What's Your Endgame? Better Have One

Published on: 
02/15/2013
At the close of "Charlie Wilson's War," the 2009 movie based on the real-life political maneuvering behind the war in Afghanistan, a quote from the titular congressman appears onscreen, stating that the U.S. government: "changed the world, but we [expletive] the endgame."

Without an endgame, the war became confused and purposeless. The quote reminds me of so many lawyers who don't envision the end of their law practice until, one day, they awake and decide they want to do something else, or they're not feeling so good and their doctor tells them they have a "problem."

They have not planned for this time; they have not taken their destiny into their own hands. It's like going to the office without a plan for the day and reacting only when the phone rings.

The decision to make such a major change as leaving a practice should not be taken lightly and should involve weighing four fundamental considerations:

  • Economics

    The practice of many solo and small-firm lawyers involves family disputes, estate planning, personal injury claims and the like, which tend to pay less to begin with and can be postponed if recession-hit clients can't afford them. With fewer clients and slower payments, there comes a point where practicing law can lose its economic viability.

    • Age

      As I've written before, the legal profession is aging dramatically. Especially in a sole practice, aging lawyers who may be thinking of retiring from their practices may emotionally leave their clients long before they close their doors. In large firms, the older lawyer receives the designation of "special counsel" or "emeritus partner." Either way, we as lawyers cannot beat the calendar.

    • Work/life balance

      This is a long-term assessment that every lawyer must make. In the short term there is really no such day-to-day phenomenon as balance; at any given moment, the lawyer is either working or engaging in personal pursuits. The broader perspective is how much cumulative time you devote to each and what you value more. It is an issue that remains on top of the table, particularly as time demands for legal practice increase while financial and family considerations are equally substantial.

    • Personal satisfaction

    Too many lawyers are close to burnout, or at the very least are unhappy in their occupation, as shown by the reported cases of alcohol and drug abuse (the tip of the iceberg). The recession has exacerbated lawyers' tension and dissatisfaction by causing them to re-examine their life savings and wonder if they can afford to retire.

    These obviously are open-ended considerations that are different for every lawyer, but they emphasize that making an endgame decision is an emotional process. You must want to do so and believe you have no other alternative. A transition from the law will require all the traits that defined success: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment.

    Basically, you must answer the question, "What do I want to do when I grow up?" Each person's answer is unique and can change over time.

    Making a decision does not have to mean that you've burned bridges to your past life or that you have erected a wall against future change. But it does mean that you need to define the elements of your own personal endgame — long before the end comes.

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