August 24, 2019

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part II: The Interviews: Anonymous—”Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”[1]

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the final part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for Part 1, click here for Part 2, click here for Part 3, and click here for Part 4.

By Ronald M. Sandgrund, Esq., InQ.

InQ: Anonymous is a well-respected litigation lawyer who has toiled at the bar for more than thirty-five years. About a year ago, this lawyer told me excitedly how she had arranged to retire in 2014, and about the many passions she was set to pursue come that golden day. Everyone in her life was on board and the smoothly planned transition was set to begin January 1. However, despite all her planning, the earnest cooperation of her partners, and the support of her family and friends, unexpected road blocks cropped up, driven in large part by her law firm’s sudden recognition that it needed her litigating and managerial talents for a while longer—although how much longer remains unclear. Anonymous did note the following in passing to me in an e-mail:

AnonAnonymous: I suspect the article will have its critics—the ones who die sitting at their desks, thinking that anyone who doesn’t is a coward.

InQ: Anonymous promised me that her exit strategy would not involve her desk.

Conclusion

This article examined what a handful of lawyers had to say about exploring exit strategies in their own lives. Some common themes emerged. First, greater fulfillment likely is waiting for you beyond the “Exit” sign, whenever you might choose to go through that door. Second, “marry well,” meaning, find a significant other who shares your life’s vision and supports your efforts to find contentment. Of course, some of us prefer to fly solo, and there is no reason these folks cannot be equally fulfilled. Finally, don’t “live large”; moderate your accumulation of material things and unnecessary debt, so that you are freer to change your trajectory, reprioritize your life, and find even greater happiness.

Epilogue

InQ: Brian, tell us a little bit about yourself?

BrianCBrian C.: I am 12 and in sixth grade.

InQ: What do you think a lawyer should do who has spent four years in college and three years in law school, and who has been a lawyer for several years, but who then realizes that he or she doesn’t really like being lawyer?

Brian C.: Well, maybe before going to law school, they studied something else—maybe they could switch to that.

InQ: But what if they’ve been practicing ten to fifteen years, and they’ve bought a big house that they owe a lot of money on and they’ve had a couple kids, and they still owe money for law school loans. If they switched jobs, they would probably make a lot less money and would have to give up the house, and their kids might have to move away from their friends and not be able to take fun vacations like they used to.

Brian C.: They need to take a job where they will be happy. A house or nice vacations only make you happy for a little while, but having a job you like has a big impact. Your job should be fun, and you do better at a job you enjoy. If you are an unhappy lawyer, I think you will not be a good lawyer.

InQ: What do you mean by happy? What is happiness?

Brian C.: Being liked and loved.

InQ: Is there anything about your parents’ jobs that you don’t like?

Brian C.: Well, my dad is gone for two weeks, then home for two to four weeks, then gone again. That’s his schedule.

InQ: How does that work for you?

Brian C.: It’s okay. I see him on Skype, which is fun. It’s hard when he misses a big event or a holiday. Like this past Easter. He wasn’t home, so we just acted like it was a regular day.

InQ: What if you were the mommy or daddy who was the lawyer, and you were going to take a new job, and this meant losing all the things we just talked about—the house, the vacations, and so on. How would you explain this to your kids?

Brian C.: I’d just tell them that we’re starting over—that things will be different, but that there always are fun things to do in the world. They can still see their old friends and they’ll make new friends.

InQ: I hear that you played in five tournament baseball games this past weekend. What if you had to give up tournament baseball as part of your parent’s job change? How would you react?

Brian C.: I would try to act nice and understanding. I know they would not want me to have to give up tournament baseball, but they had no choice because they don’t like their job. I don’t want them to be doing something every day they do not like. We can still have fun.


[1] Michael Corleone,Godfather Part III.

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part II: The Interviews: Tony Turrini—Changing Course, Pursuing Fulfillment

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the fourth part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for Part 1, click here for Part 2, and click here for Part 3.

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

InQ: How old were you when you first felt that practicing law was what you wanted do for a career?

Tony: I was 20 years old.

InQ: How old were you when you started practicing law full-time?

Tony: I started practicing law full-time at 24, and I practiced full-time for roughly seven years. I did legal work as part of my job for another twenty-five years.

InQ: When did you first start thinking about exiting the full-time practice of law?

Tony: I began having second thoughts about full-time private practice when I was 26 or 27. I really didn’t enjoy being a hired gun and felt like I was spending way too much time sitting behind a desk. I was in private practice for only a couple of years before I decided I’d rather go count elk or caribou in the woods.

