Editor’s note: This is the 18th story in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) “Stories of Recovery” series. TLAP offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at (800) 343-8527 and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.
Three decades of practicing law and I was starting to think about retirement, maybe within eight years. The changes appeared almost out of nowhere, so gently, so quietly, it was hard to recognize.
I became a bit more forgetful and tripped periodically, feeling my balance was affected. My family members were often cross with me for having to remind me of things, but I assumed it was just caused by their stressful lives. My ever-patient, loving spouse noticed I was more irritable and assumed it was my stress from the practice. An intervening medical condition occurred requiring surgery and, after a short and successful recovery from that condition, I couldn’t seem to bounce back to my old self.
I began to abdicate responsibilities to my associate and what a relief, though it was unlike my usual behavior. Long overdue changes in office operation, administration, and location were made and what a relief, again, to be rid of some of the stress of taking care of so many others as an employer. Either the economy or others noting my changing condition caused the phone to begin to ring less often. Colleagues commented I seemed to have less personal drive and even noticed a personality change.
Looking back, as I delegated more and made changes producing less stress, this was the best part of my transition, which took about two years. It was a period of less money but less expense, resulting in less stress and responsibility and feeling safe and comfortable in my practice with help of an associate and paralegal close at hand.
It was also a relief not to have to deal with a changing legal practice connected to websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc., at a time when I was no longer fully engaged in management matters. During this period, as I became more dependent and less financially connected to others in my office, close supervision was needed so there was no opportunity to take advantage of a lawyer in decline. I continued to meet with long-term clients and represent them at uncontested hearings, with a lawyer or paralegal assisting and relying on a script of steps as a checklist. This was a good time for me and made the conclusion of my practice easier to accept.
Family members experienced a greater struggle with concerns about liability and the possibility of a client complaint. In light of those concerns and a medical recommendation that it was time, I began the final four-month transition to close my practice. We all experienced fear about the finality. After decades of jumping up in the morning, racing to the courthouse with a practice packed with clients, for it suddenly to all be simply swept away was unsettling to us all. There was even fear that I would have nothing to do and be lonely without the legal community.
The closing itself was emotional, but when the actual day came it was a huge relief. With suggestions made by a lawyer who advises about closing a practice and the suggestions I received from the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I knew what steps to take and resources available for help and support. After dealing with 100-plus boxes, a shredding challenge, distributing office furnishings and equipment, a goodbye letter to all my wonderful clients (which ignited a huge response of appreciation), a party with many toasts and cake at my office, the final door closed. My family planned a surprise trip and as a practicing lawyer I faded into the sunset feeling relief.
Since I have settled into retirement, I am surprised how good it is. Of course, admittedly with a diagnosis that affects my physical and mental ability, I am not the person and lawyer I used to be.
I can even afford my new life, an issue that caused me great anxiety until I reached this point. I receive disability benefits, retirement benefits, and have some savings, which I worked hard to accumulate one month at a time. I know from experience how important it is for lawyers in their 40s to start saving now, as my situation once again proves you never know what will happen in your future.
Now I wake up when I want and choose my activities for the day. I volunteer, take a computer class for seniors, participate in my faith community, attend periodic therapy to fine tune and maintain my abilities, and continue to have my weekly lawyers’ lunch group to enjoy their company and remember the stress of it all. I had traveled with my family for short vacations, and now I have the time to plan and accommodate family schedules and do more extensive travel. I still have plenty of company, and my dog now has plenty of time to walk me.
I do still feel occasional anxiety about my medical future and continuing ability to connect with colleagues and friends. You know what? I was in high anxiety about my forced retirement and today it is a relief. Doesn’t that assure I will accept and enjoy my future?