Every day is Sunday: why do so many lawyers put off the problem of retirement?

Woman pondering

Written for Lawyers Financial by Chris Goldie

When Vancouver-based personal injury lawyer Steve Herman hit his mid-fifties, he realized retirement wasn’t far beyond the horizon anymore. This wasn’t a pleasant thought. Herman believes his mother’s early retirement from teaching triggered a downward spiral for her health. “She subsequently went into 20 years of anxiety and depression. And I think it was because she lost her purpose in life,” Herman says.

Herman found financial advice and practice management advice, but nothing on “navigating the challenges of leaving your career, and specifically a legal career.” Replies to his casual inquiries about his peers’ retirement plans were muted.

Sensing a need, Herman created a retirement seminar for lawyers in June 2016. Three people attended. He tried again in 2018 and five trickled in. But when he teamed up with the Courthouse Library Society of BC and moved it online in September 2019, 120 people found an hour to spare—when logging in anonymously.

So, Herman did the next logical thing. He made a movie.

Herman, 62, created Retirement on Trial with his personal partner, Evelyn Neaman, who managed access to international justice reform projects. The documentary is a compelling collage of interviews with several lawyers, variously pre or post retirement, three former judges, a social philosopher, and a neurosurgeon. It launched in September 2023 to a sold-out audience of 300 in Vancouver.

Every day is Sunday

Herman and Neaman are onto something. Key themes in their film resurfaced again and again in interviews for this article.

I talked to seven lawyers, all in their sixties. They’re wary of retirement and almost uniformly approach it with dark humour. (“Well, that’s the last job you have before you die.”)

Les Mackoff, a 68-year-old Vancouver litigator and co-founder of Mackoff Mohammed, recalls asking a former judge how retirement was going. “Ohhh…every day is Sunday,” came the reply. “That stuck with me,” says Mackoff. “I don't want every day to be Sunday. I want to feel I’ve learned something every day and that I'm more able than I was the day before. I don't think that retirement gets you there.”

Catherine Patterson, 65, manages a firm with her husband in London, Ontario, and echoes the importance of intellectual curiosity. “Two years ago, I had a file where over a period of two months I learned an awful lot about how natural gas gets out of the earth and into your home. And I really enjoy that part of it. The day-to-day grind of managing a business, no, I won't miss that at all when I retire.”

Retirement, just not retirement

Patterson and her husband know the precise date in 2025 when they’ll “turn off the lights and lock the door,” but concedes she’ll keep a home office. “I'm interested in doing part time remote work on a contract basis, helping other lawyers, drafting pleadings, that kind of thing.”

Paul McDonald, 66, of St. John’s, Newfoundland, has a similar perspective—except that his office is at Tupman & Bloom instead of at home. After 39 years of litigation-based practice, McDonald was ready to retire, or thought he was, until a new firm stepped in and proposed a part-time role, which he “certainly had time for, and was pleasantly surprised by.”

But Mackoff is unambivalent. “I’m not retiring anytime soon. I’ve discussed this with the people in my office, and I've discussed the way I'm going to work with my wife, and it doesn't involve the notion of retirement.”

Herman and Neaman’s film also explores this reluctance to completely walk away. It’s a theme that resonates with me, personally, because my late father didn’t fully retire from law until his early 80s. His brother-in-law left the bench at 75 and joined an arbitration firm. Watching Retirement on Trial makes me wonder if they just didn’t know how to stop.

“They didn't know who they were if they didn't get up and go to work every day and be that person. The organizing principle of their lives…was that they were a practicing lawyer.”

Enter gender

Lawyers tend to retire later than the rest of us, and the numbers suggest that male lawyers are especially reluctant to hang it up.

