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Rethinking retirement

Retirement, in the traditional meaning of the word, is becoming a thing of the past, says HR consultant Patricia Wheatley Burt. Instead, we – and our firms – need to be planning for portfolio careers coming up to and beyond our retirement age, not only to fund our later years but also to make them happier and more fulfilling

As the sun peeps through your bedroom curtains, you lazily wonder what you will do today.There are lots of possibilities but no pressure, no timetables, no-one demanding you achieve your target figures or meet up with that hopelessly demanding client. In fact, if you look carefully, there is very little purpose to your life apart from existing, looking after your loved ones, and ideally making sure that when you die there is enough money for them to carry on having a good time.

Is that really what it could come to? Sadly, too many of us simply fail to plan for our transition from our role in a law firm, to one where we are (more) free to decide what else to do with our time, energy, imagination, skills and interests. What are your plans?

Years ago I met an ex-managing partner (MP) who had been exited from his firm through a 'night of the long knives'. He was devastated and depressed. He was no longer MP, nor a partner, nor with his firm. He felt he was in the gutter of life. He had defined himself by what he did, rather than by who he was. How common is that among us all? At social events, we ask others 'what do you do?' or 'who are you with?' – implying that what you do makes you who you are.

But what you do does not define who you are. Who you are does not stop when you leave your law firm or stop practising the law. So who are you?

Many of us are so frantically busy that there is little time to consider firstly whether what we are doing is still congruent with who we are, our values and beliefs, and secondly, how we will continue to be us when we transition into the next role on our career path.

If your career path stops when you are due to retire from your firm, now is the time to revisit those plans and consider how to engage your lively brain and keep physically strong for those 30+ years until you are in your 90s.

Things have changed

Many lawyers who went into the law 20, 30 or 40 years ago assumed it was a job for life, that there was a straight hierarchy of promotion to partner, and they could plateau (for which read 'rest on their laurels') with reasonable profit-sharing, until the partnership's agreed retirement age, and then wander off into some indeterminate sunset with enough finance until death. We've come to expect that we should be able to stop doing the day job at around 60+.

But things have changed. In 2016, life expectancy in the UK averages 81 years, and anyone under 50 today can expect to live to at least 95 – in some ways a pretty scary thought. That means we have to plan more effectively for retirement, but many of us also face a more expensive life in retirement than we might have expected before.

According to research by Saga, around one-third of over-50s are still paying into a mortgage, and another third are living in rented accommodation. Many will be on their second and third marriages/relationships, with resultant children often needing, among other things, university fees paid. We must expect to work longer to ensure our pensions can support us for that long, expensive retirement, and we may also need to be earning well past whatever formal retirement we take.

But this needn't be bad news. If you plan well, you will have the financial and emotional freedom to pursue multiple activities, some paid and some not, where you can apply your skills and experience beyond your legal knowledge, while still having enough time and money to enjoy yourself. Clearly, some of these activities can be undertaken while still at your firm, and retirement is not necessarily at 60, or 65; it can be earlier or later.

Rethinking how retirement works can also present real opportunities for the firm of a retiring partner. For instance, Fiona Franklin, ex-partner at Sackers, has now moved to a consultancy role, providing continuity for her clients and the team. Working two days a week has enabled Fiona develop other interests, including setting up her own business.

If both you and your firm plan well in advance, you can help remove the fear of the unknown, and keep control of your future and the firm control of succession; a mutually rewarding outcome.

Developing a portfolio career

To develop an effective portfolio career as you prepare for retirement, you need to understand what transferrable skills and knowledge you have, and which you want to harness or develop in the new arenas you aspire to. As we mature, we often stop considering what skills and abilities we have developed, and this means we have a blind spot. A thorough assessment with the assistance of external advisors will help fill in those blanks.

To understand your own skills and abilities, consider what and how you are using, say, your administrative or cognitive skills, outside the firm. You may already be involved with local professional groups, schools or societies where others value your calm and accuracy. You may find yourself being invited onto committees, and perhaps taking chairman roles, as someone who is balanced and logical in thinking, or you may be involved in young businesses because of your entrepreneurial flair. This reflects what others see in you, so harness this.

Having a role as a non-executive director (NED), governor, etc, in another business might mean you have to act differently. The dynamics, relationships and communication may all be different, and you may have to re-learn how to behave. Putting yourself into unusual/unknown roles (even if it's one day a month) will enable you to experiment with and reflect on your inclinations and habits around how you get involved, offer ideas, be part of another team and help to make things happen. Not being a 'shareholder' (as you probably are in your own business) will give you another perspective and can be enormously insightful into how you respond to risks and how creative or lateral a thinker you are.

