Several years ago the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about the political maneuvering behind the war in Afghanistan, contained this description of the conflict from the congressman who was the film’s main character: “We changed the world, but we had no endgame.”
Without an endgame, the war became confused and purposeless. The quote reminds me of so many lawyers who have no endgame. They do not envision the end of their law practice until, one day, they awake and decide they want to do something else, or they’re not feeling so good and their doctor tells them they have a “problem.” They have not planned for this time; they have not taken their destiny into their own hands. It’s like going to the office without a plan for the day and reacting only when the phone rings.
The decision to make such a major change as leaving practice should not be taken lightly, and should involve weighing four fundamental considerations:
- Economics. The practice of many solo and small firm lawyers involves family disputes, estate planning, personal injury claims and the like, which tend to pay less to begin with, and can be postponed if recession-hit clients can’t afford them. With fewer clients and slower payments, there comes a point where practicing law can lose its economic viability.
- Age. As I have written before, the legal profession is aging dramatically. Especially in a sole practice, aging lawyers who may be thinking of retiring from their practices may emotionally leave their clients long before they close their doors. In large firms the older lawyer receives the designation of “special counsel” or “emeritus partner.” Either way, we as lawyers cannot beat the calendar.
- Work/life balance. This is a long-term assessment that every lawyer must make. In the short term there is really no such day to day phenomenon as balance – at any given moment the lawyer is doing just one thing, either working or engaging in personal pursuits. The broader perspective is how much cumulative time you devote to each, and what you value more. It is an issue that remains on top of the table, particularly as time demands for legal practice increase while financial and family considerations are equally substantial.
- Personal satisfaction. Too many lawyers are close to burn-out or at the very least are unhappy in their day-to-day occupation, as shown by the reported cases of alcohol and drug abuse (the tip of the iceberg). The recession has made lawyers look at their life savings and wonder if they can afford to retire, creating tension and dissatisfaction.
These obviously are open-ended considerations that are different for every lawyer, but they emphasize that making an endgame decision is an emotional process. You must want to do so and believe you have no other alternative.
A transition from the law will require all the traits that defined success: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency, commitment. Basically, you must answer the question, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” Each person’s answer is unique and can change over time.
Making a decision does not have to mean that you’ve burned bridges to your past life or that you have erected a wall against future change. But it does mean that you need to define the elements of your own personal endgame – before the end comes.