By J. Mark Robinson
Lawyers routinely resolve other people’s problems, and often carry their clients’ burdens. However, lawyers may not do as well in addressing their own issues, such as preparing for a healthy and rewarding retirement. During most of my four decades of practice, the only time the “R word” (retirement) was used occurred annually when the 401(k) administrators discussed reallocation of one’s portfolio. In the fifth decade of practice, however, the R word actually gets articulated, and “retirement” becomes a topic of conversation and concern, at least among friends.
After a lifetime of practicing law with all its rewards and benefits, both professionally and socially, how does one plan for a fulfilling life away from the practice? For some attorneys, two of whom I talked with this summer at the Solo and Small Firm Conference, a future away from the law seems unimaginable. I asked one of these senior practitioners why he continued to practice. He replied, “I love the staff at my office and would miss them terribly; I still really enjoy listening to a client’s story which I would never hear otherwise except in my law office,” and with a warm and friendly smile concluded with, “And I make a little bit of spare change as a side benefit.” Sometimes retirement is simply not a pleasant or necessary thought, especially if one is healthy in body and mind.
For some nearing retirement, the practice of law enables one to cut back on the caseload, and the number of days and hours one spends at the office each week (thus more time is available for grandchildren or traveling). Some practitioners truly enjoy maintaining close contact with clients they have served for decades, or even generations. Giving up those relationships — built over years of profitability or not, through tough times and good, through life’s joys and sorrows — is unthinkable. To a certain extent, our law practices focus on human relationships, the value of which is incalculable.
For those among us in our mid- to late 60s, retirement does cross our minds with increasing frequency. Careful planning is always urged by experts, and probably for good reasons. There are a great many resources to help one develop a retirement plan for almost any contingency: the financial implications of retirement; access to specialized medical care; the cost of such care, including long-term care; retirement location(s), and proximity to children, grandchildren, and extended family; the value of travel and the joy of learning; the challenge of downsizing with all of our accumulated stuff; the importance of nutrition and exercise; the need for social contact; and the need to have just plain old fun.
But in all these expert resources, two twin concerns are often shortchanged, even though they are among the most vital characteristics of a healthy retirement. Those are facing mortality and discerning life’s meaning.
As one approaches or experiences retirement, the youthful notion of immortality is all but extinguished. Mortality, however, comes into focus with increasing clarity. We all realize that, even if we refuse to discuss it, which seems unnatural and unhealthy. “Death” is tolerable if applied to others, but most uncomfortable if applied to oneself. Not to be morbid, but “death” is like a lengthening shadow that follows close behind us. Last year we had dinner at the home of dear friends of nearly 50 years. 0Since he is a retired anesthesiologist, I knew from previous discussions that he had witnessed a number of deaths in the operating room. So I asked him directly: “Do you think about death?” With a soft grin he replied “Of course I do; I often think about death but no one ever wants to talk about it. Thanks for asking.” Our discussion that followed was remarkably open and honest and probably one of the most important and helpful discussions I had last year. I now have a trusted friend with whom I can talk about one of life’s silent issues. And I truly believe that my health and wellbeing have improved because of this new bond.
Approaching retirement also affords one the opportunity to reflect on, and reassess, where one finds real meaning in life. And I’m not thinking about sports, or exquisite dining, or the finest single malt Scotch from the Highlands of Scotland. I’m thinking about how and where you find deep fulfilment, and know that you are making a difference in this world. This search may involve a spiritual journey, and possibly a chance encounter with transcendence, as happened to the young Martin Luther in a German forest in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. That event forever altered his life. No one can determine your life’s meaning; each of us must find our own answer. As a starting point, I suggest reading or (rereading) Dr. Viktor Frankl’s famous book first published in Austria in 1946: “Man’s Search for Meaning.” As a holocaust survivor, Frankl’s own existential experiences led him to affirm: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” Yes, there is purpose and meaning even in suffering and in dying.
Meaning and purpose in life is found not by looking within oneself, but rather in looking outward toward a world of humanity, and finding our own particular way to be of service. Bono, the lead singer in the rock band U2, was moved after visiting Africa to devote much of his life and fortune toward addressing Africa’s vast poverty, famine, and AIDS, as well as national indebtedness. His purpose and passion has raised billions for African relief. If you are still searching for meaning, take heart in Bono and U2’s famous song: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But eventually he did, and so can you.
So, enjoy this phase of life called retirement. Those who have gone before assure us that it can be a most rewarding and meaningful journey, if we use time, talents, and treasure wisely.•
• J. Mark Robinson is managing attorney for Indiana Legal Services’ New Albany office. He is past president of the Indiana Bar Foundation; past chairman of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission; treasurer for the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program; and board president of the River Ridge Development Authority.