April 18, 2019

The InQuiring Lawyer: Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the first part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Stay tuned for the interviews.

SandgrundIntroduction to Part I of the Dialogue

by Ronald M. Sandgrund, Esq., InQ.

This two-part article discusses an issue all lawyers must face during their careers: developing and deploying an exit strategy. This can mean exiting one practice area for another; transitioning from the law to a different career; accommodating the demands of raising a family; and slowing down or retiring near the end of one’s career. This article explores the issue through the eyes of two groups of lawyers: the first group transitioned from the day-to-day practice of law to a different job; the second group sought to reduce their hours either to accommodate family needs or as they travelled the long and winding road to retirement.

Although it is easy for me to reflect on the extraordinary blessings my legal career has afforded me—I basically worked for the same law firm and with the same terrific people for thirty years—there were more than a few times when I wanted to run for the hills. One time came when I noticed a small, balding spot in the back of my head due to a nervous habit I had developed of unconsciously twisting and plucking out my hair. With this incontrovertible evidence in hand, I worried that my job was ruining my mental and physical health. Then, my firm’s revenues dropped by 70% over thirty-six months due to sea changes that were occurring in our insurance defense practice. At the time, it appeared like a good opportunity to make a change, but I could imagine no exit strategy that seemed feasible. How would working at another firm change anything? At least I was a partner in my current firm, which allowed me greater control over my life—but which also burdened me with sometimes crushing managerial and financial worries. Also, what skills did I have that would have transferred to a job outside the law? Zero: I had gone straight from college to law school, and practicing law was all I knew.

In the end, I was very lucky. My law partners and I effectively doubled down on our law practice (that is what gamblers do, right?), jumping from the defense bar and into the strange new world of a plaintiff contingency-fee practice. In my twelfth year of practice, at age 36, I realized that the last thing I wanted to do was work for someone else or work with anyone else. I also recognized that I had developed a civil trial skill set that, if refocused, could still bring me joy and, hopefully, reward.

My wife and I adopted austerity measures that I found liberating rather than constraining. Eight years and a lot of good fortune later, things had come full circle. I sat down with my law partner and told him I wanted to map out a five-year exit strategy (which took seven years to implement). Later, I realized there was so much that I enjoyed about practicing law that we agreed to lengthen the exit ramp. I still practice some today, as of counsel with an energetic and skilled group of attorneys in a newly merged law firm—and my little bald spot has (mostly) grown back in. I also teach occasionally at Colorado Law, have written much short fiction (which I am trying to get published), started this column, travel to places I thought I’d never see, and I am working really, really hard on my tennis backhand—the last, always a work in progress (and now a greater challenge with an artificial hip and a reconstructed knee).

The story of every lawyer I spoke to is different; however, the moral of those stories is the same: there are many, many better exit strategies than death. For those who want to “jump to the chase,” I will tell you right up front that all the people I spoke to were happy to have employed their exit strategies. Not a single one of them left the full-time practice of law with any serious regrets.

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I

Some view practicing law like the Hotel California, a place “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” and where the guests are “all just prisoners here, of [their] own device.”[1] I spoke at length to eight lawyers over the past year, each of whom sought to exit the full-time practice of law, either early on, in the middle of, or near the end of their legal careers. Their reasons for exiting were personal to each, and none was provided a road map on how to accomplish this goal. All enjoyed the practice of law, but each saw the need to develop an exit strategy. By “exit strategy” I mean a change from the status quo, but not necessarily leaving the practice of law entirely—although for many, this is exactly what it entailed. For example, one lawyer with whom I spoke, Sue Borgos, practiced law for ten years, and then transitioned to information technology (IT) for twenty years. She ran her own IT company for the last nine of those twenty years before being hired as a territory manager for a national IT firm. Sue told me that she firmly believes her law degree was not wasted, nor was her time as an attorney, and that she still uses the skills she gained as a lawyer in many different ways on a regular basis.

None of the lawyers I spoke to found a “how to” book on transitioning effectively. For each, it was dynamic process; they learned as they went along. Based on what they shared with me, the keys to their accomplishment included:

1) recognizing that a change was necessary to make their lives more fulfilling;

2) imagining how their world would be after they had made such a change;

3) making and implementing a plan to effect this change; and

4) clearly communicating their desire for change to those around them.

In this Part I, we talk to four lawyers who sought a change of scenery outside the day-to-day practice of law. In Part II, we will talk to four lawyers who sought a reduction in workload on the road to retirement.

 

 


[1] From “The Hotel California,” by the Eagles, words by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey (1977). Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, I am most familiar with the Eagles’ lyrics; but every generation’s music seems to repeat their themes.

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