|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009|
Question: How is being a lawyer like being on a treadmill?
Answer: It isn’t. People can’t wait to get off treadmills. But many lawyers are afraid to stop being lawyers.
It doesn’t have to be that way, according to three Oregon lawyers who have, or can envision, transitioning to lives in which the practice of law is scaled back or even replaced by other vocations or avocations.
But, as one of their colleagues points out, it takes a long-term financial commitment to the next stage of life, topped off with a carefully thought-out plan for how to spend that time.
This is what they say they are doing, did, or wish they had done.
The cautionary tale comes first.
David Jack practices law in Cannon Beach.
Not Cannon Beach as in upscale galleries, shops and an annual sandcastle-building contest. Cannon Beach as in Clatsop County, where, says Jack, “the economy has always been poor.”
At age 53, Jack’s retirement financial outlook feels as solid to him as a house built on — well, you know.
He’s been through a costly divorce, the relocation of his practice from Portland to the north coast and a serious health problem that kept him from working for six months. All were “financial disruptions” that can derail retirement plans, according to financial educator Pat Funk. (See related story.)
If he had it to do over, says Jack, “I would have started saving for retirement right out of law school and set aside as much as I could in a retirement account and never touched it.”
“It’s really tough for young people to be smart about money,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think there are many people who are. My nephew, who’s about 22 and making about $100,000 a year, already has a 401(k). His generation is a hell of a lot smarter than I was. My dad tried to talk to me, but I was financially irresponsible.”
Jack’s financial future hasn’t always seemed problematic.
After graduating from Willamette University College of Law in 1981, he went “straight into solo practice.”
“But I did something smart,” he says. “I was in a building full of lawyers. I met tons of lawyers who’d been practicing way longer than me, and they all became my mentors.”
He built up a creditor-debtor practice with three employees and opened a SEP (self-employed retirement plan) IRA.
I was going to rely on that and Social Security,” says Jack. “This was in the ’80s, when everybody thought Social Security was going to be around, and I didn’t think about it much because I was in my 30s.”
Then two things happened. He got divorced and his ex-wife wanted him — as he puts it — “excommunicated” from their house on Portland’s Council Crest. And he decided that his practice was too big a drain on his health.
“This marriage pretty much cleaned me out,” says Jack. “And I had a huge office: The overhead and workload were killing me. Being solo is really hard.”
So, he says, “I said to myself, ‘I need to live longer; what the hell, I’ll move to the beach.’”
Before the move, he cleaned out his IRA to resolve the issues with his ex.
“So when I get down here 11 years ago, I had zero. I thought, ‘Great. I’m going to have to work until I’m dead.’”
But first he had to rebuild his practice, which he describes as 90 percent debtor-creditor (probably 80 percent of that debtor) and 10 percent “hodgepodge.”
“When you move out of the metro area, you kind of have to be a generalist,” he says. “I used to do family law, but I got burned out on that. Debtor-creditor also is pretty high-stress work. I got a call at 7 a.m. this morning from a guy who was getting his excavator repossessed. I have a home office so I hear all of these calls.”
Several years after he moved to Cannon Beach, Jack suffered a brain aneurysm as a result of his high blood pressure.
“After it blew up, I got a little plug put in, and I didn’t croak,” he says. “But I was off work for six months. That really put a ding in my practice: I had to restart it.”
But then his widowed mother died.
“My parents had built a house on the beach in Cannon Beach,” says Jack. “It was a $2.6 million beach house. So I got this inheritance dropped into my lap.”
Jack says that his share of his parents’ estate, after taxes, was about $450,000. So, even though he lost what he describes as a “significant” part of that when the economy tanked, he’s still — even by his own estimation — “sitting pretty good.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t see himself being able to retire any time soon.
“If my living expenses are $3,000 a month, which is probably pretty minimal, Social Security will cover $800, assuming there’s any left to pay us, which is a pretty big assumption,” he says. “If I work until I’m 70 (the highest age to which one can delay receipt of Social Security benefits), I’ll get $1,500-$1,600. That would only take care of one-half of my living expenses. I could start drawing the other one-half from my investments, which is another big assumption.”
One of those investments is an IRA that Jack started around the time he turned 50.
“I see people now pulling money out their retirement funds,” he says. “It’s stupid, but they’ve got to live.”
