“When I’m 64”

Leslee, a white woman with light brown hair and dark brown rimmed glasses, wears a navy dress with red and white flowers, a navy sweater, and a gold kangaroo pin. By Leslee Ruth Sharp

The Beatles released that song in 1967. I was much too young to appreciate how far away the age of 64 was or what my life would look like. Although had you asked my mother, she would share I knew I was going to be an attorney since about the age of 3. I’ve been preparing to be or engaged in being a lawyer almost my entire life. I have been extremely fortunate to practice in two main areas that I truly enjoy: real property and elder law.

Like many attorneys, this is not just my career; it is who I am. I chose a life with no children (being the favorite Aunt has its perks). Instead, I built a practice using my time, my focus, my energy, and certainly the support of colleagues, family and friends. But still.

Yet, at 65, I am feeling the effects of those long work weeks (including running a practice); physically I don’t bounce back as easily. But truthfully, at this point in my life, I thought I’d be handing down wisdom, and my caseload, to a younger generation and handing off those 60-hour weeks to my successor. Alas, this has not been the case.

“Do you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” Fortunately, or unfortunately, the answer from clients (current, past and prospective) to both questions is a resounding “Yes!” My question is “Why?” Aren’t there other lawyers and firms to take on these legal challenges? To properly counsel these clients? To act as the attorney bringing transactions and other matters to the finish line? Isn’t there a next generation preparing to step in and provide these services? Shouldn’t some inspired young attorney be knocking on my door for an opportunity to be a contributing member of the legal community?

Not that the thought of my future had not crossed my mind before. As they say, if you do what you enjoy you will never work a day in your life. Then, sometime in my 60th year (33 to 34 years into my career), random questions floated through my mind: what would my future look like? How would I pass on this business? How would I transition away from my clients? Transition? I wasn’t exactly sure what that looked like, but I pictured fewer hours in the office. Maybe, an office I could visit at leisure without the demands of running the practice and meeting the daily demands of clients. I began to see opportunities for using my talents outside the structure of a legal practice. Yes, a diminishing income but with continued satisfaction from a career and practice I am proud of. Wasn’t that the point?

Amid these questions came several options for transitioning. Hire an associate to take over; merge with another firm; sell the practice; or wind it down.

Four or five years ago hiring an associate seemed like a good idea. I even test-drove a few. But somehow the dollars they demanded in relation to the hours and time they wanted to invest in the practice made for a less-than-ideal relationship. Being from an older generation, perhaps my expectations were just too high. Today? The difficulty is not only the competitive market but that there is that shortage of applicants, particularly applicants interested in joining a small firm.

Maybe a sale of the practice? I sold my then practice decades ago when I went in-house. It went fairly smooth. I hadn’t intended to be solo again, but here I am, having been solo again for some 18 years. Why not try a sale? If you talk with the professionals, there is a “formula”; there are concepts, guidelines, what to expects. But in reality, or at least in my experience, those benefits, the change in my circumstances, were not in the making upon a sale. I would be giving up my practice to show up at a firm and continue working more hours than I care to at this point in my life. In exchange for passing the buck (in this context, the responsibility) to a new owner, I’d give up the opportunity to take home the “buck” (in this context, the profits of the business). I attribute this as much to the lack of staff as the structure of the deal. But still. This was not my solution.

Could merging with another small or mid-size firm help me reach my goal? Yes! There is interest in taking on the client base and referral network, but unfortunately, they want (need) me to continue showing up extra hours a week to service those clients. They don’t have the staff, attorney or support, to service those clients. Maybe my lack of patience did not serve me well for this option.

But, open any publication, print or electronic, and you read every industry is experiencing staffing shortages. We see it on the news, hear it on the radio and experience these shortages when we go to our favorite restaurant. The legal profession is no exception. We hear of the rural desert, and it seems to be creeping into the urban areas as well.

I don’t have the answers. So, as I write this, I’m moving forward with a wind-down of the practice. This will allow me to slow down, provided I can practice that simple technique of saying no, and transition on my own timeline. Your future may look like mine, it may not. Maybe you see yourself actively practicing into your 70s.

Whatever your thoughts, I encourage you to avail yourself of the resources available, while practicing mindfulness and patience in making those decisions. Begin with the “Reset? Retire? Reinvent? – Planning for the Next Stage of Your Law Practice,” a publication found on the NCBA website. Talk with Catherine Sanders Reach in the Center for Practice Management; Erik Mazzone or Camille Stell with Lawyers Mutual; members of the Senior Lawyers Division; a law practice broker; headhunters; employment agencies; and your colleagues.

Me? I am going to seriously think about meeting those other Senior Lawyers, follow up with the Wake County Board of Commissioners Advisory Boards, and spin the pottery wheel. Whatever path is right for you, I wish you success and happiness, as much or more of both in your transition as you have had in your legal career.