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Planning ahead for retirement

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For attorneys who may be making a New Year’s resolution to consider retirement in 2011, 2012, or even 2013, it’s never too early to start planning.

To help attorneys get a head start, the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program partnered with the Indiana State Bar Association to run seminars around the state during 2010.

Close Since he started winding down his practice in 2006, Avon bankruptcy attorney Nicholas Schmutte has enjoyed spending more time with his horses. He said he doesn’t regret retiring and has no plans to return to the practice of law. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

JLAP has also helped a number of attorneys facing retirement, something executive director Terry Harrell said JLAP has been hearing about more and more in recent years.

The calls started, she said, because attorneys were noticing other attorneys should retire due to memory problems or other issues in the office. They sometimes called Harrell and her staff for advice.

As a way to let the entire legal community know that not all lawyers need to practice into their 70s or 80s, especially if they can no longer keep up with the demanding job of being a lawyer, she said JLAP started making retirement more of a priority.

“We can assist lawyers with any career transition, including retirement,” she said. “There are situations where retired lawyers will thrive and there are situations where they might be in trouble, might be depressed. We want to help them. … We love to meet with attorneys before they retire to talk to them about what they can expect in terms of the emotional aspects.”

For instance, attorneys who retire without something else in their lives tend to have a harder time making the transition. She strongly suggests attorneys start a hobby, volunteer, or travel, something to keep them engaged as they shift from full-time worker to retiree.

But before retirement happens, attorneys must take the proper steps to close down an office. Those steps include making a timeline that ends after current cases are scheduled to be wrapped up, telling others at the firm, informing clients about the decision and their options to find a new lawyer for future representation, sending clients a copy of their file, deciding how long to keep client files and having a plan to eventually destroy them, and figuring out what to do with everything associated with the office such as furniture and phone lines.

At the end of this list, the attorney must also inform the Indiana Supreme Court of his or her retired status. After this is filed, an attorney can no longer practice law.

Harrell added attorneys sometimes forget this step, which means the attorney would likely face fines and/or other disciplinary actions.

In addition to the sessions about retiring that took place this summer, how to close an office due to retirement or for other reasons is often discussed at legal conferences.

For instance, Grant Superior Judge Warren Haas participated on panels about this topic for the Indiana State Bar Association in October 2006 and again for the Indiana Continuing Legal Educational Forum in October 2008.

retirementBefore he ran for judge in 2008, he said he was concerned about what would happen to his practice if he was involved in an emergency.

He started a solo practice May 5, 1976, and he said he wanted to make sure that his clients would be taken care of if anything happened to him.

“Because the practice of elder law is fairly technical, my client contracts normally contained a paragraph naming a successor attorney, if I would become unable to complete work due to death or disability,” Judge Haas said via e-mail. “Unearned fees were always placed in trust and the arrangement was for that money to be transferred to the successor attorney to complete the work. My primary concern was to protect my clients.”

While he didn’t end up closing his office due to any emergencies, he did decide to run for judge and made arrangements to transfer his practice after deciding to participate in the 2008 election.

He started working with Teri Pollett, who had been in Grant County for a few years and had an interest in elder law. They agreed to operate as a general partnership starting Aug. 1, 2008. He gave her control of the files starting Dec. 30, 2008, and the general partnership was dissolved. Judge Haas started serving as a judge Jan. 1, 2009.

Another attorney who decided to shut down his office was Avon attorney Robert McDowell.

“It’s easier to open a practice than to stop,” he said. “When you first open your doors, you invite people you know to an open house and hope you get enough clients to keep going. I’ve been in the process of retiring for two years.”

McDowell, 63, said he told his clients and the other attorneys in his small firm in mid-2008 that he planned to start winding down his practice. His goal at the time was to retire by the end of that year.

Knowing he would continue to get calls and mail, McDowell had his office phone number forwarded to his home phone. He continues to visit the office once a week to pick up his mail.

While his practice has slowed down, he still receives five to 10 calls a week, including new client referrals.

In some of those cases, he said, callers have fairly simple questions he can answer. If he knows the question isn’t simple, if it’s a potential new client, or an old client who didn’t pay him before he started shutting down his office, he’ll refer the client to another attorney.

While with the Avon Law Office of Singer McDowell & Schmutte, McDowell practiced mostly family law. Prior to that, he worked for the legal department for Rolls Royce, formerly Allison Gas Turbine Division of General Motors. While working for Rolls Royce, he also had a small part-time civil practice.

He recalls that when he retired, he benefitted from the experience of his partner, Nicholas Schmutte, 68, who had joined the practice full-time in 2002 as a bankruptcy attorney. Schmutte had also worked for Rolls Royce’s legal department while practicing part-time.

Schmutte decided to retire two years earlier in 2006, when he decided to run for judge in Hendricks County. He told his partners in mid-2006 that on Jan. 1, 2007, he would either be on the bench or retired.

While McDowell had a difficult time ending his family law practice, Schmutte said he thought he was lucky because bankruptcy cases tend to have a defined end date.

Schmutte continued to do some bankruptcy work after slowing down his practice, which included leaving his office space to work from home. He said he again notified clients and other lawyers that he’s officially finished as of the end of 2010.

While they have both slowed down their practices, they have no plans to slow down their lives.

McDowell said he has done some legal work for his wife’s consulting firm, including contracts. He also has a couple of open cases and said he has considered volunteering to take on pro bono cases.

Schmutte said he continues to remain active with the Hendricks County Bar Association as a way to socialize with other attorneys. He also owns two horses and keeps them on his property, and he spends much of his time with them, including camping trips.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the way it worked out,” McDowell said of his retirement. “It was helpful to see Nick do it first, and keeping the phone number was a good idea. The downside is the phone rings all the time, but I figure if I don’t get it, it goes to voicemail, and I can get to it on my own time.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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  5. 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?

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