“I’m probably not the typical solo who’s built up a retirement fund,” Jack concludes. “I built it up and lost it and built it up again through an act of God. I’ll probably have to work until I can’t work anymore physically. I need to exercise more.”
When Ruth Spetter attended the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program’s “Next Stage” retirement-planning workshop earlier this year, it wasn’t because she was ready to retire. Far from it.
But she is aware — painfully so — that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
“My older sister retired about two years ago and was, almost simultaneously, diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer,” says Spetter, who is in her 50s and has been with the Portland city attorney’s office since she graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1977.
“Before she died in 2008, I cared for her in her home and in the hospital, always listening to hear if she was breathing. She’d worked so hard as a nurse and had so many plans that will never come to fruition. I’ll never forget her admonition to me: ‘Don’t wait with your life like I did.’”
Nonetheless, it’s hard for Spetter to contemplate leaving her job with Portland.
“I love my job,” says Spetter. “Becoming a public lawyer has been a perfect fit. Public service is wonderful because of the client contact, the cutting-edge issues, the ability to teach and to have a practice that is never boring.”
Like the workshop’s other attendees, who ranged in age from their 30s to their 70s, Spetter says she wanted to know what she should be thinking about before she does decide to retire.
“I was impressed that younger attorneys were there,” she says. “You can’t begin thinking about retirement too soon; it takes planning and saving. The program was excellent, realistic and hard-hitting in terms of the dollars-and-cents types of issues, but it also provided thoughtful moments regarding personal plans and goals. It definitely addressed the emotional aspects of retirement and its impact on individuals and couples, and revealed that retirement often is harder on male attorneys than on females. I’ll remember the quote about a male attorney whose wife told him that she had promised to love and honor him, but not to make his lunch.”
When Spetter thinks about her own plans and goals, she says she sees getting involved with marine life and with helping to make children care about the natural world. She’s also interested in writing fiction and nonfiction.
Spetter, who’s recently seen several colleagues leave law for new careers, says she isn’t worried about losing her identity if she, too, chooses to do something else.
“Portland is community-rich in terms of group activities if you are willing to reach out and participate,” she says, noting that she belongs to kayaking and other outdoor clubs. “You can expand the communities to which you belong.”
Jeff Rogers walked the halls of power when he was Portland’s city attorney and, as a child, when his father was in the Cabinet under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. He’s sailed the waters of war-torn Vietnam.
He’s attended medical school. He graduated from law school.
And somehow, he’s tied all of these experiences together, as a mental-health therapist who specializes in counseling military-service veterans and lawyers.
“I loved my legal career,” says Rogers, who, in addition to being Portland’s city attorney from 1985-2004, also practiced law as a public defender, an assistant United States attorney and in private practice.
“The career change wasn’t because I was escaping,” he explains. “Two professions that really benefit from lots of experience are teaching and mental health. It was particularly appealing to do something fresh after 30 years — and something that tied my interests together. I’ve had no second thoughts.”
As a result of his father’s career in public service, Rogers grew up outside of Washington, D.C. He attended medical school for one year but decided that he didn’t want to continue. So he joined the Navy, pre-lottery, and was sent to Vietnam.
“Vietnam was a very important experience for me,” he says. “I work with vets every day. I would put serving in Vietnam right up with being married and having kids in terms of its impact on my life.”
After leaving the Navy, Rogers attended Yale Law School, graduating in 1973.
He laughs when asked if there have been lawyers in his family other than himself and his father, William P. Rogers.
“The bigger question is, do we have any nonlawyers?” he says. “My mom had a law degree, although she never practiced. Both of my brothers; one of their wives; a bunch of my nieces; my wife; my former spouse: I could go on, but let’s just say it’s a heck of a lot. I say with my kids, it was a dormant virus: They worked in other fields first, but both graduated from law school this year.”
In 2000, Rogers, who has taught law and psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Medicine and Lewis & Clark Law School, began studying nights and weekends for a master’s degree in counseling psychology. He received that degree from Lewis & Clark College in 2004 and is now a licensed professional counselor.
“It all started really falling into place,” Rogers says of his move from law to counseling. “I always liked the person part of law; working with clients and managing an office. I had anticipated lawyers (as clients), but I also started seeing vets right away.”
In addition to working with veterans in his private practice, which is located in a historic Southwest Portland house originally owned by a lawyer who read law with Matthew Deady, Rogers also sees them through the Returning Veterans Project and volunteers at the Portland Vet Center.
