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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Goodbye to All That: Thoughts on turning 67 and knowing when to quit

The time comes when we should hang it up. Some of us recognize it and go gracefully. Some don’t.

I tried two cases with 80-year-old attorneys. In the first, we were local counsel in an employment case between our client, an officer of a student-testing company, and her boss. The issue was whether she quit or was fired. The answer made an $800,000 difference in her retirement account. Insisting on trying the case for our side was the old attorney with the reputation that had the case, who would not let go. His junior partner could not get it away from him, and the client was afraid to insist. The case hinged almost entirely on reconstructing a series of events memorialized in emails.

In the opening statement, the first thing our octogenarian told the jury was he didn’t “understand emails.” Guess how that turned out.

The second was a defense case against an old southern gentleman in eastern Tennessee. His client injured a finger in a fast food restaurant, and he was convinced our target defendant would be hit big in his last, great, hurrah. It did not dawn on him that parking his cream-yellow Mercedes in the middle of the jury parking lot might seem a bit ostentatious. His Foghorn Leghorn pronouncements concerning the value of jury service (ever since I stood on mah daddy’s shoulders looking through the court-house window…) resulted in eye-rolling from the jurors under 50. But the capper came when he challenged us as the defendant to step up and take responsibility for the injury to his client, forgetting we had to bring a summary judgment motion to force him to accept the very same admission of liability he was now asking for. You know the rest.

The time comes when we should hang it up. Some of us recognize it and go gracefully. Some don’t.

There will be a trigger. Something will happen that tells us the time has come, and the time is now. It could be a big event, or the culmination of many.

It may be health. Heart attacks will do that to you. My best man retired from a medical career because he knew that after a quadruple-bypass at 49, he should pay attention to his health, not his business. He worked a few more years, but he had the money to leave, and the sense to realize the clock was ticking. Another friend quit the TSA when his feet and his mind rebelled. He couldn’t stand the job, or on it.

It may be the organization for which we work. My wife’s hospital started taking away support for the medical staff. First it was the secretarial help. Type your own notes, and forget the dictation system we provided. Then the billing help went bye-bye, and medical professionals became billing clerks. Before long, what had been a job helping kids became a job where the kids were secondary. Another friend’s wife was confronted with a school classroom in which the hazard to a teacher’s health was less important than being politically correct when it came to students who believed that assaulting the teacher was a right, not a privilege.

It may be the old conundrum of age versus technology. We finally hit the point where we no longer want to keep up with the changes, the e-filing, and new rules. I saw an ad in the Texas bar magazine in which a lawyer was selling a West Texas practice because he had encountered one change too many—the ad reciting a long list that started with the abandonment of the typewriter up through the newest thing in electronic filing. He had had enough. We can share his frustration.

It may be money. You have enough. Making more has lost the magic it once held.

It may be the day you are sitting in traffic, trying to get to one more meeting, and you wonder how many more miles, commutes, and flights you can endure. And you decide the answer is zero.

It may be the jerks. You finally get to the point that it isn’t worth dealing with them anymore. One jerk can undo the good feelings imparted by many good folks.

It may be your spouse, who asks you why you haven’t hung it up. (Listen to them, they know.)

I had a good example from my dad, who had seen too many lawyers retire badly, or not at all. He watched them die from heart attacks, lose their minds to one large or many small strokes, or slowly become a shadow of themselves. Starting at age 60, he went to his newly purchased Florida retirement home for a month. At 61, two months. In his last year, he was gone for 6 months, returning only to try the last few cases and settle the rest. We juniors took care of the day-to-day work while he was gone, along with a great secretary, and FedEx packages back and forth to Florida. At the end of the summer, he walked out the door. Done. Even with his example, I still have had to figure it out for myself. I had extended my interest in law by “switching sides” later in life. Some lawyers become judges, some become mediators. I took the slightly different route of going from a plaintiff’s practice to a defense practice. It was a learning experience, and it forced me to begin thinking about cases from a different point of view. For a time, it renewed my interest in practicing law.

But I was working full time as I approached age 65, and it became obvious to me that even with the change of sides, the motivation was flagging, the jerks were multiplying, and the old gray mare wasn’t what he used to be.

Using Dad’s example, I started a transition that has taken about 18 months, by cutting back on new cases, living in and upgrading a retirement home in Texas, and commuting by email. The internet has made working away from the office that much easier.

