Lawyers tend to be great planners. They’re skilled at imagining possible scenarios and creating plans to minimize risk. However, there is one area that lawyers typically struggle to face with clarity and logic: their very own retirement.

This topic is difficult to approach for many reasons, but ignoring it does not help.

How Much Time Do I Have?

If you’re a lawyer over 65, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. First, the good news. According to the CDC, the average 65-year-old female can expect to live to 86 years old, and the average male can expect to live to 83. So, if you’ve reached 65, you can reasonably expect to live for at least another 18-20 more years.

Ready for the bad news? Just because you may live that long does NOT mean you’ll be able to practice law for that long.

Delay Retirement: Pragmatic or Problematic?

More and more lawyers are working well into their 70s, and I’ve encountered so many lawyers still practicing in their 80s that it no longer surprises me. What’s the reason for this growing trend of aging attorneys?

The most popular reasons lawyers are now working well into their sunset years are the following:

  • Financial: They can’t afford to retire and enjoy the lifestyle they desire.
  • Passion: They love practicing law and can’t imagine doing anything else.
  • Familiarity: They have no clue what else they would do if they retired, even though they may not love (or even like) practicing law anymore. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!

These justifications are reasonable, but most lawyers fail to consider the most obvious risk to their practice as they age, and it is not dying at one’s desk. It’s facing a serious health problem.

Growing Old Sucks

Just like everybody else, lawyers age. It’s not a lot of fun. We decline physically and mentally—some of us faster than others.

Let’s be real. It is unlikely that you will live out your 60s, 70s, or 80s without serious health problems. With no plan in place, if you suffer a heart attack, a stroke, or a fall that puts you out of commission for a few months, the consequences are harsh—not just for you, but for your clients and the staff that depends on your business for their own livelihood.

Here are a few sobering facts that may get your attention.

  • 10 to 20% of people aged 65 and older have mild cognitive impairment.
  • Heart disease affects 37% of men and 26% of women aged 65 and older.
  • One in nine people aged 65 and older (11.3%) has Alzheimer’s dementia. After 65, the risk doubles every five years.
  • Over one-third of adults aged 65 or older sustain an injury from falling each year. Of those who do, 20% to 30% suffer moderate to severe injuries that decrease mobility and independence.
  • At least 80% of people older than 60 are living with one chronic illness, and 50% of those older than 60 are living with two or more chronic diseases.

What you do with this information is your call. But ignoring it is an accident waiting to happen.

And What If…?

I hate to break the news to you, but lawyers still have a 100% mortality rate. Putting your head in the sand won’t preserve your legacy.

Here are the likely scenarios if you die at your desk without a plan.

  • If you’re a solo, your grieving spouse or children will likely have to handle phone calls from clients with active matters while at the same time planning your funeral.
  • Your clients will probably panic about how their matter will be handled. They’ll feel some combination of frustration, disappointment, and betrayal.
  • Your staff will quickly scatter and be unable to help anyone. After all, they have to look after themselves. And if you didn’t bother to plan ahead for someone to help your clients, why should that burden fall on them?
  • A family member or executor will be forced to decide whether to try to sell the firm or simply shut it down. They will either have to spend thousands on fees to advisors to help them choose a course of action and execute it, or ask a trusted colleague or friend to step in and help them. That huge “ask” will require 50-100 hours of their time.
  • If your heirs try to sell the firm, the following will be lost:
    • Money. It will take months for everyone to get their act together and find a successor firm, if that’s even possible. The terms of sale will resemble a fire sale, because by that time, many clients will have already found new counsel.
    • Your ability to steer your clients to a trusted colleague. They may retain someone who you’ve always hated or didn’t trust.
    • Ease. Even if your clients or heirs find a competent successor, you won’t be around to help with the transition that would have made life so much easier for both clients and your successor.

If you want to work for as long as possible, whatever the reason, you’re not alone; many lawyers feel the same. But the consequences of dying at your desk are not simply not worth the risk. You do an enormous disservice to those around you by choosing not to plan for the possibility of disability, or the eventuality of your death.

Don’t Be Selfish; Do What’s Right

You should have a clear sense of what’s at stake by now. Failing to create a succession plan is not just lazy; it’s irresponsible and selfish. If you neglect your responsibilities to your heirs, clients, and staff, you leave a heavy burden for them to bear.

Don’t hang your clients out to dry and compel them to seek guidance from lawyers you would never have referred them to. Don’t allow the possibility for your employees to scatter when they realize nothing formal is in place to ensure the continuity of the firm. Don’t force your grieving spouse or children to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers and other advisors to clean up a mess.

Take charge of your future with the same diligence you apply to your clients' needs. Don’t wait for a crisis to act. Succession planning is not merely a task to check off; it’s an opportunity to ensure your legacy. You only get one chance to exit the legal profession. Do it wisely.

If this blog post has motivated you to do some real planning about the future of your practice and your legacy, feel free to reach out to me. I've helped hundreds of attorneys look to the future, and I would be happy to help you, too. You can reach me at 612-524-5837 or you can contact me online.