Denver Bar Association
November 2013
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Transitioning in Place—An Alternative to the “R” Word

by Ken Stern


 hate the word "retirement." It’s a very imprecise term in today’s world, and can even be viewed in a pejorative manner. The classic conception of retirement involves closing the book on one’s career and, at its extreme, the complete cessation of productive engagement in the world. When you mention "retirement," many people have an image of being home all day watching "Jeopardy" in pajamas.

Baby Boomers—who expect to live longer and may need to continue generating income later in life—are looking for alternatives to the classic notion of retirement. For many Boomers, especially attorneys, transitioning in place provides a better alternative for their future.

Many Boomer attorneys have built successful careers by displaying an excellent work ethic—translated into working long hours and large amounts of stress. Over the years, however, it can start to feel overwhelming. Alternatively, many Boomer attorneys begin to think wistfully about pursuing other interests or passions that they had to put aside as they built their law practices. In the traditional retirement model, Boomer attorneys have to make what sometimes feels like a "Sophie’s choice," between continuing their career or walking away into the sunset.

The "transition-in-place" model is much more flexible and nuanced than the traditional retirement concept. It has two effective approaches, the first of which is to focus on how Boomer attorneys want to restructure their work–life balance. Recalibrating work–life balance is most commonly the foundation of the transition in place approach. It is extremely helpful to find metrics to quantify the restructuring, such as how many hours the attorney will bill per year, or how many days per week the attorney will work, etc.

The second approach is to identify which aspects of the practice of law remain the most enjoyable versus which cause the most stress. The answer will determine how the practice can be successfully restructured by maintaining or expanding the fulfilling parts while decreasing or eliminating those responsibilities that are the most stressful or the least enjoyable. The net result of both steps is creating a better work–life balance and a more satisfying practice of law.

Another key component in this process is discovering how Boomer attorneys will spend their additional free time. While feeling burnt out is a strong motivation for implementing the transition-in-place model, identifying exciting possibilities for the resulting free time is often a more powerful catalyst for change. Focusing on the new possibilities is an effective way to overcome the obstacles and fear associated with the transition.

In my experience as a coach and consultant, the biggest challenge in making this type of transition is typically the attorney’s own internal resistance to change. I have helped many clients overcome this resistance by using a number of techniques such as visualizations, fact-checking measures, employing accountability "buddies," and "day in the life" exercises.

Transitioning in place is a not a pie-in-the-sky proposition. Many lawyers are successfully implementing this model, even if they don’t label it this way. For example, I have successfully transitioned my practice so that I spend 75% of my work time practicing immigration law, focusing on the parts of the practice I enjoy the most, and 25% of my time engaged in executive coaching and law firm consulting.

The beauty of the transition-in-place model is that it is both financially rewarding for the individual attorney and extremely beneficial to the law firm. In an "all-or-nothing environment," the attorney might typically retire at age 65. The transition-in-place model involves regular adjustments to the work–life balance equation and the substance of the individual’s law practice. Making these adjustments will usually significantly expand the attorney’s career, perhaps to age 75 or beyond, allowing the attorney to earn income over a much longer period of time. The firm will continue to benefit from the attorney’s presence, wisdom, and book of business.

Additionally, law firms that successfully adopt a transition-in-place culture may be able to attract successful Baby Boomer attorneys with big books of business from other firms that are not as receptive to the concept.

Baby Boomers have redefined many social phenomena over the decades. Ideally, Boomers will continue to create and implement many alternatives to the traditional notion of retirement—finding new ways to gradually and gracefully wind down their successful careers. D

Ken Stern

Ken Stern is a partner in the immigration law firm, Stern & Curray. In addition to actively practicing immigration law he also engages in executive coaching and law firm consulting. He can be reached at

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