Transitioning in Place: An Alternative to the “R” Word

I hate the word “retirement.” In today’s world it is a very imprecise term and can even be viewed in a pejorative manner. The classic conception of retirement involves closing the book on one’s career and, at its extreme, the complete cessation of productive engagement in the world. When you mention “retirement” many people have an image of being home all day watching Jeopardy in one’s pajamas.   Baby Boomers, who expect to live longer, who still feel vital, and who may need to continue generating  income later in life are looking for alternatives to the classic notion of retirement. For many Boomers, especially attorneys, transitioning in place provides a better alternative for their future.

Many Boomer attorneys have built successful careers by displaying an excellent work ethic which has translated into working long hours and often dealing with large amounts of stress. Over the years, however, the long hours and the stress can start to feel overwhelming. Alternatively, many Boomer attorneys start to think wistfully about pursuing other interests or passions that they had to put aside as they built their law practices. In the traditional retirement model, Boomer attorneys have to make what sometimes feels like a Sophie’s choice, between continuing their career at the same pace or walking away into the sunset of retirement.

The “transition in place” model is much more flexible and nuanced than the traditional conception of retirement and has two approaches. The first is to focus on how the Boomer attorneys want to restructure their work/life balance. Recalibrating work/life balance is most commonly the foundation of the transition in place approach.  It is extremely helpful to find some metrics to use to quantify the restructuring, such as how many hours the attorney will bill per year, or how many hours or days per week the attorney will work, etc.

The second inquiry is to identify which aspects of the practice of law remain the most enjoyable versus which aspects cause the most stress. The answer to this question will determine how the practice can be successfully restructured by maintaining or expanding the fulfilling parts while decreasing or eliminating those responsibilities that are the most stressful or the least enjoyable. The net result of both steps is creating a better work/life balance and a practice of law that is more satisfying.

Another key component in this process is discovering how Boomer attorneys will spend their additional free time. While feeling burnt out is a strong motivation for implementing the transition in place model, identifying exciting possibilities for the newly expanded free time that will result from the transition is often a more powerful motivation for change. Focusing on what is possible is a very effective way to overcome the obstacles and fear associated with the transition.

In my experience as a coach/consultant, the biggest challenge to making this type of transition is usually the attorney’s own internal resistance to change. I have helped many clients overcome this resistance by using  a number of coaching techniques including visualizations, fact checking measures, employing accountability “buddies”, and “day in the life” exercises.

Transition in place is a not a pie-in-the sky proposition. Many lawyers are successfully implementing this model even if they don’t label it in this fashion. I have successfully transitioned my practice so that I spend 75% of my work time practicing immigration law, focusing on the parts of the practice I enjoy the most, and 25% of my time engaged in executive coaching and law firm consulting.

The beauty of the transition in place model is that it is both financially rewarding to the individual attorney and extremely beneficial to the law firm. In an “all or nothing environment,” where the attorney either goes full bore or retires, the attorney might typically retire at age 65. The transition in place model involves regular adjustments to the work/life balance equation and the substance of the individual’s law practice. Making these adjustments will usually significantly expand the attorney’s career, perhaps to age 75 or beyond, allowing the attorney to earn income over a much longer period of time. At the same time, the firm will continue to benefit from the attorney’s presence, wisdom, and book of business.

Finally, law firms that successfully adopt a transition-in-place culture may be able to attract successful Baby Boomer attorneys with big books of business from other firms that are not as receptive to the concept.

Baby Boomers have redefined many social phenomena over the decades. Hopefully Boomers will continue to create and implement many alternatives to the traditional notion of retirement, finding new ways to gradually and gracefully wind down their successful careers.


By Ken Stern