A Three-State, Eight-Year Winding Road Toward Retirement
Forty-five years ago, when I began my professional life by clerking for a large law office, the senior lawyers there entered a step-down phase at age 60. Their equity was reduced by 10 percent each year. At 70, they retained an office, mentored the youngsters, and remained involved in client, firm, and civic matters as each preferred. Those lawyers had the time and patience to teach, they kept abreast of new developments, and they maintained relationships with clients who had long relied on them.
Semi-retired attorney Roger Bloomfield enjoys a floor picnic with his granddaughter, Madison Paige Martinelli.
While the business of practicing law now drives earlier transitions, the solo and small-practice lawyer has retained the opportunity to continue practicing into the traditional retirement years. Nevertheless, without the structure and planning of the large office to motivate transitions, the challenge is to fashion a way to step back and stand down when age, health, disability or death intervenes.
In 1989, after 15 years of combined experience in the large firm, as in-house counsel to a university, and working in a smaller firm, I went solo. For 25 years, I have pursued that course, initially only in Ohio, and now in Vermont and New Hampshire as well. My practice model includes my wife, who has managed and assisted my practice and is my only employee. This model has proved to be flexible, financially elastic, and has enabled us to build close relationships with our clients. We have been able to coordinate our practice and personal schedules to accommodate client and family matters.
We have embraced technology from its infancy and from the outset of the solo practice. We could not have progressed as we did without making that choice. But solo practice does not have the orderly succession potential of a big-city firm. We needed to look ahead and fashion our path. In the mid-1990s, when many were opting to retire at 55, choosing to begin a transition toward retirement at age 60 seemed apropos.
In 2005, at my 60th birthday, that path led to Vermont. It had been my practice to assess my clients' projected needs annually. In 2005, I realized that projects and estates that had demanded an intense effort were cycling down. The electronic environment enabled me to work at a longer distance when serving Ohio clients. There was an opportunity for transition.
I was admitted in Vermont in 2006 and in New Hampshire in 2009. My practice skill set filled a niche. I opened an office and built a Vermont and New Hampshire practice through referrals from area lawyers and clients, and I was able to continue serving some of my Ohio clients.
In 2010, my annual practice review suggested an opportunity to use Social Security to supplement a continuing, but scaled-back practice. The following year, I moved my office to my residence and reinstituted the model with which I had begun in 1989 – making house calls. These changes have enabled personal and financial freedom. I continue to serve clients as their needs and my availability coincide.
During each transition, I have acted intentionally. Throughout these past eight years, I have sought to sustain my professional competence – to keep my knowledge and skills well honed. I have assessed regularly my clients' ongoing legal needs and planned my availability. Importantly, I have communicated with my clients openly and honestly about my plans and these transitions. When the client's needs required different arrangements, together we have identified new counsel and transitioned matters at the time and in the manner that would assure that their needs receive primary consideration and are being well met.
In 2014, at age 68, I continue to scale back my practice. In mid-2013, I identified and approached a colleague admitted in Vermont and New Hampshire whose practice areas closely match mine. I had encountered her regularly at bar events and approached her to explore her interest in assisting me with yet another transitoin. Together we have developed a transition plan. She will assume and manage my practice when the need arises and also can serve as personal counsel to my family. We have formal engagement agreements for both aspects. We now are reviewing client lists to assure that conflicting interests are identified and resolved. While we are not merging practices, forming an "of counsel" relationship, or otherwise associating in the practice of law, I foresee this responsible attorney serving those whose needs I cannot serve during this "step-down" period.
Am I retired? No. Am I scaling back? Yes. Am I able to pursue new community interests? Yes. Can I devote more time to family and pro bono work? Yes. Is this a satisfying transition? Stay tuned. What these plans assure is the peace of mind that comes with planning for a well-managed, ethically sound transition.
I miss the daily routine of a more active practice. But, the emerging freedom to travel and to use the skills, knowledge and experience accumulated over a working lifetime in new ways holds promise, too. And, on balance, it's a good life.
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