A Retirement Story: From Someone Who’s Been There

by Camille Stell

Dr. David Ekerdt is a former professor who spent his career studying retirement as a sociology and gerontology specialist. In an essay written for the Wall Street Journal titled “I Spent 44 Years Studying Retirement. Then I Retired.”, Dr. Ekerdt shares his personal story.

I believe lawyers who are considering retirement will find his story will resonate with their own experience as they contemplate the next season of career or life after law.

The Importance of the Celebration

The NC State Bar annually celebrates the 50-year career mark of lawyers with a luncheon. I’ve been privileged to attend this event several times and it is wonderful to see lawyers celebrate this momentous occasion. 

Dr. Ekerdt shared his experience with his own retirement celebration.

“Retirement ceremonies and rituals are important. Some workers pooh-pooh employer-organized events, believing the farewell praise to be tedious and insincere. Mine was originally canceled by the pandemic, so my co-workers improvised an outdoor gathering in the parking lot, everyone masked. No food, no speeches, but beautiful gifts. I was honored and flattered by their efforts to wish me well, sweet closure to my years of teaching. It was one of those events I intellectually knew could serve as an important transition. But until I experienced it, I had no idea just how meaningful it would be.”

I agree with the idea of a celebration serving as an important way to mark the transition. Not everyone who retires is going to want to celebrate, and every celebration might look different, but I encourage you to consider allowing such an event to be held in your honor. A dinner with family and friends, a cake and retirement lunch with your office staff, or a trip to mark the occasion will be moments for you to remember and will begin the emotional transfer from practicing lawyer to retired.

The Office Purge

By the time many lawyers retire, they have spent a lifetime in their office. It’s hard to imagine how to begin the office purge.

Dr. Ekerdt says, “As retirement neared, I mounted a radical purge of files, books and records assembled over decades in my office. Yet a considerable archive remains, stashed in a university office, which I have to remove by next spring. Seeing that my biographers haven’t come forward to claim this remaining material, it’s on me to house it privately. I had not thought that through. I still don’t have an answer.”

Dr. Ekerdt has written a book about the topic called “Downsizing: Confronting our Possessions in Later Life”. Yet, it sounds as though it was easier for him to tell others how to do it than to accomplish it himself. These are often the lessons of retirement, despite intellectually knowing what to do, our emotions can get in the way of moving forward or developing a plan.

Who Will I Be in Retirement?

I believe one reason lawyers avoid retirement is because they don’t know who they are outside of being a lawyer. This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course, but it is a common conversation I have with lawyers. I recall a consult with an 86-year-old lawyer who told me he was “considering” retirement but didn’t feel the need to plan for it because he felt he had several years left to practice. When I saw his obituary not too many months after our conversation, I realized he went out exactly as he wanted to. Until his death, he was still putting on a suit and tie daily and coming to his office. For some of you reading this, that sounds like the perfect exit strategy. For others, it may give you pause.

Dr. Ekerdt also had some observations about personal identity and retirement.

“I also have had a revelation about how easily I’ve shed a big part of my old persona. Retirees overwhelmingly report that the great prize of retirement is freedom from daily obligations. ‘No more schedules, my time is my own’.”

“Still, I assumed when I retired, I would continue to be the me I’ve known for decades—the one with the go-go gear in my mind, always needing to move on to the next thing on my to-do list. I must read this, learn that, keep tabs on who’s who, and never overlook any chance to compete for research-project funding.”

“Instead, I’ve somewhat effortlessly and unconsciously downshifted from the self-imposed drive that was part of building a career. With retirement, that level of professional engagement has wound down and I can relax today, free of self-inflicted urgency about what’s next. Notices and messages commanding my attention still arrive at my email inbox, only now I have the unguilty pleasure, if I wish, of swiping them away.”

And yet, Dr. Ekerdt says it’s not easy to undo a lifetime of work-based habits of daily time management. And that while the pressure of work is gone, he often feels guilty about relaxing too much, what he calls a “puzzling ambiguity”.

Unfamiliar Workplace

When I shifted from my job at Lawyers Mutual to my current position with Lawyers Mutual Consulting, I struggled with the transition. Initially, I felt as though I would never get comfortable in my new role and I was struggling to relinquish the old one. However, I share something in common with Dr. Ekerdt and that is the impact of the pandemic on my transition.

While Dr. Ekerdt retired in 2020, he remained in his role for a period of time to complete some writing projects he was doing for the university.

“In just 18 months, I also marvel at the ways that my old workplace has become unfamiliar to me. I still receive the faculty feed of administrative memos and directives, and they bring announcements of personnel turnover, new software, a new course-management system, revised travel policy, and a changeover in the platform for website content. This is all a normal process whereby an organization renews and updates itself; working in the middle of it, you take things in stride. But being away for a year or two, it is plain to me that I couldn’t tomorrow walk in, sit down and readily resume my old duties. Things have moved on, and every day the organizational knowledge and skills of a retiree like me become a little more obsolete.”

Yes, my situation is different, my transition was into another role, not retirement. Yet, Dr. Ekerdt’s comments on this topic resonate with me. I’ve been in the new job for 3 years, and half of that time has been spent working remotely. Occasionally in virtual meetings, I feel that unfamiliarity with the environment. The other Lawyers Mutual employees are a team, they collaborate more frequently and see each other more often. Like Dr. Ekerdt it is plain to me that I couldn’t walk in tomorrow, sit down and readily resume my old duties. But that’s not a negative. For me, the pandemic aided my transition process. 

Conclusion

“Some retirees, if they can control events, plan a clean break from what went before and head in new directions. In my case, and knowing a lot about the experience of others, I foresaw continuity for myself across the transition: same person, same interests, same relationships. What is clear now is that I have arrived at a place that is further than I had imagined from the worker that I was, from the setting where I worked, and from the younger man that I had been.”

Dr. Ekerdt is a former professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and author of “Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life.” Dr. Ekerdt wrote the essay “I Spent 44 Years Studying Retirement. Then I Retired.” for the Wall Street Journal in October 2021 and is a frequent author on the topic of retirement.

About The Author

Camille Stell

Camille Stell is the President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and the co-author of Designing A Succession Plan for Your Law Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preparing and Packaging Your Firm for Maximum Value. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at camille@lawyersmutualconsulting.com or 800.662.8843.