I retired from practicing law at 69. I had planned to work until 70, but the pandemic made work a pain in the ass. I had enough money to retire and began to wonder, more and more, as I sat in the office an hour before anyone else arrived, why I was still doing it.
I was at my desk when Henry Fallows died at his.
Henry Fallows practiced in the same niche of the law as I did. He was a regular presence in the courtrooms where I appeared and at the conferences I attended. In the last few years, he never looked good. He was stooped and walked with a cane. A decade before he died, I thought, Henry, why do you keep on doing this? When I learned he died at his desk, I wasn’t shocked. And I didn’t want his fate to be mine.
After a stint of graduate work in gerontology, I had turned my law practice to elder law with the intent of making a living combating ageism and saving old people. I saved a few old people and failed to save many more. I made no dent in ageism and grew old myself.
Today I haven’t signed a client or filed a case in over two years. I sold my practice, but according to the rules, I need to remain a member of the bar in order to continue to get the payments. That means I still get the bar magazines and can peruse the email conversations on the Listserv. In the first blush of retirement, I read the bar newsletters and checked the Listserv regularly. Today, the journals go directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin. The Listserv messages collect unread.
I know several potential Henrys out there who, older than I am, are still at their desks every Monday morning. They were doing it when I arrived in elder law, and they are still there now that I am gone. I see them rarely, but when I do, they aren’t happy. I ran into one the other day, and he asked what I do now. They always ask that, and not to make small talk. They know it has to end for them too, and they truly want to know what a person does when it's over.
I told him I was enjoying not being a lawyer. He looked dejected for a moment, and said, “I don’t know what that’s like.”
Lawyering is not something you do because you love it. The annual job satisfaction surveys from the bar suggest that most lawyers hate the job. I didn’t hate it, but I never mistook practicing law for anything other than work — what I did to make money. People stay in the practice because it supports a middle-class life, it is occasionally interesting, and once you have some experience, it is not difficult.
For years, practicing was my routine. Get up, go to the office, practice law. Five days on and two days off. Rinse, wash, and repeat. I stayed because, without it, I wouldn’t know what to do when I got up in the morning. I stayed because law was my only skill. And I stayed because I was afraid that without the legal community in which I practiced, I would be lonely.
Those were good reasons for staying, but they were not enough. If I was not willing to die at the desk, I had to pick a time to walk away. The question became, if not now, when? My colleagues who are still at it, unless they want to end up like Henry, will all have to do the same. Waiting won’t make it better. Or easier.
I wish they would do it now.
My work was my identity and my suit of armor. It was battle dress in my personal war against poverty and powerlessness. But unless I wanted to die in battle, eventually I had to leave the field. I picked a time and did it. I felt naked at first, disoriented and confused. I don’t feel that way any longer. I am comfortable and think about things other than the next case.
Before retiring, I was influenced by books and articles about what old men like me should do in retirement. The emphasis was on replacing what I was giving up with something else, something easier, something better, something more fun. But the underlying question was wrong. There is no replacement and even if there was, I wouldn’t want it.
I was shedding an identity. I might find a new one or I might not, but to avoid being a Henry, I had to walk away. Timing was my choice, the leap was not. I didn’t have a plan, a new identity ready to assume, or a retirement uniform to wear. I didn’t replace my career. I lived my days without it.
When the sense of loss and disorientation of retirement wore off, what I found was lightness. Earning, working, and saving the world is a heavy burden. I didn’t realize that until I put it down. It is too heavy for an old man.
Although I don’t carry the weight of a career anymore, my retired life is not frivolous. I face bigger issues than I ever did in the office: the deterioration of my body, my role as an elder in my family, and the approach of death. As each year passes, those things take more and more of my energy, making the anxieties of my still-working friends seem frivolous to me.
In wishing that my friends still in the profession would retire, I have questioned my motives. Is my wish self-serving, because I am unconsciously jealous of them? Is there part of me that still wants to put on the suit and tie and fight the battle? Am I a coward trying to feel better about abandoning the battlefield? Am I an old soldier just fading away?
No. My motives are pure this time. I’ve made and admitted enough mistakes in my life to know what mistakes feel like. Retirement isn’t one of them. It is acceptance. Acceptance of the inevitable. As I think of those colleagues of mine who are now my age and still making their way to the courtroom to wrestle with lawyers half their age, I wish for them the lightness. Something I know they haven’t felt in a long time.