  • In B.C., 17% of male lawyers are 65 or older, vs. 5% of women.1 
  • In Ontario, it’s 16% and 4%.2
  • In Québec, the average retirement age of male and female lawyers, is 67.7 and 62.1, respectively.3

Celia Rhea, 63, an M&A partner at Goodmans in Toronto, makes two points about data showing women retire earlier. “In my experience, the status and admiration that goes with being a very high achieving lawyer is much more for a man than a woman. I love my work but it’s not my identity and I look forward to having time for other interests after I retire.”

Anita Ghatak, a retired BC crown prosecutor, shares similar thoughts in Retirement on Trial. “Observing the lawyers I worked with, particularly the men, I think they didn't know who they were if they didn't get up and go to work every day and be that person. The organizing principle of their lives and their ego was that they were a practicing lawyer.”

McDonald agrees. “In my experience, it's probably significantly more men than women who cannot conceive of a life after law. And they get to a point where it becomes an integral part of their identity.”

The fusing of personal and professional identities isn’t unique to lawyers (doctors, anyone?), but other aspects are gender neutral.

Patterson and others note that lawyers are problem solvers. “Lawyers are driven in that if they're going to successfully solve problems, they’ve got to keep at it. I’ll definitely miss that, it’s what I enjoy about law.” Rhea laughs as she recalls advising a client, “The client said that is great advice, thank you. And then they followed it. That doesn’t happen in my personal life!”

Money matters

Stereotypes aside, few lawyers earn big firm, corner office-sized incomes. Pension plans in private practice are rare. So postponing retirement can be a necessity. A few facts:

  • In Quebec, 58% of lawyers make less than $110,000 a year.3 
  • In Ontario, 24% of men are sole practitioners vs. 14% of women.2 
  • 48.5% of those men are 65 or older.2

And the percentage of female lawyers in Ontario working in government (in roles that typically provide a pension) is 60% higher than the male cohort.2

Resolving the dilemma

Regardless of the reason, there are risks in practicing too long. In Retirement on Trial, criminal defence lawyer Marvin Stern is candid about the problem: “I've seen a lot of people push it to the very end and you can see they're just duct taping it together.” Su Forbes, COO of the Lawyers Indemnity Fund at the Law Society of BC, says, “the advice I'd offer to any lawyer, junior or senior, is that they must ensure they're up to providing the quality and efficiency of service. All clients deserve no less. If you can't really do that, you shouldn't be in the game.”

The challenge can be the prospect of all or nothing. Faced with that, some will keep taking Monday over another Sunday. But many national firms now have mandatory retirement ages for withdrawing from the partnership. Counsel roles like McDonald’s are one transition option. These roles are often filled by semi-retired individuals (including former partners) with well-regarded expertise who can attract business and help younger lawyers navigate their case loads. Mentoring, in other words.

Herman thinks firms need to make more room for mentoring—but most don’t for purely business reasons. Can the person bill? For what and how much? And yet, how much distilled value might you find from a lawyer who's been in the game for 40 plus years?

Rhea’s perspective on her mandatory retirement acknowledges the next generation. “I work with certain people a lot, and I've tried to teach them and sponsor them and I want them to have a great career to carry forward when I retire. That's very much my perspective, I feel your practice belongs to the firm, not you, and you must ensure that your practice and knowledge continue after you're no longer there.”

Some final thoughts from Richard Lindsay, who joined a Vancouver mediation firm in 2021 after a 40-year career in insurance law. In Herman’s film, Lindsay says, “lawyers are problem solvers. Retirement is a problem. So, start thinking about solving your problem.”

Over to you.

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For more than 40 years, CBIA/Lawyers Financial has helped Canada’s lawyers plan for life’s inevitabilities—up to (and sometimes even including) retirement. Whether you plan to fully retire, or partially work, we can help you plan for a third act that’s as rich and purposeful as your first two.

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Chris Goldie is a financial writer and editor.

Sources: 1. Law Society of British Columbia, 2022 Annual Report. 2. Law Society of Ontario, 2022 Annual Report. 3. Barreau du Québec, 2022, The Profession in Numbers.

 

December 11, 2023