Preparing for a big case in federal court about a year into the process convinced me that I was on the right track. Could I try the case? Certainly. Was it going to be tough? Certainly. How did I feel when it settled? Relief, I felt relief.

Medically, the five-year lead-up to retirement had been a series of surgeries to deal with failing joints. Bilateral golfer’s-elbow surgeries. (An interesting ailment since I was playing less than ever.) A half-knee replacement. Shoulder surgery for arthritis. I knew that I would be better off making my health a bigger part of the day, not just the quick trip to the gym between the end of the work day and the time to join the commuters. The A1c was creeping up, and I needed to stop it.

So now I knew the time. What was next?

In order to prepare, I read a lot about retirement. The point of the reading was to learn. To learn what the issues were, to learn what others found the answers to be. To gain second-hand experience as a guide to my own first-hand experience. So I read, a lot, and the best of the bunch are How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free, and Better Next Year. Buy the books, not the e-copies. You will re-read them several times.

I read several books on the finances of retirement, how Social Security and Medicare worked, and how to plan.

The reading helped. Questions were posed, and I had a glimpse of the future. It wasn’t all positive, but the fact that life would change was brought into a less-fuzzy focus.

As the cases dwindled, and I found myself with more “retirement time,” I discovered some things that weren’t in the books. There is less to worry about, and with it, the stress-induced eating went away. I lost a little weight, a nice surprise. The back pain and neck pain that used to drive me to the chiropractor were gone.

My sleep was different. It was less troubled, but old habits die hard. I kept going to bed early and waking up at the time when I should be getting ready for the commute. The dark circles under the eyes slowly faded, but the dog and cat realized they were going to be fed at 6 a.m. no matter what. At least now, they go back into the bedroom and crash, while I head for the hot tub and the sunrise.

The big questions are still out there. What happens to me, my work, my status? What did I want to do with the rest of my life? What would I do with the time?

I was a trial lawyer. We trial lawyers band together to give each other status. We have organizations for our “side,” such as the American Association for Justice, or The Defense Research Institute. (Just being plain-ol’ plaintiff’s lawyers or defense lawyers was a little beneath us.) We rank each other through Martindale-Hubbell, and The Best Lawyers in America. Entrepreneurs had figured out they can sell us flattery, and SuperLawyers was born. We gather together in groups so we can take fancy trips that are tax-deductible, and flatter ourselves through association. Yes, it feeds the ego; it fed mine. (Admit it; you too joined organizations for similar reasons.)

Retirement would change my status. I would go from Trial Lawyer to, well, old guy.

How would it feel to lose my identity? I had already glimpsed what it means to be retired when I spent time at my winter place. Retirement is a status without status. We type A’s want status. Organizations, recognition, places to speak, groups that invite us to join. Being special.

There is nothing special about joining AARP. They invite you because you are old. Note the period after “old.” That is all. There are no special invitational organizations for the elderly. There are no “Best Retirees in America,” “SuperRetirees,” or “Who’s Who of the Retired.” (There might be a buck to be made here, I see.)

What did I want to do, and how would I fill the time? After four years of college and three years of law school, I spent 41 years going to work. I spent 50 or more hours a week commuting, working, and commuting again. The only breaks were summer jobs in college and the occasional week-long vacation. I had filled the bulk of my time with work, and around the gaps came family, friends, and some recreation. So what did I want to do?

I like writing, but it is things like this, a journal, and some thought pieces. I will not become a full-time writer. The Great American Novel is not clawing its way out of my soul. Maybe the occasional posting on Facebook, when I join Facebook. I took a junior college writing course in my 50s to brush up on my technique, and discovered I liked writing. But it will not be my new career. Do I plan on writing the ultimate book on how to practice law, or some magnum opus on religion, or self-help? I thought about it, but realized I have written enough articles, taught enough continuing legal education classes, and led enough Bible studies. If they didn’t learn from me then, why would they want to now?

As I had more time, I spent it with my spouse, the animals, and some friends.

That, I expected.

What I did not expect was the loss of social contact through work. Granted, I didn’t socialize much with my fellow employees outside of work, but the daily interaction at work was important. The office pack is still a pack, and we are socialized to belong to a pack. The office pack will tolerate you wandering through on occasion once retired, but you are history, so you go to one last Christmas party as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and say sayonara.

So what are the replacements for the status, the job, the time, and ultimately, the pack? This part is in the exploration phase, as I wind down the cases and spend more and more time at home.