Rogers says that about one-half of the veterans he sees at the center are seeking help, for the first time, for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from service in his own war — Vietnam.
“I’m finding the sense of doing something meaningful at this stage of my life, (age) 65,” he says. “I see myself doing this into the indefinite future. You have to feel like there’s some meaning. For me, it’s doing something like this. There are some wonderful Portland lawyers who work into their 80s, doing law. That’s just great. Some people want a more traditional retirement, although I think there’s a risk of boredom. My brother writes. For some people, it’s fishing. But for me, I need something like this, or at least a healthy dose of it.”
Dick Maizels sits in his bright and breezy downtown Portland law office. He can come here any time he wants. He can leave any time he wants.
He plans to keep doing this indefinitely.
“I didn’t retire for three reasons,” says Maizels, who is 71. “I don’t know what I’d do with the time I otherwise spend here. I would lose out on keeping up with my profession by not having an office downtown. And my wife would leave me. She felt that retirement would age me.”
“I keep as busy as I want to be,” he continues. “When I was younger, type-A lawyers like me would stay in the office even if there was nothing to do. Now if there’s nothing to do or it’s a nice day, I’m gone.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Maizels, who graduated from the University of Washington, discovered that without a PhD, his degree in economics was “not worth anything.” So eventually he moved to Portland, where he graduated from what is now Lewis & Clark Law School in 1966.
“I’m not from a family of lawyers,” he says. “I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do.”
He worked for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office before he and two other deputy district attorneys went into private practice together in 1969.
“We knew nothing,” he says of their first year. “It was horrible. After I’d been in active practice 20 minutes, I wished I’d gone with a firm and had a mentor.”
But their overhead was low — approximately $600 a month for three lawyers — and, as they developed a reputation, their criminal-defense practice grew.
For the last 35 years, “at least,” Maizels has been a sole practitioner with a mixed practice that includes criminal defense, family law, personal injury and providing advice to businesses.
“The downside is, I didn’t become an expert in any one area,” he says. “I think that’s a mistake. The way you practice law today requires a specialty.”
The upside, says Maizels, is that “I did pretty well in my 40s and 50s. For 10 years, I practiced criminal law almost exclusively, with an emphasis on drug offenses.”
At 66, he started reducing his hours.
“I had some pretty good-size cases at 65,” he says.” People said, ‘Are you going to retire?’ I said, ‘God, no, I’ve got two years worth of work.’ But I did begin to taper off. If I thought I didn’t have a fit with the client or the case was too close to the running of the statute of limitations or too stressful, I didn’t feel bad about not taking it. The first 15, 20 years of practicing law were much easier than it is today. There was more camaraderie. Now I don’t know anyone who’s not in a wheelchair.”
Maizels says that in addition to having the financial ability to reduce his hours, “for me, in my 60s, you start thinking, ‘What are you doing? Do you want to take on something else?’”
“My nonlawyer friends, who are retired, think I’m crazy (to still be working part-time). But if they knew what I did…” He pulls out and opens his written calendar; the computer world, he acknowledges, has passed him by.
“Yesterday I played golf in the morning; got to the office at 2 and worked until 5. These past two days, I was at a Lewis & Clark board meeting” — he’s president of the law school’s alumni board — “then met my wife at the beach. On the 15th, I had an all-day CLE.”
Life, however, is not all beer and skittles. Maizels also hears summary judgment motions, as he has for the last 20 years as a Multnomah County pro tem judge. His work for Lewis & Clark Law School also involves sitting on the college’s board of trustees, and his practice now includes mediation and arbitration.
“I’d like to be less busy, but I take on too many pro bono projects, some unintentionally,” he says ruefully.
Maizels says, emphatically, that he still self-identifies as a lawyer.
“I would continue doing this even if I just broke even: for the office, the camaraderie, to keep my hand in, to have a place to go. If I don’t get any billable time in a day or two, it doesn’t bother me.”
Maizels says that if he had his phased-in retirement-in-place to do over, he wouldn’t do it any differently.
“If I were to win the lottery, I doubt — seriously — whether I’d change my lifestyle,” he says. “I don’t think the money is the rationale for deciding (when or how to retire). The right questions are, ‘Are you happy with what you are doing?’ ‘Are you content with the level of stress you’ve created for yourself?’ ‘Can you imagine yourself not doing this?’” h
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980. She is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Janine Robben