October 4, 2015

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I: The Interviews: Kevin Rhodes—Exit Strategies Galore

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the fourth part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for the introduction,click here for an interview with Kyle Velte, click here for an interview with Roxanne Jensen, and stay tuned for more interviews.

Sandgrund-RhodesBy Ronald M. Sandgrund, Esq., InQ.

InQ.: Kevin, how old were you when you first felt that practicing law was what you wanted do as a career?

Kevin: When I was 31, I entered my final year of a JD/MBA program. I had this idea I wouldn’t practice law, but that I would use the joint degree in business. However, the market for newly minted MBAs had dried up, while the market for new lawyer hires was robust, so I took the path of least resistance and joined a law firm. I was about 32 when I first felt that practicing law was the career for me. I practiced law full-time for twenty-two years, and I had a hand in it for another six years after that—once a lawyer always a lawyer.

InQ.: How old were you when you first gave serious thought to how to exit the full-time practice of law?

Kevin: I’ve made three exits from the practice.

InQ.: Three! Many people don’t have the time or energy for even one. Tell me more.

Kevin: The first was a little over a year after I started, at age 33. The work was new and intellectually stimulating, but the realities of law firm life were a shock. At the time, I also felt tugged-at by a religious renewal experience. All this was personally disorienting. I needed space, so I quit. During the following year, I drifted for a few months, and then took a job as a road warrior management consultant with a Big 4 accounting firm. I was hired to work in corporate finance, but that market vanished with the crash of 1987, and I was shifted to accounting projects I knew nothing about and had no interest in. At the end of the year, I really couldn’t think of what else to do, so I hung out my shingle.

The second exit was eight years later, at age 40. I’d spent the years since my initial exit first as a solo, then with a large firm, and then back as a solo. This time, I left to respond to what I considered to be a call into the ministry. I transferred the practice to another lawyer. A year-and-a-half later, it was obvious ministry wasn’t where I belonged. I had been working part-time for a large firm. They took on a giant family business succession case and needed to staff up, so they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I went back to full-time. The first month back I billed 250 hours.

The third exit was fourteen years later at age 54. I’d gotten my religious zealot days out of my system, and I’d made peace with the practice, first in a large firm and then founding a small boutique estate planning and business succession firm of my own. I’d just finished my best year ever in terms of both money and satisfying work. I’d brought in a partner who was handling the regular caseload, and I was working on larger, more complex cases, often co-counseling with lawyers from large firms. I also was putting three kids through college. On the surface, life was good.

But something was rotten in Denmark. Despite external success, on the inside I was becoming increasingly angry and cynical. I was alarmed at my state of mind. My wife and I talked about it, and I vowed to stop being such a pain. Then, two days later, I was in the hospital after a nasty ski accident that laid me up for a couple months. About the time I was rehabbed, I had a “creative visitation” one afternoon, and was suddenly and unexpectedly inspired to produce an all-original multimedia stage spectacle.

InQ.: Did they check you for a head injury while you were in the hospital?

Kevin: (smiling) As a matter of fact they did! Apparently not enough! I realize all this sounds crazy, and in fact maybe it was. Suddenly getting inspired to do a show is maybe no big deal if you’re in showbiz, but I wasn’t. I was a lawyer. I had no background in theater. The whole thing was nuts, and I went nuts over it.

InQ.: So, when did you first make concrete plans to finally and truly exit the practice of law?

Kevin: Well, first I spent a couple months developing the show and trying to find someone to produce it, but when no one would, I decided to do it myself. Soon, I was working full-time on it. It was not fair to let my law partner carry the whole practice load, so I proposed to her that she buy me out, and she agreed. I believe our total time framework for the transition and buyout was maybe three years. I was 54 and I decided, finally, to stop being a lawyer.

InQ.: Did you develop any sort of plan as far as how to accomplish this goal?

Kevin: I had a substantial business succession law practice. I had done that kind of work for scores of clients, I had written about it, and I given talks and seminars for clients and other professionals. I knew exactly what to do, and my law partner and I put our deal in writing. It was all very congenial, efficient, professional, and thorough, and the plan went together in short order. Little did I know, though, that I was about to get a whole new education in business succession planning: there are so many non-rational, non-legal issues involved—emotions, sense of identity, motivations, etcetera. I believed I was better than most at addressing these “soft” issues, but my personal experience was headed for territory with which I was unfamiliar and that I hadn’t personally experienced before—a whole new psychological realm. I never really appreciated ahead of time the enormity of the task.

InQ.: Hmm, so was Abraham Lincoln right—”He who represents himself has a fool for a client”?

