It is interesting the questions I am asked because so much of my practice deals with digital and technology. A recent one had to do with “what do I need to do with my electronic records when closing my practice?” As I continued to ask questions to put this question in context, as attorneys are wont to do, I discovered that the inquiry actually had more tentacles, as most questions do. At the crux of the issue was the inner reflection of whether continuing to practice law in this digital age was something they 1) felt capable of doing, and 2) whether the decision to leave practice had anything to do with changes in technology at all.
In helping my colleague put the overwhelming future in perspective I put together some cheat notes on the decision process to ending practice, the actual steps to follow in order to do so appropriately, and some light at the end of the tunnel as to the aftermath.
The Decision to Stop Practicing Law
Sometimes the decision is ours, sometimes it is not. As I started to create a list of reasons why the decision may take place it seemed to get longer and longer. Among them were:
- The Lawyer dies.
- The Lawyer is physically or mentally unable to practice law.
- The Lawyer wants to retire.
- The Lawyer is disbarred.
- The Lawyer is disciplined.
- The Lawyer is elected or appointed to public office.
- The Lawyer accepts an employment opportunity which requires leaving the practice.
- The Lawyer is drafter or activated into military service.
- The Lawyer is leaving the state.
- The Lawyer is merging practice with another Firm and must get out of certain types of cases.
- The Lawyer is selling part or all of the practice.
- The Lawyer walks out the door due to “burn out.”
- The Lawyer suffers temporary or permanent problems with drugs or alcohol addiction.
- Money problems due to law school debt, or other causes.
The decision process to “stop practicing law” may also lead to different outcomes:
- Continue your work as a lawyer as it is now – the status quo. If you have thought it through, done the due diligence and this is what you want, do it. Don’t pay attention to those who think you should do differently.
- Continue your work as it is now but with a shift of attitude and a commitment to get more value and satisfaction out of the years you have left.
- Shift to a less demanding or stressful role in the law firm.
- Develop a new less demanding law practice area.
- Reduce the hours you work.
- Leave your law practice for a new career.
- Work part time in an easy and fun job.
- Go back to school to learn a new profession or skill or just for the joy of learning.
- Reduce your living expenses so that you can live on social security, investments, savings….
- Move to an area or a country with a lower cost of living.
- Spend more time with family, with your grandchildren.
So if you find yourself in a situation where stopping your current practice of law may be an option here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Voluntary or mandatory?
- What kind of lifestyle do I want?
- What will my expenses in retirement be?
- Will I have enough savings to cover my expenses?
- What impact will taxes have on my retirement income?
- Where will I get my health care?
- How much debt do I have?
- Am I emotionally ready to retire?
- Is my spouse ready for me to retire?
The Steps to Wind Down a Practice
I preface this with a note of caution. The steps outlined below are general in nature but it is good practice to always check with your state bar association as to what their specific requirements are for closing or selling a practice. Also keep in mind you may have more than one state bar to deal with if you are licensed in multiple states.
- Discuss with your colleagues if you are part of a law firm/group.
- Transition plan for staff and other attorneys.
- Notify courts, administrative bodies and other public agencies, including bar association.
- Notify all current clients.
- Rule 1.16(d)
- Rule 1.17
- Notify all clients for whom you handled matters that are now closed and check for client property in closed files.
- Client Acknowledgement – Transfer of Files
- Review procedure for retention and destruction of old files.
- Hard Copies
- Archived Files
- Electronic Files
- In firm computer server
- Cloud Case Management Systems
- Review contents of any safe deposit boxes held by firm.
- Close out your trust account ledgers.
- Close your operating account and any other firm accounts.
- Check your malpractice insurance to see if you have tail coverage.
- Find and review other policies, leases or contracts.
- Notify other interested parties of new address/firm affiliation.
- Review and cancel/transfer online and social media accounts (including websites) that deal with your practice.
- Computers/Firm devices
- If returning to firm: check the policy on cleanup of the computer
- If donating to school/non-profit – reformat the hard drive for security reasons.
- Furniture/Law Books
- You can offer them free to staff/colleagues
- Little Value – especially if out of date
- Office Premises
- Sell or Notify Landlord to end lease
- Close our Telephone, Internet and other services.
- Cancel Subscriptions
- Digital – i.e. listservs
- Check with Bank/Financial Institutions
- Close Accounts or Change Signatories
- Credit Card Authorizations
- Direct pay authorizations
- Ex. US Copyright Office
- Membership Dues
After the Wind Down
According to psychologists, jobs provide mental health benefits including:
- Feelings of contribution and being appreciated
- The satisfaction of solving problems and learning new things
- Relationships with fellow workers
- Daily routines eliminating mental decisions about “what to do next”
The key to a positive retirement is to ensure these benefits don’t get lost, but are simply experienced in a different way.
Enjoy your decision and your time off.
- Explore things you always wanted to do but didn’t have the time to do.
- Consider mentoring younger attorneys.
- It does not have to be permanent.
- You can always change your mind.
I know that the above is a lot of information. But in its attempt to be comprehensive in terms of an overview it is also brief in terms of all the content and resources that are out there to help an attorney transition from a legal career to a non-legal life. Although the truth is we don’t ever stop being a lawyer do we? Our training has made us see things from a certain perspective and that remains no matter what that we closed the office. That can be seen as a good thing – or bad depending on your mindset – perhaps once I wind down my practice I can finally enjoy a movie with a legal story and not be second guessing the trial lawyer in it.
- Coaching for Lawyers: Retirement for Lawyers
- 7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Deciding to Retire
- ABA Closing a Solo Practice: An exit To-Do List (2013)