In fear of retirement
Updated: 4 days ago
Last week I published an article on Partner Retirement. This seems to have struck a nerve and triggered a lot of response. Since I had already planned to write an article on the emotional aspects of partner retirement, due to popular demand, I have decided to pull that forward. So here you have it, a glossary of emotional considerations for partners who are facing retirement from their law firm.
1. I am too young to retire
Depending on the law firm, partners may have to retire as early as their late fifties. Partners at that age bracket are still relatively young and will likely have some forty years or so ahead of them. Being asked to retire feels like a disqualification and is a harsh confrontation with one’s own mortality. Up till the moment of retirement life seems endless. Retirement signals that one has entered the last stretch of the education-working-retirement divide. For most partners retirement just does not feel right. They feel way too young to retire.
2. I don’t know what to do next
Most partners who are close to retirement have been with their firm for over 30 years. Many have even never worked anywhere else. Being a partner is typically an all absorbing high stress occupation. Once retirement comes in sight, partners often have no idea of what to do next. Most certainly do not what to sit at home staring out the window for the rest of their lives. They want to remain relevant and contribute to society. Many partners dream of being appointed to the boards of companies. Reality is that this is not going to happen for 95% of them. So if not board member, then what else can they do? Many partners do not have hobbies or interests. Lack of perceived alternative options make that they will try to hang on to their practice for as long as possible.
3. I need the money
Partners at law firms make a lot of money and many have the lifestyle to reflect. Despite the high income, you might be surprised by the percentage of partners that is not financially independent by the date of their scheduled retirement. One does not need to be an actuary to calculate that it takes a lot of money to maintain a wealthy lifestyle for forty years or more without a steady flow of income. A surprisingly high number of lawyers still burns through too much money during their active career, while saving too little for later on. On top of this there are those who went through a costly divorce, taking a huge chunk out of their savings. Whatever the reason, part of the partners who are facing retirement just need the money.
4. My wife does not want me home
I am taking the male partner perspective here, as the overwhelming majority of partners retiring today are male, reflecting the lack of gender diversity back in the days. The partners who are in their late fifties/early sixties today have basically spent most of their time at the firm working on client matters. I literally know a partner who, when his wife visited the office to show their first born son to his colleagues and his team, accompanied her home after the visit with the pram filled with dossiers and she having to carry the baby. The practice came first, family often came second.
With their husbands spending so much time away from home, no wonder these wives have developed a life of their own. A life with lots of freedom and things to do, can be brutally disrupted if the husband is suddenly at home 24/7 and starts to interfere. Matrimonial tensions do arise after decades of stable marriage if the status quo gets disrupted.
5. I do not have any friends
Having spent 30 years or so practicing at the same firm, most of the people you know will be business related. They are either colleagues or clients. This whole network will fall away overnight after the moment of retirement. This can be hard on partners, all their cherished relations turn out to be just business related. People valued you, not per se because of who you are, but because of what you represented. Believe it or not, but I do personally know lawyers who get sort of emotional when they pass a building belonging to a former client where they have been in board meetings on a frequent basis, and have now, after retirement, no ‘ticket’ to enter anymore. Once an insider, now an outsider. There could hardly be a stronger signifier that life has gone on and you are not needed anymore. Partners can be lonely after retirement. Lonely and feeling ‘useless’.
6. I fear losing my edge
Of all the emotional considerations regarding retirement, for me this is the most serious. While working in their practice partners need to be top-performers. Working permanently on the top of your abilities puts the brain in a ‘state of excellence’. Turbo performance if you may. This supercharged intellect is what makes the top-partners so special. They have unparalleled analytical skills, they are razor sharp. They are inspiring to hang around with.
You have seen what happens to Olympic athletes, world champions and professional sports players. After their career has ended they often grow old and fat, much faster than anyone would expect. The same is – mentally – true for lawyers. I have seen it happen, more than once. When a partner does not use his brainpower in supercharged mode anymore, part of that brainpower just disappears. The brilliance fades away, and the person is not special or inspiring anymore. This is what I would personally fear the most.
There is a limit to the length of these articles. The six emotional considerations regarding retirement are absolutely not exhaustive. There are many others that are also relevant to consider. Not all partners are subject to all these fears. And, yes, there are partners who happily go into retirement without any fear or any regret. This article is not for them. It is for those who resent retiring from the firm. As outlined in last week’s article, retirement of a partner is merely a contractual event. It has nothing to do with judging the partner as a person.