Retiring into a Bright Sadness

bright-sadness

This article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of the NW Lawyer, the bar journal for the Washington State Bar Association. — Ed.

I was tired after 40 years of practicing law. It was time for a new road map: more music with the band, flannel shirts, bike riding, road trips, grandparenting, storytelling, teepee lodging, and embellishing memories with old pals. I wanted to be present with the people I love. Long ago, law practice began to rob me of living completely in the moment — reading to a grandchild; hiking with a son or daughter; sitting on a beach with my wife and friends — always a part of my mind was practicing law. Did we meet the filing deadline? I should have returned that phone call. Do we have enough money in the pot to meet payday? That elderly couple should have received a discount, but I don’t need one more box of overgrown zucchini.

When the family business is transferred from one generation to the next, it always comes down to this: “Will my kids be okay, Dan?”

After 40 years of lawyering, it was time to move into what author Richard Rohr calls a “bright sadness.” Life becomes more spacious and our view expands accordingly. Our goal is not to be held in bondage by the tyranny of the moment. Life becomes both bright and sad because we see more clearly as we review our past and look into the future.

I practiced in Enumclaw[, WA] from 1972 until the end of 2011, with some final winding down through 2012. I remain available to consult on files that predate my retirement. My career began in general practice, more particularly described as, “I’ll take whatever walks into the front door to put beans on the table.” I had a family to support. In those early years, I felt incompetent but apparently my clients did not know this, because my practice grew. I recruited and was joined by law school classmate Rodger Gustafson. We practiced as Farr and Gustafson until his retirement in the late 1990s.

In my early fifties, I made a commitment to retire by the age of 65. My resolve to keep this goal increased as both the obstacles and benefits of retirement became more obvious. Perhaps my biggest influence came from attorneys and their families whom I represented with estate planning, probate, and as a confidant. I can only summarize the collective thoughts of these clients and friends. They each expressed an ambivalent desire to retire. Ambivalent because they felt trapped and immobilized.

Most of us, regardless of firm size, share the following:

  1. The belief we have insufficient assets to finance retirement. This statement comes from my very wealthiest clients as well as the poorest. Is retirement important enough to reduce the current lifestyle? Your financial advisor’s job assumes your goal is to maintain or increase your investment. A CPA (who is not selling investments) may suggest a distribution of your existing savings/IRA with interest on the diminishing principle balance (i.e., five percent growth in the equity market) and a zero balance at your estimated exit age (i.e., 90). If alive after 90, you sell your home to finance assisted living. Finally, you can work part-time. But for many of us, part-time always becomes full-time.
  2. Always feeling the need to catch up, an attorney’s energy and time are committed to the stack of files, unanswered phone calls, emails, and needy clients seeking attention. “How do I find the time to address the daunting task of finding my replacement and transfer my practice?”
  3. For those of us over 60, there is a professional culture which assumes we will die at our desk. Where does that leave clients’ interests? Moreover, older attorneys may experience strokes, dementia, and struggles of aging. In our attempts to hold on, clients’ interests are compromised, and relationships within and without the firm become awkward for all involved — including the dignity and legacy of the senior attorney in need of retirement.
  4. A transparently honest senior attorney from a large firm told me he was concerned about the loss of affirmation from clients once retired. The sense of losing status and affirmation following retirement caught me by surprise. I sought the assistance of a consultant with a unique skill set for helping attorneys in transition. (A separate article could be written on this topic.) In my case, the loss forced a new perspective, becoming an unexpected bright consequence of retirement.

In the face of these obstacles, I would retire. Four decades was enough. I would find my replacement, and first looked within my own family. My son E. Ross Farr is a Seattle attorney. Formerly a partner at Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC, he recently joined Nordstrom as in-house counsel. He is well-established in Seattle. Son Dan Jr. is working on a master’s degree in education, and daughter Whitney is an RN at the Veterans Hospital. My daughter Megan S. Farr worked for Senator Patty Murray in Washington, D.C. before attending UW Law School. Joining her father in the small community in which she spent her first 18 years initially seemed out of the question, but Megan changed her mind and joined my practice. From January 2004 to June 2009, Megan learned the art of estate planning and probate, and we became Farr Law Offices, PLLC. Megan’s husband, Owen Gabrielson, joined us in 2010, and the firm became Farr Law Group, PLLC. I formally transferred the practice to Megan and Owen in January 2011, and continued thereafter as a part-time employee until my retirement.

Did we make mistakes during the transfer?

Were there arguments and misunderstandings? Of course! Megan and I spoke on this very topic at a recent CLE. But we got the job done. It is difficult to hand over your life’s work. The test comes down to this: Do you trust them? Have you been fair with them? Will they take good care of your clients? And in my case, the answers were all in the affirmative. I learned, with some difficulty, it was my job to complete the transfer without regret or attempts to hold on to old turf within the firm I built and nurtured.

The new owners will change billing practices, policies, procedures, technology, staff, and client communication. The retiring attorney (and this is the tough part) should not be giving unsolicited advice or undermine changes.

