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Planning prevents potholes in road to retirement

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The website of solo practitioner Jim Roth is topped with the headline: “Retiring to a Good Cup of Coffee.”

A Social Security disability attorney in Lafayette, Roth stopped taking new cases, transitioned his clients to other lawyers, and closed his office in the fall of 2013, about the time he turned 70.

He was admitted to the bar in 1977 and began practicing actively in 1984. The adrenaline rush that came from arguing a claim before a judge was something he enjoyed, but the 120-mile round trips to hearings coupled with the work days that kept him reading fat files until 1 or 2 a.m. finally made him tired enough to quit practicing law.

“It just seemed like at that point it was time to spend more time with my family and develop other interests and take care of some things at home,” Roth said.

By its nature, practicing law is not a physically demanding profession that over time wears on a body. But it can require so much time and attention that attorneys neglect developing hobbies and social connections. Consequently, when an attorney hits the traditional retirement age, he or she may skip retiring altogether, opting to continue working or slowly slide into post-career life by paring down the practice.

But, as the economy improves and retirement accounts recover, Indiana may be on the verge of seeing more attorneys retire. According to the Indiana State Bar Association, 2,260 members are age 65 and older while another 2,608 are 55 to 64 years old.

Roth, chair of the ISBA’s senior lawyer section, said his colleagues talk often about retirement, and other attorneys have quizzed him about how he left the law.

The process of retiring, the nuts and bolts of how to exit a legal practice, is as important for attorneys as saving for retirement and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

“A lot of lawyers practice until they die,” said Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. “I guess that works for some of us, but many want a good plan” for retirement.

Succession planning

With so many baby boomers nearing retirement, said Alan Levin, managing partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, law firms would be remiss if they did not transition senior attorneys in a thoughtful and methodical manner.

“It’s important to plan not only for the clients but to have a smooth transition for the firm too,” Levin said.

A survey recently released by the legal consulting firm Altman Weil Inc. found 49 percent of the law firms it contacted had an informal succession planning process. Another 27 percent told the consultants they had a formal process in place, while 24 percent said they were either working on a succession plan or had no process in place.

Altman Weil recommended law firms tread a middle path, advising against having a rigid, inflexible succession process as well as against having no consistent process. An unbending plan could induce partners to defect to other firms. No process puts the firm at risk for liability if a lawyer practices too long and loses mental acuity.

Barnes & Thornburg does not have mandatory retirement, but it does require senior attorneys to step down from their partnership positions at a certain age. This, Levin said, allows the firm to start the retirement discussion and craft a plan on a case-by-case basis that makes sure the senior attorney’s files are passed along to the other attorneys in the firm who have the right skills and relationships with the clients.

In the past two years, three partners at the New Albany firm Lorch Naville Ward LLC retired. One left the practice of law completely and the other two moved into part-time positions at the office.

“We don’t have a formal retirement policy in our firm,” said partner Linda Lorch. “Basically, for the partner that wants to make a change, we tend to create some pathway with what they want to do.”

The partners remaining at the firm admired the way their colleague, Sally Thomas, wound down her legal career. Thomas developed a year-and-a-half plan in which she listed specific dates for each milestone in closing her practice, culminating with the exact day she would no long be coming to work.

Lorch and most of the other partners all started practicing in the 1980s and, today, often have casual conversations about retirement. Among their concerns is bringing in new blood so, as Lorch explained, the younger attorneys are not surrounded by old folks. The partners also want to ensure the firm has the expertise needed to continue covering the practice areas currently offered so the younger attorneys will be able to sustain the business with new clients.

Hard to say ‘good-bye’

The Altman Weil survey found the biggest obstacle to succession planning was senior partners who did not want to retire. Seventy-eight percent of the firms responding said their senior partners had no interest in getting the gold watch while 73 percent said their older attorneys were hesitant to retire because they did not want to forfeit their current compensation.

Two factors are commonly highlighted as reasons why attorneys do not retire. The first is finances – the economic downturn dwarfed many retirement savings accounts. The second is the challenge of finding things to do when there is no long a client to meet or motion to file.

Kevin McGoff, of counsel at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, heard about the difficulty of quitting the law from an older attorney who once told him, “You can’t get out of this business.”

The decision to cut back to 20 hours of work a week can creep to 40 and 50 hours. Still, McGoff sees ways for senior attorneys to slow down by transitioning to mentoring and supervising rather than actively working on cases.

Years prior to their retirement, the senior attorneys could involve younger partners or associates in their cases, taking them to client meetings and having the younger attorney handle more and more of the client’s work.

For law firms, the consequence of a poorly executed succession process, McGoff said, is the clients may transition their business elsewhere when the senior attorney retires.

Both at JLAP and as chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program’s committee on senior lawyers, Harrell has been studying the issue of attorney retirement. She estimated 50 percent of Indiana attorneys who are of retirement age and financially able to quit are staying in practice because they do not know what else to do.

Attorneys who are 35 or 40 years old should plan not only for the monetary aspects of retirement but also for the social and emotional part, she said. Usually lawyers say the intellectual stimulation is what they like best about the law, but finding things that provide the same level of engagement, whether a hobby, a volunteer organization or new friends, can be difficult as a senior citizen.

Roth confessed that he did not have many outside interests when he retired. He goes more often to his vacation cottage where he spends time fishing and he helps his wife with chores around the house.

Although he has retained his law license and continues taking CLE courses to keep his status active, he does not intend to reopen his practice.

“That part of my life is over,” Roth said of his legal career, “and this part of my life is family, community and recreation.”•

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  1. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  2. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

  3. Low energy. Next!

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  5. OK, take notice. Those wondering just how corrupt the Indiana system is can see the picture in this post. Attorney Donald James did not criticize any judges, he merely, it would seem, caused some clients to file against him and then ignored his own defense. James thus disrespected the system via ignoring all and was also ordered to reimburse the commission $525.88 for the costs of prosecuting the first case against him. Yes, nearly $526 for all the costs, the state having proved it all. Ouch, right? Now consider whistleblower and constitutionalist and citizen journalist Paul Ogden who criticized a judge, defended himself in such a professional fashion as to have half the case against him thrown out by the ISC and was then handed a career ending $10,000 bill as "half the costs" of the state crucifying him. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/ogden-quitting-law-citing-high-disciplinary-fine/PARAMS/article/35323 THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE for any who have ears to hear ... resist Star Chamber and pay with your career ... welcome to the Indiana system of (cough) justice.

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