InQ: Did you develop any sort of plan at that point—whether to count elk, caribou, or some other critters?

Tony: I realized that my law degree and undergraduate degree in English literature were not going to be particularly helpful if I wanted to pursue a new career in wildlife management. I decided to go back to the University of Colorado and get a master’s degree in biology. I thought I could get the degree in eighteen months. It ended up taking closer to two years.

InQ: Did any obstacles to your plan crop up?

Tony: My wife, who was working full-time, was pregnant with our first child. Money was a little tight and I took a couple of part-time clerking jobs. As a former practitioner, it was relatively easy to find part-time work. To stay within a two-year time frame, I earned a master’s of basic science, which was a less prestigious and less useful degree than a master’s in wildlife biology.

InQ: What strategies did you employ to manage these obstacles?

Tony: I was very, very nice to my wife.

InQ: Always a good strategy. At any point did you think about reversing course?

Tony: I didn’t have any second thoughts about returning to school. I thoroughly enjoyed the course work and appreciated the learning experience in a way I hadn’t in law school or as an undergraduate. Although I didn’t reverse course, I did alter it. When I graduated with the MBS, I found that while I was qualified for entry-level positions in wildlife management, many potential employers were interested in me primarily because I was a lawyer with a science degree. I also realized, belatedly, that law school and private practice had ruined me as a scientist. I wasn’t going to be satisfied simply collecting data; I wanted to apply the information in some way. Apparently, once an advocate, always an advocate. Eventually, I accepted a position as legal counsel for National Wildlife Federation’s Prairie Wetlands Resource Center in Bismarck, North Dakota. This was the beginning of a wonderful twenty-six years in the nonprofit world.

So, I didn’t reverse course, but I did make a few course corrections. After transferring to National Wildlife Federation’s Alaska office, I became the regional director in 1997. After eleven years with the organization, I was ready for a change, and the director position involved different responsibilities. Seven years later, I arranged to swap jobs with one of our staff attorneys. As senior attorney, I was able to work on specific projects and reduce my hours.

InQ: Did you eventually leave the practice of law completely?

Tony: I went part-time in 2013 and retired earlier this year.

InQ: Some say that the biggest hurdles to changing one’s career path are a lack of imagination, fear, and finances—what do you think?

Tony: I’ve never had any problem filling my time or imagining life without a full-time job. After working most of my career at a nonprofit, I also know that there are many good organizations looking for volunteers. Money was a factor in the timing of my retirement. I waited until I thought my wife and I could maintain our current lifestyle and tried not to let “what ifs” affect my judgment too much.

InQ: How much did finances affect your decision to retire?

Tony: I wouldn’t have considered retirement before paying for my children’s college education. It’s probably a little too soon to tell if our financial analysis was correct—we haven’t run out of money yet!

InQ: How did your significant other react when you were exploring options other than the full-time practice of law? Did any tensions arise within your family?

Tony: My wife was very supportive—except when I suggested I could get a really good job if I went back to school for a doctorate! Ultimately, my wife had veto authority over many of the more significant career choices I made, but fortunately she never exercised it. I didn’t really experience any tensions, and I was fortunate in being able to phase out of full-time active practice. It was really a pretty easy transition.

InQ: You are only 56. How are you filling your new-found time?

Tony: I have a lot of interests that are now limited only by the threat of repetitive stress injuries. So far, I haven’t felt the need to find new hobbies to fill the time. At some point, I plan on doing something more productive, but right now I’m just relaxing and enjoying life.

InQ: What does your wife think of you playing all the time while she is still working? Has your share of the domestic chores increased?

Tony: She thinks I’m working from home. Just kidding. My wife retires in November. In the meantime, I’m doing most of the household chores and trying not to look like I’m enjoying myself too much.

InQ:

Tony: I wouldn’t do anything differently.

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

Tony: For most of my career, I was very happy. The last few years, I was ready for something new. I’m very happy now. Change is good.

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part II: The Interviews: Walter Kingsbery—Stepping Back From Full-Time to Pursue Other Passions

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

SandgrundBy Ronald M. Sandgrund, Esq., InQ.

Introduction to Part II of the Dialogue

This two-part article discusses an issue nearly all lawyers must confront during their careers: developing and deploying an exit strategy. This can mean exiting one area of practice for another; transitioning from the law to a different endeavor; accommodating the demands of raising a family; and slowing down or retiring near the end of one’s career. The 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 on the road to retirement. The story of every lawyer I spoke to is different, but the moral of those stories is the same: there are better exit strategies than death.