Kevin: (smiling) Guilty as charged.

InQ.: How long did it actually take you to implement your exit strategy?

Kevin: After I took my last partner draw (more than normal, as a sort of down payment), there wasn’t much left to do. My partner was in charge, and I was already mostly disengaged from the practice. We agreed I would be available as needed, which turned out to be not very much. This all happened within the space of maybe a few months.

InQ.: At any point in the process of implementing your plan, did you think about reversing course?

Kevin: It was only a matter of months before my former partner was struggling to make the payments on the buyout note. She approached me and said, “It’s just not working and I can’t sleep at night.” It was clear to me that our plan had fallen victim to a set of false assumptions. We talked and strategized, had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations. One of my proposed solutions would have negated my exit and her buyout, and brought me back into the practice. After a few more months, we reversed the course of our deal, but not my exit from the practice. We agreed that the large draw I’d taken plus the amounts she’d paid on the promissory note were enough. We revised our buyout contract to lower the price and renegotiated the note so the purchase price was paid in full. That cleaned up the buyout, but left me without an income when I was already hemorrhaging cash developing the show. There were of course lots of other ways we could have handled it, but frankly, I didn’t care enough to reach for them. By the time this was happening, we had completed a successful sneak preview event of the show, and I was pushing toward a premier later that year. My ties to the law practice were a distraction, so I cut them.

InQ.: And then?

Kevin: As it turned out, a few months after we renegotiated our deal, the show crashed and burned, and took most of my life’s savings with it. I grieved over the show’s demise for a month or so, and then began working on starting up a new solo practice from scratch. I wanted to honor the exit I’d made, and didn’t want to compete with my former practice, which had stabilized and returned to profitability. I talked to my former partner about my plans, and it was clear I wasn’t needed or wanted back.

InQ.: And then?

Kevin: A month later, that effort was cut short by a second accident, with injuries much worse than the first. I would be laid up for several more months. It was the perfect storm—personally, professionally, financially—you name it.

InQ.: Holy mackerel! It sounds like a visit to purgatory.

Kevin: That was five-and-a-half years ago. Since then, I periodically tested the waters regarding a return to the practice. In the meantime, my new life outside law kept morphing, and I kept following it, to see where it might lead.

InQ.: A lack of imagination, worries about what one will do, and financial concerns appear to be thebiggest obstacles to escaping the full-time practice of the law. What do you think?

Kevin: Not being able to imagine what life would be like not practicing law full-time was never a factor: after my first two exits, I thought I was a lifer, and I hadn’t considered getting out again until the moment the show seized me so completely that I just had to do it. I never had time to imagine life after law; I just dove into it. As far as being afraid not to fill the time, again, this was never a factor. Once I started the show, it was all-consuming, and I figured I’d be in showbiz the rest of my life. And, as far as being afraid of not having enough money later in life, this also was never a factor, although in hindsight it’s easy to say it should have been! But, at the time, I really never considered it.

InQ.: How did your significant other react during your odyssey?

Kevin: My wife watched me act like a man possessed those first two or three months as I was moving into show production, and then she sat me down one day and said, “I don’t really understand what’s come over you, but I like the new person you’ve become. You’re so much happier! This is obviously going to be one amazing adventure, and I don’t want to be left out of it. So, I’m all the way in with you.” Amazing, isn’t it, to think of her saying that? Since then, we’ve traveled every inch of this long, strange trip together. She’s had immeasurable influence on my plans. There’s just too much here to tell!

InQ.: Did any tensions arise between you and others, including your children, co-workers, and significant other, as a result of retreating from the full-time practice of law? How did you manage them?

Kevin: There were several tensions of this nature, but I didn’t “manage” any of them. I did my best; sometimes it was good enough, sometimes it wasn’t. I had the best intentions, but you can’t do what I did and not leave some people behind. There was hurt, for me and others. I definitely stressed my law partner and my long-time administrative assistant by disengaging from the practice and then getting out the way I did. I did lose some friendships with clients who had become friends and with some fellow professionals. My path was at first a curiosity, and even a cause of envy, but after a while I became irrelevant. They moved on, and so did I. My wife was also stressed at first, but then she jumped in with both feet. My kids, on the other hand, loved what I was doing. It was exciting to have a dad who was bucking the system and going for it in a big way, and they were proud of me. As for my extended family, frankly we didn’t tell them much—not out of deception, but self-preservation. They came to know in time. They’ve never understood things the way we’ve seen them. Not really.

InQ.: What sort of activities have you embraced to fill the time you formerly devoted to the full-time practice of law, and how satisfying have those activities been?

