Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the third part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.
InQ: Walter, how old were you when you first felt that practicing law was what you wanted do as a career? How old were you when you first had serious thoughts about exiting the full-time practice of law? What prompted this change in your thinking?
Walter: When I went to law school I was unsure what I would do with my law degree. After law school I worked as a lawyer, but not until I turned 30 and moved to Boulder to practice with my brother did I first began to feel that practicing law was what I would do as a career. I worked full-time for twenty-four years; then part time, about three days per week, for eleven years; and since January 2014, I have been “of counsel” with no set office hours.
I’ve thought about the ability to exit full-time work (whether the practice of law or any other job) since I was in high school. My father impressed on me the benefit of putting oneself in an economic position such that you could work because you wanted to, not because you had to, so that has always been at least in the back of my mind. Also, I have always had many interests other than the practice of law, and I have sought to balance time spent working with time spent on other activities throughout my career.
I have always had the desire to work less than full-time, and I have maintained a modest lifestyle and saved money to allow me to do so. I started making concrete plans to exit the practice of law when I was 44, when I took a year off from my practice. At the time, I thought that it was unlikely that I would return to the full-time practice of law. After my year off, however, my thought process changed and I began focusing on creating a firm structure that would let me continue to practice law—which I realized I enjoyed—but not have to do so full-time. I wanted to have time to pursue my other interests so that the practice of law would be less stressful and more fulfilling.
InQ: What do you think were the key aspects of your developing a plan to accomplish these goals?
Walter: A key part of my planning was simply having an awareness that my economic and lifestyle choices affected how much I had to work, and that if I wanted to work less than full-time, I needed to make choices that would allow me to afford to do so. Beyond that, I’m not sure that I so much as had a plan as that I recognized the choices that were presented to me that would mean less time practicing law versus more time practicing law. So, the process was more recognizing the direction I wanted to take my law practice and making choices that took me in that direction when the opportunity arose, as opposed to actively seeking choices to implement a specific plan. I was fortunate that things fell into place!
InQ: How long did you expect your plan would take to implement?
Walter: If I remember correctly (which I probably don’t), I started to talk about retiring by age 40. My plan changed over time. As I mentioned, I took a year off at age 44, thinking that it might lead to retiring from the practice of law. But I learned that I liked much of what I did as a lawyer, and changed my objectives to focus on structuring a practice where I did more of what I liked to do and less of what I did not, and on balancing work and non-work time. I felt like I largely achieved those objectives six years later, when I reduced my work time commitment to three days a week. About ten years later, I decided that I needed more time to pursue non-work activities, and began my current “of counsel” position. I did not leave the practice of law completely because I still enjoy the work and had the opportunity to continue to practice in a very flexible environment.
InQ: What sort of obstacles cropped up, if any, impeding the plan’s implementation?
Walter: There is always pressure to work more, either because that is what you are supposed to do, or because of uncertainty about whether you need the income from working. In fact, getting to a financial position where you don’t need the income from working is a significant obstacle for most of us. Otherwise, I would say the impediments were more lack of opportunities than obstacles. I was fortunate to be in the type of practice (estate planning) and with the type of firm and partners that allowed me to be more flexible in structuring my work environment. Many attorneys don’t have that opportunity. At no time did I think about reversing course, but as I have noted, my course was altered by things I learned about myself.
InQ: Some say that the biggest obstacle to distancing oneself from the full-time practice of the law is the inability to imagine what life would be like not practicing law full-time. Others say it is a fear of not being able to fill up the time. Still others say it is a fear of not having enough money later in life? How did these factors affect your thinking?
Walter: The first two did not affect my thinking at all. For those who do worry about those things, maybe working part-time should be their objective if they still enjoy legal practice. The third factor—financial considerations—is something I had to get comfortable with before I reduced my income. I have some financial background and low expenses, so I felt competent to determine how much money I needed to save to retire. Others might need the assistance of a financial advisor to make this determination.
InQ: How did your significant other react while you were exploring options other than the full-time practice of law?
Walter: She rolled her eyes and told me I should get on with it. She made it clear that I should do what I wanted. And, she did not try to exercise any sort of veto power over my choices that I was realistically considering.
InQ: Did any tensions arise between you and others, including co-workers, as a result of you retreating from the full-time practice of law? How did you manage them?
Walter: I would not call them tensions, but there was definitely a need to negotiate with my law partners regarding the appropriate structure of and compensation for my part-time practice. It was very important to me that my partners felt that my deal was fair to them and to the firm.
InQ: What sort of activities have you embraced to fill the time you formerly devoted to the full-time practice of law? How satisfying have those activities been and have you run into any unexpected issues arising from engaging in them?
Walter: I’m still in transition from my three-day-a-week schedule to my “show up when I want/need to” schedule. So far, I have been spending my new-found time on outdoor activities, reading, managing some family investments, movies, socializing, and relaxing. So far, everything’s good.
InQ: During your decision-making and decision-implementing process, what mistakes, if any, do you feel you made?
Walter: My mistakes were more a lack of self-awareness that caused me to pursue the wrong objectives. It took me a while—and taking a year off from practicing law—to realize that I enjoyed and got a lot of satisfaction from my practice, and that it would be very difficult to duplicate that through some other activity. At about the same time, I realized that I did not want to get a job doing what I like to do for fun, but instead wanted my job to provide the freedom to do fun things. My goal became structuring my law practice so I could spend less time on work I did not find satisfying, which in turn allowed me to spend more time doing the non-work things I enjoyed. Looking back, I can’t think of anything I would do differently. I’ve enjoyed the evolution of my career, and the process of figuring out what I want to be doing and how to get to the position so I can do it. And that process will just continue from here.
InQ: What assumptions did you make that turned out to be mostly or wholly incorrect?
Walter: The assumption that I wanted to retire completely from the practice of law.
InQ: How happy were you when practicing law full-time? How happy are you now?
Walter: When I was practicing law full-time, I was happy, but recognized that my life was not as well balanced as I would like it to be. I was very happy to begin working three days a week, and I am very happy now.
InQ: How much did financial considerations influence your decision to retreat from the full-time practice of law?
Walter: I needed to be comfortable with my financial position before I retreated from the full-time practice of law, and financial security allowed me to retreat from the full-time practice, but it was not the reason I retreated.
InQ: In retrospect, did you give financial considerations too much, too little, or just the right amount of weight?
Walter: I gave financial considerations a lot of weight in my decision-making process, and I think that was about the right amount. If I was not able to support myself, I would not have given up the income from the full-time practice of law. So, it was a necessary condition for me to be able to execute my exit strategy. However, I continue to practice law even though I no longer need the income from doing so. Basically, financial security lets you make choices based on what you want to do, not based on what people will pay you to do. I think maintaining a debt-free standard of living that you can easily support gives you tremendous flexibility in structuring a satisfying work environment. To me, being able to work because you want to, and not because you have to, is a great position to be in.
InQ: How, if at all, did having children affect your decision-making process?
Walter: Not having children was part of my decision-making process. I don’t think any of us can have it all.