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

As the Eagles sing in “Already Gone”: “So often in time it happens, we all live our life in chains, and we never even know we have the key,”[1] and in “Lyin’ Eyes,” that “[e]very form of refuge has its price.”[2] Even so, they implore in “Desperado” that while “[i]t may be raining . . . there’s a rainbow above you.”[3] In sum, there is a key to that door marked “Exit,” and behind that door may be something quite fabulous.

None of the lawyers I interviewed found a foolproof recipe for exiting the full-time practice of law. For each, it was dynamic process, learning as they went along. It seems that the keys to their succeeding were: (1) recognizing that a change was necessary to stay or become content; (2) visualizing their world after they had made such a change; (3) creating and implementing a plan to effect this change; and (4) communicating clearly to those around them their desire for change.

[1] From “Already Gone,” by the Eagles, words by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund (1974). 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.

[2] From “Lyin’ Eyes,” by the Eagles, words by Don Henley and Glenn Frey (1975).

[3] From “Desperado,” by the Eagles, words by Don Henley and Glenn Frey (1973).

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I: The Interviews: Jaimee Reed—Getting Out, Starting Over

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the final 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 click here for an interview with Kevin Rhodes.

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

InQ.: Jaimee, 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?

Jaimee: I was a 22-year-old college junior when I started thinking about a legal career, and I was 27 when I started thinking of leaving full-time practice. I first had serious thoughts about exiting full-time when I was 33. I had a baby that year and my perspective changed, so I started thinking about different ways to use my law degree.

InQ.: Did you eventually leave the practice of law completely?

Jaimee: Yes, and it was a smooth transition. My clients were very supportive, as were my co-workers. It was a positive experience all around. I stayed at home for a couple of years before I decided to pursue a career as an insurance broker, which required passing a licensing exam. My husband had been in the insurance industry for many years, so I was already familiar with and interested in the field, and it was a natural transition for me.

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

Jaimee: No. I enjoyed my new career and I liked the quality of life. For me, leaving the practice of law was about quality of life and being able to spend a lot of time with my family.

InQ.: Some say that the biggest obstacle to retreating 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 the time. Others say it is a fear of not having enough money later in life. What do you think of each of these suggested impediments and how, if at all, did they affect your thinking?

Jaimee: I did wonder whether I would miss the practice of law because, for many years, that’s what I did and that’s who I was—it defined me. But, after I stopped practicing, staying at home with my child really changed my perspective on life and what really matters—being engaged with and raising my kids was very important to me. I now have time for my family, networking events (which I love!), helping in my community, and volunteering, all while still working. I think some people who have known me a long time were shocked because I was a natural “lawyer”—even as a child. I promised them I would keep my license active in case they needed any free legal advice!

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

Jaimee: He was extremely supportive and wanted me to find something I truly enjoyed. His only advice was to find something I would enjoy doing day in and day out. Period.

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

Jaimee: Before I had children, I wasn’t unhappy practicing law. When I was practicing criminal law, I had a great time. All of us then were young and childless. When I transitioned to the civil side and started a family, things changed. I wouldn’t say I was unhappy necessarily, but I wasn’t fulfilled. I am very happy now.

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

Jaimee: It was a concern, but it came down to the fact that I had to make a decision and prioritize my life. In making my decision, I think I gave financial considerations just the right amount of weight.

InQ.: Do you ever feel you wasted time and money on a law school education?

Jaimee: Not really—law school and my experience practicing law gave me valuable skills—such as negotiating and reasoning—that were helpful, as well as “people skills.” Also, my knowledge as a former litigator that other insurance brokers do not have helps me navigate the field. I value the education I received and the transferable skills I’ve honed over the years.

InQ.: If you knew back in college what you know now about yourself and the practice of law, would you still have gone to law school?

Jaimee: Well, I met my husband while in law school, so I would definitely do it all over again!

Conclusion

Even though each of these dialogues and those appearing in Part II are merely vignettes among the many stories lawyers have to tell about exploring exit strategies in their own lives, some commonalities emerge. First, to paraphrase something former CBA President Mark Fogg said, “Marry well,” which I think is simply a shorthand way of saying, if you have a significant other in your life, he or she needs to share your life’s vision and support your efforts to achieve fulfillment. Second, “Don’t live large,” meaning moderate your accumulation of material things and unnecessary debt, so that you have greater freedom to change your trajectory, reprioritize your life, and find greater happiness.

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.

