August 19, 2019

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part II: The Interviews: Anne Vitek—Planning for and Managing Your Retirement Sortie

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the second part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for Part 1.

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

InQ.: Anne, 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?

Anne: From about age 14, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was 29 when I started practicing law full-time, and did so for thirty-four years, almost to the day. I always knew that I would retire from practicing law. I was probably in my late 40s when I started thinking about where I would retire to.

InQ: How old were you when you first started making concrete plans to exit the full-time practice of law? What was your thought process?

Anne: I was 58 when I started making plans to exit. I had been practicing law for thirty-four years. We all have a limited lifespan and I wanted to do something different with the remainder of my life. My husband and I did a lot of work for the state and our contracts lasted for two years. We timed the contracts so that they were completed as we were closing down the practice. However, we still wanted to earn a living until we were ready to retire, so we took on more hourly work. Since our practice was primarily trial work, we could practice from our home. We did so for the last three years, which substantially reduced our overhead.

InQ: Did you develop any sort of plan as far as how to accomplish your retirement goals?

Anne: My plan was to begin thinking about retirement when I was in my 50s and to try to assure that I would have the financial resources to retire. At that point, and perhaps earlier, I began to assess possible retirement sites and to determine how they would fill my retirement needs. Once we started thinking that we might retire in Paris (around 2002), we began taking French classes at the Alliance Française in Denver. My plan was based primarily on financial considerations. I think it took a little longer to implement than I had anticipated because of the substantial stock market losses in the preceding years. My husband and I purchased our apartment in Paris in 2006 and retired in 2012, so it took about six years from the first concrete step toward retirement in Paris until our actual retirement.

InQ: What sort of obstacles to your plan cropped up, and did you ever think about reversing course?

Anne: The only obstacles that arose were the fluctuations in the stock market and the effect that they had on our ability to have sufficient funds to retire. The only strategies we could employ were to work longer so that we would have additional financial resources, given the volatility of the stock market. Although we had at one time had a law firm that included eight attorneys, in addition to ourselves and numerous staff, we had downsized in anticipation of retirement. So, the only person who was affected by our retirement was our longtime secretary. Fortunately, she was considering plans to stop working, so it worked out well for us and for her.

We did not ever think about reversing course. I think we’d had personally satisfying careers in the legal profession, but we were ready for a change. We had reached a stage in our lives where we wanted to indulge our interests in art, photography, and jazz. We also wanted the opportunity to travel.

InQ: Some say that the biggest obstacles to retreating from the full-time practice are the inability to imagine what life would be like not practicing law full-time, fears of not being able to fill the time, and not having enough money later in life. Did any of these factors affect your thinking?

Anne: I think that for most people who spend the majority of their adult life working at a profession, their sense of self is inextricably woven with their professional life. Thus, I do think that the idea of “not having a profession, not being a lawyer” can be daunting. As to the notion that one will not be able to fill the time, I can only say that we are as busy as or busier than we were when we were practicing law. We have organized our nonprofessional life much as we organized our professional life. The difference is that we are now free to pursue our own interests rather than the interests of our clients. In my opinion, it is essential to try to be as organized in retirement as one was when practicing law. In other words, we have a schedule that includes working out, taking classes, attending lectures, visiting museums, etcetera. We tend to organize our week in retirement much as we organized our agenda when we were trial attorneys.

InQ: What about financial concerns?

Anne: Certainly, there are always financial concerns. Of course, individuals with a pension may have fewer financial concerns than those who were self-employed and who must rely on their investments to fund their retirement. Obviously, there is always going to be uncertainty. I think that one needs to balance the regret of not having enjoyed a change of lifestyle against the possibility that one may not be able to maintain that lifestyle into very old age.

InQ: How did your significant other react during the course of you exploring options other than the full-time practice of law?

Anne: I was fortunate that my husband was as keen to be retired as I was. He was a full partner in the decision to retire as soon as it was financially feasible. He manages our finances and his competence in that regard made retirement a reality for us. My husband and I practiced law as partners for twenty-five years, so we were used to making decisions as a team. We had the advantage of having run a business as a team. I think that this business experience spilled over into our personal relationship. I feel that we have always made decisions in our personal lives as a team. I can quite honestly say that neither one of us has ever had veto power over the choices of the other. There were not any tensions resulting from our retreating from the full-time practice of law.

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

Anne: Because we do not have children, I think our decision to leave the United States was easier. I think that having children would impact one’s decision-making process, if one had financial responsibilities toward those children. However, aging parents are also a consideration. In our case, my mother-in law, who was in the beginning stages of dementia, came to live with us in 2009. By 2010, her condition had deteriorated and we placed her in a nursing home within walking distance of our home. Luckily, she remembered my husband and me, but unfortunately she had no other memory. After consideration, we decided that we would go to Paris as planned in 2012. Our plan was to place my mother-in-law in a facility in Florida near my brother. She had retired to Florida and still had friends there who would visit her. Additionally, my family also would visit periodically. We would make two extended visits to Florida per year to spend time with her. However, she died in the fall of 2011 at the age of 89. I think that aged parents may be more of a concern for many potential retirees than children, especially if they are financially responsible for the parent.

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?

Anne: We have been very actively engaged in many pursuits since our retirement. We are also actively involved in improving our French, and we are making a new circle of friends in Paris. Of course, this requires us to be sociable and to explore new venues where we might meet people to befriend. I believe this is a real plus in retirement. I think constant exploration is the key to a successful retirement and more important for a fulfilling life.

InQ: During your decision-making and decision-implementing process, what mistakes, if any, do you feel you made?

Anne: I’m sure we made some mistakes, but none of them were significant enough to have impacted our retirement plans. I can honestly say that I would not have done anything differently, except that I might have worked harder on honing my skills in French while I was planning for retirement.

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

Anne: I thought I would miss having a professional identification and that I would have more time to pursue other interests than I actually have.

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

Anne: I was happy practicing law and I am happy now.

InQ: How much did financial considerations influence your decision to retreat from the full-time practice of law?

Anne: Obviously, financial considerations do play a large part in the decision to retire, to stop working outside the home, or to change careers. I think financial considerations did delay our retirement. In the end, I think we made the right decision for us, and I think we gave financial considerations the right amount of weight.

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