at a law firm specializing in elder law.

We recently were reunited, after 20 years, and are now working together as partner and senior counsel. As we each turned 50 and 70, respectively, our lives in private practice have intersected once again. The questions raised and lessons learned as we aged may prove of value to our colleagues.

As lawyers, we can choose to be “lawyers for life,” absent major medical conditions affecting judgment and mobility. Those of us in private practice can practice law as long as we choose.

At what stage should we begin to redefine a life in the law and consider the question: Are we truly lawyers for life? A colleague may have summed it up best when that person said, “I am an attorney. That’s my identity. That is what I see when I look in the mirror. That’s not something I want to ditch.”

As lawyers in private practice, we epitomize the independent “solo practitioner mentality.” We started our own businesses and built a client base and contacts over many years. The competitive mentality “you eat what you kill” still drives us on many levels.

In the field of elder law, our business is totally transactional. One satisfied client creates a potential referral source, building the foundation of our practice one client at a time. We essentially make our own hours and answer only to our clients.

We also must deal with the substantial stress that comes with running one’s own show. We are fiercely independent and reluctant to give up control of a business that took a lifetime to establish. We fear being isolated and obsolete in a profession that is changing dramatically, with most courtrooms filled with judges whose names we do not know. We find many of our contacts and clients are dwindling.

Bottom line: We don’t want to lose our “fastball” and are reluctant to admit that we — as well as our life in the law — are changing.

Can we control the end game?

As “counselors,” people come to us for advice and help, especially in elder law when our clients and their families are facing a health crisis.

How do we retain that unique sense of fulfillment from these relationships if we retire? We want to remain lawyers as long as we can, which can be healthy and helps promote active aging, the most healthy form of aging.

It’s estimated that lawyers are most productive between the ages of 45 to 65, in terms of professional development, income and work capacity in their practices. We face no mandatory retirement age — unlike judges and other professionals, or attorneys at large firms who often face pressure to retire or assume a diminished role at a defined age.

We continue to love what we do and want to stay as relevant as possible, but dislike many aspects of the business. So, can we control the end game when we have a love-hate relationship with our profession?

Elder law attorneys have a front row view of aging every day and understand that chronological age means little when compared to the impact of early onset Alzheimer’s, dementia and other neurological-related diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Lewy body. The loss of a spouse or other major health-related issues are significant life-changing events that can lead to depression or social isolation.

We see our own health and aging through the heroic struggles of our clients and the families we are privileged to represent. Our purview helps us understand the meaning of good health and family, friends and relationships. We witness the death of colleagues, friends, family and our clients, which makes self-examination more relevant.

Our up-close experience with our clients shapes our views on aging on both a personal and professional level. Our clients seek our counsel on asset protection planning in which giving up control to irrevocable trusts is central to the discussion. Yet we are reluctant to give up control in any aspect of our professional lives. We are lawyers for life.

What is senescence aging?

Chronological and “senescence aging” (the gradual deterioration of function) are often at odds. At 50, the urge to grow, expand and build for the future is clear and present. At 70, the elastic band does not snap back as fast, and the question of ability and desire to produce and the concept of lawyer for life take center stage.

If you ask a lawyer who is 60-plus how long he will continue to practice, the answer is inevitably mixed. We don’t want to face the inevitable questions about when and how we will stop practicing law.

Many legends of our profession are still going strong into their 80s. The level of engagement and challenge to stay physically and mentally healthy reflects positive aging of the highest degree. They certainly are lawyers for life.

We suggest that it may be far healthier to change the dynamic. We need to go deep inside ourselves far earlier to examine what is important as we age in our profession.

At what age should we seriously deal with these issues? The lens of the 50-year-old lawyer versus the 70-year-old offers a contrasting view with far more intersecting points than appear at first glance.

How and when to merge a practice may create areas of opportunity; how and when to reduce hours and slow the pace of a hectic practice may be questions to examine earlier rather than later.

Are the practice and business goals the same as one transitions a practice, or downsizes and cuts back? As we age, simplicity and less clutter in all aspects of life warrants careful reflection.

How do we redefine retirement?

Let’s face it, few of us are eager to check the inactive box on our BBO application. But at some point we all must plan for the future, honestly assess the value of our practice, and come to the realization that our billings, client base and productivity will decrease.

Most attorneys vastly overstate the monetary value of their practices to a potential buyer. In most situations, the value of a lawyer’s practice is nominal if not nonexistent. Few lawyers would be willing to purchase the business. That, unfortunately, is the reality we all must face.

What are the most stressful and unfulfilling aspects of practicing law for the aging lawyer? Is it lack of time to pursue other interests? Hassles of managing a practice? Client demands?

How do we get rid of the negative factors facing the aging lawyer’s practice? There is no shortage of self-help books, life coaches, management consultants, and other resources on exit strategies and retirement planning.

The greatest obstacle is often us. A generational mindset is helpful to explore, since the milestones of turning 50 or 70 should serve to rejuvenate these discussions. Exit plans can be built around innovative “senior counsel” or “of counsel” roles, or merging practices if core issues of compatibility, trust and integrity are in place.

There is a tendency for lawyers to pursue “non-equity” opportunities, such as contract partners, senior associate or senior counsel roles if the concept of “free agency” is an option.

Opportunities for new relationship-building, sharing and transferring of skills and referral sources as well as sharing office space or developing virtual turnkey space in a satellite office abound, as well as home office options.  How much staff support, if any, is needed is also critical to determine.

These arrangements do not require elaborate legal agreements, but should simply address the financial structure based on fee-sharing and origination fees. The important thing is to maintain an open mindset to change, and redefine our identity as lawyer for life.

What is important to the aging lawyer? Willingness to engage in such self-analysis earlier than later is critical. Winding down a practice does not have to be a crisis situation or overwhelming. A gradual reduction of time from a four-day week to three-fifths, then half-time over a three- to five-year period cushions the adjustment process and change in routine.

Have you talked to spouse or family yet?

The 50-year-old is soon the 60-year-old, as is the 60-year-old soon the 70-year-old. It is better to fade off into the sunset gradually so that retirement and letting go does not lead to depression, regret or remorse.

Those aging well are those active in all life challenges and opportunities. We suggest a model of maximum engagement with life regardless of age, especially those aspects of practicing law that are the most fulfilling.

Strategies to disengage as a lawyer do not have to mean giving up our sense of identity and purposeful work. Our unique skills are transferable to many worthy community activities as well as purposeful time with family and friends, and travel and leisure time.

A new way to transition and cut back to reduced hours and shed years of files and papers can lead to peace of mind. Simplifying and downsizing in general is a healthy process.

What is your exit plan?

Ask the aging lawyer if he has an exit plan and the answer most likely will be “no.” Ask the aging lawyer if he feels peace of mind relative to his own estate/long-term care planning and retirement planning and once again the answer most likely is “no.”

The best place to start is the deep examination of the lawyer for life inside all of us. Try discussing the concept with your 50- and 60-year-old colleagues and see what happens. Talk to others who have changed firms and find out about the various models that are negotiated. Many practitioners do not have associates or interested parties ready to take over their practices and give a founding partner a percentage or buyout plan.

If you feel trapped in your own practice or feel like you are losing control, take some small steps to redefine what is important to you.

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Matthew J. Marcus is a partner at Colucci, Colucci, Marcus & Flavin in Milton. He can be contacted at mjm@coluccilaw.com. Alex L. Moschella is senior counsel to the firm and is based in Woburn. He can be contacted at alm@coluccilaw.com. He is a past president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

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