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Retiring from practice

10 May 2019 - By Peter McMenamin

The train journey of professional life

It’s a journey for which you have a one-way ticket. At the beginning you strive to get professional qualifications, a job, perhaps a practice. And once on board it is a continuum of events, places and people, all of whom seem important. The stops are usually brief and intermittent, but nothing seems to stop the locomotive of practice and its demands. But one day, the ticket expires, and there is a stop at which you must leave the train, never to return.

When and where will that be? Will you make that choice, or will some one, or some thing, make it for you?

Close up image of a model railway.

It is important, no – essential – to look ahead and have a plan for the day when you leave the train. Recognise and realise that as a work junkie you need to wean yourself off the adrenaline of practise and prepare for another life.

And yes, there is another life, and just as you needed training to practise, you need preparation to retire successfully.

Failure to recognise your professional limitations has serious implications for yourself, your colleagues, and your clients. We have all no doubt witnessed the spectacle of the grey or white headed practitioner, bent over, shuffling into a law office, picking through some files, perhaps making a phone call, and then wandering around looking for something apparently missing, when what is really missing is the realisation that he/she is “over it”. And sometimes colleagues are too embarrassed to tell the person concerned that it is “time to go”. We all have a “use by date” professionally, and we should not embarrass ourselves, our colleagues or our clients by failing to recognise it. Ignoring the date opens the door to a potential liability.

The plan

  1. Accept that you will retire and that you are not irreplaceable.
  2. Formulate a date on which you think you might retire.
  3. Discuss this with first, your spouse or partner, and second with your colleagues. If you are a sole practitioner you have special challenges to discuss with another practitioner or your attorney, or if you are a corporate or government lawyer, discuss it in general terms with your immediate superior.
  4. Consider what your financial situation will be when you no longer have a professional income. Remember the limitations of guaranteed retirement income, and the fact that life does not become any less expensive when you retire.
  5. Take some time off and see what it is like to be “free” – it could be revealing. You will find that there is a whole “new” world out there where people are enjoying life without work.
  6. Consider what retired life could be for you – take control and make it happen, because waiting for someone or something else to do it for you is a recipe for unhappiness. Do you have a sport to engage in, do you have an involvement with community activities, are you capable of having a friendship with someone who does not want to talk about legal topics? Could you even embark on something new?
  7. Talk to someone who has retired – ask what process was followed, and how have things worked out? You will find that even practitioners whom you do not know particularly well will be happy to talk to you.
  8. Do not put things off by thinking that every file has to be finished – be prepared to make arrangements for someone else to take them over and “walk away”. Talk to clients well in advance (even years ahead) and make arrangements to introduce them to your successor/s. They will appreciate it, and you can disengage from executorships and trusteeships.
  9. Going “cold turkey” may be challenging – think about a gradual disengagement from practice.
  10. If you are a sole practitioner in private practice, you have even more need to plan well ahead.

The outcome

Imagine alighting from the train at a station where, outside, you find a life where –

  • There is no pressure of time lines, time recording, unrelenting streams of emails and fee targets;
  • There are no staff worries;
  • There are no unproductive boring compliance procedures;
  • You can travel when you choose;
  • You can play some existing or new sport of your choosing when you wish;
  • You can make a mistake without it being financially or professionally disastrous;
  • There is the possibility of doing anything you choose;
  • Relaxation is an ongoing pleasure.

Some caveats

As with many aspects of life, communication is all important. Keep up the retirement dialogue with colleagues, and family, so that there are no surprises.

If you are in partnership, what are the financial arrangements on retirement? What about firm loans, leases, and ongoing liabilities? Will the remaining partners commit to maintaining run off professional liability insurance for you? Should there be some form of exit agreement incorporating the outgoing practitioner’s willingness to cope with questions about client matters post retirement, and the remaining practitioners’ commitment to communicate details of any new liabilities for which all may be responsible?

It will take a little time to adjust to a new way of living and to purge your system of work worries and constraints, so plan, plan, plan, and make it work. You will find a whole new worthwhile existence.

These are not random comments but rather lessons from someone who left the train after 47 years on board, works one day each week for the New Zealand Law Society, and is enjoying a new way of life.

Closing down or selling a law firm

There is a Practice Briefing on the Law Society website entitled “Closing down or selling a law firm”. This can be found in the section Practice Resources/Practice Briefings.


Peter McMenamin retired from practice in 2017. He assists the Law Society with its regulatory work on a part-time basis.

Keeping in touch

Lawyers no longer in active practice can keep up-to-date with the happenings in law by signing up to NZLS Weekly, the Law Society’s weekly e-newsletter for non-lawyers. This contains most of the information in LawPoints. To sign up, go to News and Communications/Email updates on the Law Society website.

LawTalk is also uploaded onto the Law Society’s website each month. Another option is to apply for associate membership of the Law Society – go to Law Society Services/Membership on the website.

Last updated on the 10th May 2019