I began practicing law in 1984, when I was 29. I’m now 58. One week ago today I advised the management of the law firm where I’m a partner that I’m leaving the practice of law as of October 1. I chose that date because it coincides with the close of the firm’s fiscal year, which will make the settling up of my finances neat and clean. But there’s nothing neat and clean about leaving a career you’ve pursued for half your life.
Most people consider a full-time job something that requires you to be at work forty hours a week. But to a lawyer in private practice, “full-time” means all the time. And perhaps because it’s so all-consuming, the prospect of not doing it any more is daunting – how will I fill up my time, I wonder? While practicing law, my time was so full I couldn’t consider any other activities. Life, it seemed, revolved around my work. Everything I did was defined by the demands of the job – and they are many.
Here’s a non-exhaustive, but nonetheless exhausting, list of the things you have to do to succeed as a lawyer in private practice:
- Think clearly, write well, and verbally advocate your client’s position.
- Manage expectations, which means having pointed – often heated – discussions with your clients about proposed strategy, potential outcomes, and of course, expected costs.
- Train, motivate, mentor and supervise younger associates, paralegals, and other support staff.
- Bill your time, which means writing a detailed narrative of the legal work done for each client and how much time it took – down to the tenth of an hour – to perform each task. To meet your billable targets, you should account for eight or more billable hours every single working day. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, who “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” for half my life I’ve measured out mine in six-minute increments.
- Constantly seek new clients or new legal work from existing clients, which requires you to do things that most people see as recreation: play in golf outings, attend charity dinners, and take clients or prospective clients out to restaurants, concerts, and sporting events. But the fun fades when those activities start to gobble up days and evenings you’d rather spend with your family and friends.
- Keep abreast of current developments by attending continuing legal education seminars.
- Speak at legal conferences or other public events.
- Do pro bono legal work and donate your time and energies to worthy causes that help your community, both because it’s your duty as a citizen and an attorney, and as a way to “get your name out there,” and develop contacts who may refer work to you or the firm.
The list goes on. And the stakes are high: if you don’t do your job right, your clients can lose big money, lose their businesses completely, or be precluded from doing things they want to do. If you make a really terrible mistake, you may be found to have committed malpractice and the firm itself could pay a steep financial price for your misstep, not to mention the personal price you would pay to endure that kind of crisis. In short, you’re under incredible pressure, all the time: to perform, to serve, to produce results.
So why was I so terribly conflicted when I realized I could just get out? There’s comfort in the known, and terror in the unknown. It’s like Hamlet contemplating suicide, and acknowledging that we have no idea what awaits us after death – which ” … makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.” I was afraid to leap from the relative comfort of a demanding, but well-defined career, into the unknown called “retirement.”
But I’ve done it. I’ve just taken that first leap into the cold pool. And even after only one week, before I’ve fully withdrawn from my life at the firm, I can sense it was the right thing to do. A few months from now I have no doubt I’ll be saying come on in, the water’s just fine.
For now, however, I’m still shivering a bit.