It is important to recognise that some types of role may not be for you. Testing yourself, being honest, taking on something new is the best way to see if a role, environment and type of people works for you. Doing this years before you are due to retire enables you to mould and hone your thinking and skills into a field of interest that goes beyond your day job in the firm.

What you should avoid is a role where you are seen as a cheap (often free) legal adviser; refer all work back to your firm! In fact, many organisations have suggested that what they don't want from their NED is the lawyer's famous ambivalence, caution, and even pessimism. They want the contacts, the business acumen, negotiating skills and passion for their industry. People often think that the most obvious NED is an accountant, but many lawyers can bring a far wider perspective and a more rounded business approach – and if this sort of role interests you, you need to reflect this breadth of experience in your CV. So what if you've been head of litigation for 20 years? That means nothing to the non-lawyer. Rather, capture what you have achieved in commercial, network, financial and sector terms.

Once you understand your skills, you can begin networking and profile-raising to build your client and contact base in the new field – this will also support your firm by helping to build business.

There are some more common routes for solicitors to move into. For those who have had senior management roles, such as MP or head of a team, NED, governor and trustee roles may be of interest. We have seen others take on executive director roles for another professional/law firm (for example Chris Smylie, ex-MP for Maclay, Murray & Spens, now at Davidson & Co in Dubai). Others have become involved in operations of technology or property businesses.

You may even find that you begin a brand new career in what would otherwise have been your retirement. Robert Bond of Charles Russell Speechlys continues to develop his career in line with developments in technology. His profile shows he is in the top 10 in the Who's Who of Information Technology Lawyers 2015. He has roles that range from the UK, the UN and Malaysia, making himself a 'go-to' lawyer on data protection amongsother practice areas.

Frankly, if you have a clear understanding of your transferrable skills, the world is your oyster.

How law firms can help – and why they should

Firms have assumed, often wrongly, that each senior person will make their own plans for retirement and beyond, both within and without the firm.

But legal businesses have a key role in helping their people in this process, and firms which make this kind of concerted, longer-term effort to support senior members have a healthy rotation of people that supports a range of flexible working options. Critically, too, this ensures continuity for clients and other people within the firm.

Every firm should follow these six steps.

1. Ensure there is an external review of skills, networks, finance and so on, for each senior member of staff/partner/director, starting probably in their mid-50s and every five years thereafter, creating a proper reflection of the individual's potential.

2. Create an individual action plan that blends into the firm's business plan, strategy and timetable (including retirement, part-time working, working as a consultant, etc), so that there is clarity, openness and honesty that is mutually rewarding.

3. Agree remuneration based on these actions, accepting that it will not be the same for everyone.

4. Bring in external, sector-based coaches to help drive the individual action plans through. This avoids the temptation for the individual to be 'too busy' to have time to action longer-term career goals, or fail to pass clients over to successors, is objective, and supports networking and profile-building.

5. Put aside sufficient funds to support these career development plans, as it ensures senior members are able and willing to move on and clients are retained, and it creates space for those next in line.

6. Develop an alumnae group to support the sense of belonging, ensuring every leaver remains an ambassador and referrer for the firm. Hold regular meetings and provide regular updates to keep the links fresh.

We call this strategic portfolio career management © (email me for more details).

Managing the transition happily

Handing over responsibility for long-known clients can be a difficult experience, as most of us can't help thinking that only we can do a good job for them. So, sooner rather than later, start investing time and energy in individual team members. That will make this process of handing over infinitely easier for you, your clients and your team members, as you can ensure a good 'fit'.

How long could this transfer process take? How long is a piece of string? Both the head of department and marketing teams should be involved in this process, with you having an oversight role for months, maybe years. Moving into a consultancy/part-time role helps. Be mindful that if you contract to do two to three days, it doesn't become five in real terms.

Being prepared for the opportunities when they occur is essential: there is no such thing as luck! Life serves up surprises you can't plan for: in May 2015, my husband was diagnosed with metatastic melanomas, and he died in February the followng year. Any plans we had have now to be challenged and re-thought, so make sure you too have contingency plans for all eventualities.

Over the past few years, I have talked to a number of septuagenarian lawyers, and it is clear many are busier than ever as chairmen or directors, involved in schools, coaching sports, playing in tournaments, and/or running enterprises with younger people in areas of commerce they had not thought of before. This is not forgetting the other activities often associated with the retired, such as grandchildren, painting, fishing, golf, and so on.

They had all been looking forward to and planning for this period for a long time, but almost all regretted not having accessed these opportunities for richer and more varied commercial and social involvement sooner; they had been too self-effacing and 'buried' in today, with no proper eye on tomorrow.

Variety is the spice of life – and that is what most of us need. Don't wait, act now. We each should take stock, working with a range of internal and external views, acting as our mirrors and working out how to make today as much fun as tomorrow could be.

Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD) is a director at management consultancy Trafalgar- The People Business