We are to give this younger generation our blessing and then move on to seek a more spacious life, giving all those we love our undivided attention.

What remains now of “bright sadness?”

I was invited into people’s lives to solve problems. That is the honor. The rewards can hardly be described.

I suspect that small-town attorneys are more visible and available than their city counterparts. Whether intended as fees or gifts (I never knew), I have received: a Jersey calf; fence posts; homemade moccasins; venison; salmon; overgrown zucchini; wild huckleberries; knitted hats; jams; cakes; a fresh elk hide only a few hours removed from the elk; cookies; spaghetti sauce, meatballs, and lasagna; and a discourse on “what does love look like.” The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe invited me to their powwow, where I was given a blanket, draped around my shoulders, then invited to participate in traditional dancing — first with children, then joined by grandparents, then parents, then teenagers — drums pounding — ending in exhaustion — I belonged. Every day, I drove by a friend’s office on the way to work. Knowing he was there was a comfort to me (a shared history since childhood). I have been overpaid.

I have served as a prosecutor, judge, and defense attorney. I have been a confidant and represented priests, ministers, judges, attorneys, physicians, local politicians, tribal members, police officers, felons, drunks, the homeless, the lonely, parents of deceased children, and a great assortment of family and friends — quirky and otherwise. Sometimes the boundary between client and friend blurs until there are no boundaries.

Over the years, I have experienced anxiety from known and unknown sources — fed by the squirrel cage in my mind at 3 a.m. and mostly related to my law practice. But the victories, the defeats, the anxieties, and the professional standing of whatever level I have mustered have never compared in importance to the people who have crossed my path.

It is the people and families and their stories I will remember.

  • In my early practice, I prevailed in an emotionally charged case. At the end of the trial, everyone was wounded, including myself. Years later, the opposing party asked me to be his attorney. We have become good friends. I have carried this gift of unmerited kindness for over 35 years.
  • Memories of my wife and me picking up newborn babies from hospitals and delivering them to adopting couples.
  • Meeting with families beyond grief whose sons have committed suicide.
  • Estate beneficiaries who volunteer to share their inheritance equally with a stepsister left out of a will.
  • The always-changing stream meandering through Wilkeson causing disputes between neighbors because the “thread of the stream” was a boundary on many legal descriptions. The stream may have produced more legal fees than fish.

Who is milking the cows when dad dies?

When the family business is transferred from one generation to the next, it always comes down to this: “Will my kids be okay, Dan?” They don’t run the dairy farm like we did — or the hardware store, the clinic, the restaurant, the feed store, the funeral home, the insurance office, the car dealership — and the law firm. Will they be okay? For most clients, and for me, the answer is, “Release them. Stand back.” What I started will continue and probably get better. I get to move on.

It is the people I will remember — the saints and scoundrels alike, exchanging words that sometimes lead into transparent, perhaps transcending places. Marcus Borg calls these “thin places.” Sometimes the attorney becomes the only source of comfort the client has. And sometimes it is the client who does the comforting: the dying young woman in the Veazie Valley comforting the grief-stricken attorney.

We hold onto each other, the wounded helping the wounded, and maybe, now and then, as Fredrick Buechner says, “a touch of the hand — a hug — becomes a holy moment” — and that is what I will remember.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emmanuelfrezzotti/3641356554/)

  • Aaron

    A very moving and honest piece. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Kristi Kozubal

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m sure it is the sentiment shared by my very own “senior partner,” my husband, but he’s too busy serving our clients to put these thoughts into words, even though I know he could. Few people truly understand the emotional roller coaster we’re on in our small town practices. And how it’s not all about – or more accurately – it’s seldom about – the money. Frankly the amazing box of Mackintosh apples we received from a client earlier this fall made me happier than a clam in mud. I mean, happier than any of the greenbacks I received all month.

  • Canadacourtwatch.ORG

    Well put. Retirement frees us from the tyranny of the moment and a chance to see the world as a wider landscape and what we can and should do for others. A chance to leave this world better then we found it…

  • http://JamesBellefeuille.com/ James Bellefeuille

    As a young man, this brings to mind a quote by author Harold Kushner, “No one ever said on their deathbed: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” Thank you for writing such an eloquent piece. What do you plan to do in your retirement, Dan?

  • J. Flanders

    This was fantastic. I think about retiring, but it is the weird, nebulous horizon that is really more of a fantasy than anything. This puts things in nice perspective. Good luck to you.

  • http://resipsalocquitor.blogspot.com/ Res Ipsa

    An excellent article.

    I’m in my early 50s and have made the same decision to retire by 65, or 63 if I can. I also share those fears you note that I won’t be able to.

    I’ve also experienced the things you note, in terms of the rewards of the profession, the differences being that I haven’t found them to balance against a dispiriting profession that I now wish I’d never started off in. Indeed, that latter feeling is one of my prime motivators towards making sure I retire, together with not wanting to be one of those lawyers who dies at their desk.