Kevin: Even though the show bombed, I wanted to go deeper into expressing its life-affirming message. I tried doing this via screenwriting for a couple of years, but finally decided that maybe I’m not the creative genius I’d like to be. Mostly, I’ve invested a lot of self-examination, research, reading, conversations, and other investigations into trying to understand what happened to me during my exit from the practice, and what that means not just for me but also for all those lawyers out there for whom the practice of law has become an empty, unhappy, or even toxic place. Maybe they’d like to enhance their law careers, or maybe they’d like to get out. I wanted to know if what I’ve learned might help them.

InQ.: What did you do to turn those thoughts into action?

Kevin: I started keeping a journal, which eventually became a book (Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, just released, and available on Amazon) about my misadventures and lessons learned regarding the dynamics of change, creativity, personal transformation, following our dreams, etcetera. I write a blog on those topics for the CBA, and have also designed and conducted several workshops on those topics for lawyer, law student, and non-lawyer audiences.

InQ.: Anything else?

Kevin: Besides the workshops and blogging, I’m now a mentor through the Colorado Supreme Court’s CAMP initiative, have done some career and law practice coaching, and have conducted workshops for the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group and at Denver Law. This was one of the reasons I re-hung my shingle last year. I thought that, by returning to “insider” status, I might have a more credible voice in the profession. All of those activities have been highly satisfying.

InQ.: You re-hung your shingle? Going for the record for exit strategies are we? Tell me, during your previous three exits, what mistakes, if any do you feel you made?

Kevin: I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t think of things as mistakes. It’s always tempting to look backward with regret, and calling things “mistakes” fuels that temptation, so I try to avoid it. On the other hand, I will say that if acting unreasonably is a mistake, then I made countless mistakes in how I went about leaving the practice. And, if having blind spots is also a mistake, then I’ve made even more. As for acting unreasonably, I’ll admit that making a sudden jump from a successful long-term law practice into the unknown waters of showbiz was unreasonable, by any measure. It wasn’t a reasonable thing to do when I did it, and it’s still not reasonable in the bright light of hindsight. The list of my lack of qualifications was so long, it wasn’t even embarrassing—it was just insane.

InQ.: What, if anything, would you do differently?

Kevin: It’s tempting to say, “Well, I wouldn’t ruin my career by doing something so crazy.” or “I would have gotten coaching help.” or “I should have seen a shrink.” But really, the truth is, I can’t say what I would do differently. So, you go forward, because to look backward is just more crazy-making. As a friend of mine says, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.”

InQ.: What assumptions did you make that turned out to be mostly or wholly incorrect?

Kevin: For one thing, I assumed the practice would go humming along as robustly after I left as it had while I was still fully engaged in it. As a result, I totally underestimated how my absence would affect cash flow. Without me present, there just wasn’t as much work generated. At its height in the late ’90s, the firm had been bigger, but by the time I left, it was a two-lawyer operation.

InQ.: How happy were you when practicing law full-time? How happy are you now?

Kevin: After all this, one thing that’s changed for me is that I have a different perspective on the topic of happiness than I ever did before. For the first decade or so of my law career, my attitude was often something like, “The practice of law is making me unhappy,” or “I am unhappy practicing law.”

InQ.: And now?

Kevin: Now, I think, “I was an unhappy person for much of the time I was practicing law.” I think you can see the difference. The former put the problem outside me; the latter sees the problem looking back at me from the mirror. Then, in the second and into the third decades of my law career, it was easy for me to look at the external trappings of my practice success and think they equated with happiness; that is, this outlook locates happiness in external circumstances. It says, “Gee, that guy is successful. He must be happy.” The fallacy is obvious when you say it that bluntly, but that was another of my blind spots. Now, simply put, I’ve come to believe that happiness is mostly an inside job; you don’t get it by reference to externals, but by finding it within.

InQ.: In retrospect, did you give financial considerations too much, too little, or just the right amount of weight?

Kevin: I think it would be fair to say that, measured on the scale of reasonable behavior, as I’ve described previously, I blew the financial issues royally. Measured on the scale of things like inspiration and personal awakening and awareness, you get a whole different read on it. My exit from the law—

InQ.: Exits?

Kevin: —exits from the law, ended up costing me everything except my family and closest friends. What did I get in return? Well, for starters, I felt I got my soul back, plus a whole new understanding and outlook on life, plus new relationships with my family and old friends, and a whole bunch of new friends to boot. And like I said, that’s just for starters.

InQ.: How, if at all, did having children affect your decision-making process?

Kevin: Not at all.

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