So far, I have discovered retirees like to congregate. We all need to fill the time. We all miss the pack.

Dad gave me some lessons here, also. He became president of his Homeowner’s Association (spelled G-O-L-F-C-L-U-B), and set things up to run the way he wanted them to. He played a lot of golf, a good pack activity, until the day came when he moved into the extended care facility. You know the one—it starts as an apartment, followed by nursing care, with the alternative choice of the “memory loss” unit. Dad moved to where his former golfing buddies had gone when they could no longer play golf, either. He ran the Bible Study and the poker club, sort of the yin and yang of retirement, I guess.

My community in Texas has a golf group. I play golf, so I began showing up. In keeping with the tradition of passing the work onto the newest person to show up, I became the Golf Chair, and have the “honor” of planning and running the tournaments. There is a Thursday night Happy Hour that extends beyond the golf group at the place in Texas. Bring your own bottle, contribute some food, and gather ‘round. So we do.

I came across a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes Sunday comic strip that explains well the conundrum of retirement. In the strip, it is the last day of summer vacation, and Calvin and Hobbes spend it zooming through the day in Calvin’s red wagon, going down and down the path, sun-up to sun-down. At the end of the strip, Calvin, as only he can, philosophizes that there is simply “not enough time for all the nothing we have to do.” So I am busy being busy.

What I do know is not to go back. I am not going to be the 80-year-old attorney trying to find my way around the courtroom. The trial lawyer, past my prime, straining to hear something I cannot hear, or explain something I cannot explain. If they want to tell stories about me, they better already have them, because there aren’t going to be any others.

See you on the first tee. Bring Scotch.

 

CHARLIE HVASS, JR. has been a trial lawyer for 41 years, teaching numerous CLEs and serving as an officer in several bar associations and on various rules committees.

11 Comments


  1. Rick
    Nov 06, 2017

    Charlie: Read your article and got a lot out of it. Haven’t seen you in a long time. All my best and thanks for the insightful words.
    Rick


  2. John Schmittdiel
    Nov 06, 2017

    I’m familiar with How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free, but not with Better Next Year. Who is the author of that book?


  3. Dave Porter
    Nov 06, 2017

    Charlie – As ever, your advice is well-considered, thoughtful – and useful.
    Thanks for writing this.

    Dave Porter


  4. Charlie Hvass
    Nov 08, 2017

    John, Chris Crowley is the first listed author on Younger Next Year.
    Charlie


  5. Paul Weingarden
    Nov 10, 2017

    Charlie–

    You do not remember me as I think we only met once, but I am about your age. I also have read Crowley’s book and as I reach 67 next year, the fear of going from “respected lawyer” to “retired old fart” has immobilized my path thus far. Losing our identity as attorneys seems to be a common theme with many of my age and generation.

    I guess I am wondering why you did not consider using your considerable skills by volunteering your legal services at your own pace for a worthy cause you support? Do you think that brings back memories of the old grind or is just not enough separation to enjoy what comes next?


  6. Charlie Hvass
    Nov 10, 2017

    Paul, I did consider what volunteer opportunities I would take advantage of in retirement. You’re right, I did not want to go from paid attorney to volunteer attorney because the same issues exist. Since I wrote the article, I have expanded my work considerably with my homeowners association in Texas. As you indicated in your comment, the search for identity goes on.


  7. Gary Hvass
    Nov 13, 2017

    Charlie –

    Nice to see what my brother is up to in retirement! Very well written!!

    Gary


  8. Thomas B Burton
    Nov 18, 2017

    As a younger attorney, I found this piece to be touching, thought provoking, and most of all…beautifully written. You have a gift with words. Thank you for sharing your journey, your reflections, and your wisdom.


  9. Dean
    Dec 10, 2017

    Charlie acts in bad faith, dragged my case on , then his exact words were we all laughing at you, u either settle case for 5,000 or I walking away from case and u won’t be able to hire new attorney because statue of limitations is running out, I have to take pain medication for sleep, he’s a ego wounded pride boy, if any attorney would like to sue Donna law firm and hvass , please contact . Dean.dalbec@Gmail. Com god bless & thank you


  10. Dean.dalbec@gmail.com
    Dec 10, 2017

    Actions & Reactions.


  11. Dean dalbec
    Dec 10, 2017

    I be willing to donate a settlement to a charity of attorneys liking, as this principal.

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