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I: The Interviews: Roxanne Jensen—Balancing Work and Family While Staying Engaged and Challenged

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

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

InQ.: Roxanne, 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?

Roxanne: I first thought I wanted to practice law when I was 22, and I started practicing full-time at 25. I continued to practice full-time until I was 38, when I had my first child. At 42, I had my third child and recognized that my firm’s international law practice was changing, becoming highly specialized, and that significant travel was required to put the right person in the right place at the right time for the clients. I thought I would try to find a way to regulate my work schedule more significantly, perhaps by teaming with lawyers who could handle a more significant travel load.

InQ.: So, what happened?

Roxanne: At some point, after having three kids, I simply realized that for our family, I needed to be more present. Although every family is different, my kids needed me to commit to a career path that would require less travel. My law practice at Morrison & Foerster absolutely and justifiably required significant travel responsibilities. My initial plan was to do contract work for lawyers until the kids were a bit older. I was able to start doing contract work pretty much right away, mostly for my former law partners.

InQ.: How did that go?

Roxanne: The plan worked, but I wasn’t satisfied without having more entrepreneurial, creative input into my work. So, I started looking around for a more committing framework, with less travel obligations—something more focused and sustained than project work, with long-term goals, and seeing matters or ideas through to completion. Contract work often doesn’t fill that need. Meanwhile, I missed practice in Big Law terribly—and I still miss it. The quality of practice and the caliber of my colleagues were unmatched. I’ll never find more fulfillment in a job than I did at Morrison & Foerster, including my several years as its Denver managing partner. I thought many times about re-engaging in the practice, but I knew the travel obligations would overwhelm me and my family.

InQ.: It seems that you gave some thought to reversing course; did you do so?

Roxanne: No, I didn’t, but I changed course again to find something more committing. In 2007, I left the practice of law and joined a national legal recruiting firm, to start their division for Lateral Partners and Firm Mergers. I grew that division very profitably. However, over time, I recognized that adding owners to law firms was not a staffing issue, but a strategic one. I exited the recruiting world to join the consulting world in 2011. I currently own EvolveLaw, a strategic consulting LLC, helping law firms set and execute growth strategies (including mergers and acquisitions) and refine their business models in a changing and challenging legal services marketplace. I also am a managing director with Catapult Growth Partners, a professional services consulting group that provides strategic planning, business development, and executive recruiting services.

InQ.: Some obstacles that lawyers face when retreating from full-time practice include not being able to imagine life not practicing law full-time, fearing not being able to fill the time, and dreading not having enough money. What do you think of each of these suggested impediments?

Roxanne: For me, there are always creative professional possibilities; I’ve never felt limited to practicing law, or concerned about how to fill my time. Being valued financially and professionally is important, so of course I have felt some need to use my gifts and experience well to serve and be compensated appropriately.

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

Roxanne: Despite being by nature somewhat less entrepreneurial than I, my spouse has been fabulously supportive while I’ve remade myself professionally.

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

Roxanne: No.

InQ.: Looking back, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Roxanne: I would think more entrepreneurially and creatively right away, instead of “ramping down” my practice by doing contract work.

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

Roxanne: I assumed my highest and best use would be in legal practice, when my training and gifts were in fact suited for a broad range of possibilities.

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

Roxanne: I loved the practice of law; but I’m also very happy now, using my many years of practice and management and my strategic thinking skills to help firms position well in the market.

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

Roxanne: Not at all.

Is There a Better Exit Strategy Than Death?—Part I: The Interviews: Kyle Velte—Less Stress, More Time With Her Children

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the second part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for the introduction, and stay tuned for more interviews.

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

The Inquiring Lawyer (InQ.): Kyle, how old were you when you first felt that practicing law was what you wanted to do as a career?

Kyle: I did not think about practicing law until after college and I entered the working world. I had planned on being a college professor, and I was taking a few years off before applying to PhD programs. I worked at the National Organization for Women in Washington, DC, where one of my jobs was to run the internship program. As part of that program, I took interns to a U.S. Supreme Court argument. One of the arguments I saw was Romer v. Evans. When I saw Jean Dubofsky argue on behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender plaintiffs, I then and there decided to go to law school and become a lawyer.

InQ.: How old were you when you started practicing law full-time?

Kyle: I had two judicial clerkships after law school—one at the age of 28, the other at 30. (I completed an LLM in between clerkships.) I entered a firm when I was 31.

InQ.: How long did you practice law full-time?

Kyle: Nine years.

InQ.: How old were you when you first had any serious thoughts about exiting the full-time practice of law? Did something in particular prompt this thought?

Kyle: A few years into practice—around the age of 35—I began thinking about exiting to teach law. My pre-law school plan had been to be a college professor, so teaching law always loomed in the back of my mind as something I would like to do.

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

Kyle: When I was 40 years old (eight-and-a-half years into practice), I had the chance to teach an adjunct class at the University of Denver School of Law (Denver Law). I did that while continuing to practice full-time. I loved teaching. My thought process was to try adjunct teaching first, before deciding to make the big move, to see if I really did like it as much as I expected to. I did.

InQ.: Why did you want to leave the full-time practice of law?

Kyle: For several reasons. Although I was in a regional, mid-sized litigation firm, where my focus was commercial litigation, with fantastic colleagues and interesting and engaging work, I was growing tired of litigation as a whole. The constant conflict and stress, the travel, and the unpredictable and sometimes very large number of hours (particularly around trial) began to wear me down. In addition, I have children and wanted a more consistent, less stressful job to spend more time with them.

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

Kyle: My plan was to try to teach as an adjunct first. I was able to do that, which in turn led me to my current position at Denver Law.

InQ.: How long did you expect it would take you to implement your plan?

Kyle: I wasn’t entirely sure. I had planned to continue teaching as an adjunct while practicing for at least as long as it took me to write and publish a law review article, which is highly encouraged to enter academia. However, I didn’t have to wait even that long, because my current position opened just a few months after I finished teaching my first adjunct class. I just got lucky on timing. The position I’m currently in opened in the fall of 2011, and I finished teaching my adjunct class in April 2011. I saw the opening, applied, and by November 2011, I was a full-time faculty member of Denver Law’s Legal Externship Program.

InQ.: What sort of obstacles cropped up, if any, impeding the plan’s implementation?

Kyle: The biggest obstacle was financial: figuring out how to manage a significant pay cut.

InQ.: How well did you manage this obstacle, and what strategies did you employ?

Kyle: I worked with a financial planner and figured out a way to make the financial transition.

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

Kyle: Only briefly, when the financial obstacle had not been overcome. But I never reversed course. Except for a pro bono matter that ended in March 2013, I have not practiced law since November 2011.

InQ.: Some say that the biggest obstacle to retreating 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 the time. Still others say it is a concern of not having enough money later in life. What do you think of each of these suggested impediments and how, if at all, did they affect your thinking?

Kyle: The first two concerns never entered my mind. I knew that I would find enjoyable and fulfilling work in teaching law. The money issue was the biggest challenge, and it gave me great pause.

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

Kyle: As a single parent without a significant other, making this change was a particular challenge for me. No matter how wonderful a private firm is, litigation never stops, and when you’re in trial, everything else in your life comes to a standstill. Now that I am out of practice, I have a very predictable schedule; my stress level is way lower (which makes me a better parent); and I’m much more involved in my kids’ lives, volunteering in the classroom, chaperoning field trips, being home at night to help with homework, etcetera.

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?

Kyle: I still work full-time, so there is no need to fill any time. In addition, because I am no longer a litigator and no longer have a billable-hours requirement, I have been able to do more than when I was practicing. I now sit on four boards of directors and I am active in specialty bar associations.

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

Kyle: Looking back, I don’t have any regrets and don’t feel like I made any mistakes.

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

Kyle: Nothing!

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

Kyle: I had assumed that it would be difficult to find an opportunity outside practice that would still be engaging to me and also one for which I would be qualified. However, I also assumed that if I were to find such a position, I would be able to find a fulfilling and satisfying professional experience outside practice. The first assumption was wrong: there are, contrary to my assumption, many non-practice opportunities that are engaging, interesting, and fulfilling, and for which practicing attorneys will be given serious consideration. My assumption that I could be professionally satisfied outside practice was completely accurate. In fact, I’m more satisfied now.

InQ.: Did any tensions arise between you and others, including your children, as a result of you retreating from the full-time practice of law?

Kyle: No.

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

Kyle: I was content while practicing and sometimes happy. I am extremely happy with my career now, and often think to myself: “I really love my job and am so lucky to have it.”

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

Kyle: As noted above, it was an obstacle—and a scary one—but I overcame it and have learned lessons about what I really need to be happy.

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

Kyle: Just the right amount.

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

Kyle: It impacted it for sure, because I had to make sure that I could still provide for them. Once I figured that out, I knew that leaving the practice of law would be a big benefit to them, as well as to me.

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.