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What, Me Retire?
An Address for the Senior Lawyers Committee
The Association of the Bar of the City of New York
May 25, 2005
This transition – the journey from what we have been doing for most of our lives to what we are going to do for the next 10 years or so – is one of the most challenging and least well-marked that we travel. It is filled with uncertainty, fears, surprises and unknown ground. But when you get to the other side, the rewards can be really astounding. So let me tell you the story of my journey, and I will try to extract a few principles as we go along.
First, a brief background. I spent about 30 years as an associate and partner at the firm now known as Debevoise & Plimpton. Along the way, I had a three stints of government service and two as general counsel of a securities firm and a life insurance company. In 1993 I returned to my firm, where I remained until last July, when I took this new job at the age of 66.
I was facing a mandatory retirement age at the firm, so I started thinking about what I was going to do about a year-and-a-half before I left. That brings me to my first general principle:
1. YOU MUST START THINKING ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO NEXT AT LEAST A YEAR, AND PREFERABLY TWO, BEFORE YOU RETIRE.
Why is that? There are a number of very good reasons:
- First, if you are like everyone else, you really will not have any idea how to construct this next phase in your life. It takes a lot of time, a lot of conversations with spouses and friends, and there are a lot of false starts.
- Even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, the chances are high that idea will not work for one reason or another.
- Even if it works, finding a new job, no less constructing one to fit your special needs, takes a lot of time – especially at this age. It is not – I repeat, not – impossible or even that hard. But it does take time, perseverance, patience and being willing to tolerate some rejection. You are, after all what has come to be called a “non-conventional candidate.”
That brings me to the second principle, which is in fact a question.
2. ARE YOU PREPARED TO WORK FULL-TIME?
Full-time work after retirement involves the sacrifice of a lot of the advantages of retirement – there is no more time to smell the flowers, travel, read interesting books, take advantage of New York City, and so forth than when you are working full time before you retire. So the fundamental question is whether you can have enough stimulation and personal growth by constructing a multi-centric life composed of various projects, interests and hobbies. The answer is clearly “yes”, but it is hard to do, it requires a great deal of self-discipline and many people don’t make this route work well.
Also, if money is important, it is hard to find a paying part-time job. Everyone would like to work at an interesting job three or four days a week – with long vacations, of course. There may be such jobs, but I have yet to find one. If your expertise is inherently project-based – if, for example, you are a highly experienced and well-known arbitrator in a particular area, you can keep doing that at a reduced pace. But not many of us can do that. And, trust me, building a practice as an arbitrator from scratch is no easier than building a law practice from scratch; it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time.
I decided that I would work full time. I wanted the discipline and structure of a regular job and significant challenges. I had the support of a wife who was working full time and clearly thought it would be a big mistake for me to do otherwise. When I asked her what she thought about the idea of my becoming a law school dean at the age of 66, she said: “It sounds fine, but I just don’t know where it is going to lead you! You will do that for five or eight years and then what will you do?” I told her not to worry about that.
Now for the third and fourth principles of retirement:
3. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO HAVE A PLAN TO OBTAIN THE JOB YOU WANT.
4. CHANCES ARE YOU WILL END UP IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT KIND OF JOB.
Why is it essential to plan if you believe it probably will not work? Branch Rickey said that “luck is the residue of design,” by which I take it he meant that it is essential to have a game plan even if things are determined by chance when the plan falls apart. So why plan? The problem is that we all know that if we do nothing, nothing will happen. Luck IS the residue of design, it flows from the whole set of actions that come from following a plan. Very often what we end up doing comes from a person we have talked to about doing very different things. But if you are not out there talking to those people, the whole set of events that will eventually lead you in a different direction never happen.
Let me tell you what happened to me. I thought very carefully about what I wanted to do. I had a fairly extensive background in international development and human rights issues, including a board leadership role at a think tank dealing with those matters. So I thought I would like to either run or be a senior officer of an international nonprofit. Academic admin istration was nowhere on my radar screen. And had you posed it as an abstract matter, I would have said I wasn’t really interested and had no qualifications for that.
What happened? The first thing I did was to get out and write to and talk to everyone I knew who I thought could be helpful or might have something interesting to say about what I should do next. It was tremendously useful, although not in the ways that I expected.
A friend suggested that I put my name forward to the commission that was considering candidates to recommend to Governor Pataki for a vacancy for the NY Court of Appeals. It’s sort of like running an international nonprofit, right? In spite of the fact that I was a Democrat who would, if I were successful, be recommended by the Commission as one of a slate of six or seven to a Republican Governor not known for appointing Democrats to anything, I pursued that route seriously. It involved a huge amount of work and long rounds of interviews. In the end I was lucky enough to be included on the slate and, as all my friends forecast, I was not appointed.
Was it worth doing? Absolutely! Because of what I learned. And that brings me to my fifth principle:
5. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF LOOKING HARD AT THINGS YOU HAVE NEVER DONE. CONSIDERING NEW ROLES INVOLVES “TRYING THEM ON” IN YOUR MIND.
The plain fact is that most of us are pretty scared about doing something we have never done before. Not only had I never been a judge, as a corporate lawyer I had only been in a courtroom three or four times in my whole life. But I spent a lot of time thinking through the job of a Court of Appeals judge, I spoke to a former member of that Court, and I read a whole year’s worth of its opinions.
In the end – and only after a great deal of “trying that role on in my mind” -- I concluded that I could do that job – although Governor Pataki came to a different conclusion. In the process, I met a broad range of interesting people, some of whom have remained friends and acquaintances. That was the first rejection.
It is a mistake to reject potential new jobs because they are not what you have been doing. Even though I was interested in running an international nonprofit, there were few of those jobs available at the time and, in a few cases, none of them were interested in having me run them. More rejection.
For the most part, the person trying to fill a job will do enough rejecting for both of you. But if that person is prepared to consider you, it is because he or she believes that you may have the qualities that they are looking for. When I was making my round of discussions with friends about what I was going to do next, a number of them suggested academic jobs – a few law schools in the area were looking for new deans, a graduate school of international relations was looking for a president, and a few others.
I was not particularly attracted initially, but I thought it would be interesting to talk to some search committees. And it was very illuminating to do that. It was that process of talking with search committees, learning more about the challenges facing law schools like Pace, and “trying on” the mantle of a law dean, that made me think seriously about my skill set and experiences and how they matched up with the demands of a deanship.
I talked to search committees about deanships at two law schools. One search committee decided immediately that I was not what they were looking for, and they made a conventional hire in the sense of bringing in a very talented law professor from another school that they admired. The other search committee, at Pace, brought me back for a second round of interviews.
I concluded that my background could, in fact, be useful to a law school that was looking for substantial change and that I had the right skill set for this law school at this point in its history. I also thought it would be wonderfully challenging and potentially a lot of fun. They were even willing to pay me.
That brings me to my sixth general principle:
6. NO MATTER WHAT YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED IN LIFE, WHEN YOU GO TO A NEW ORGANIZATION, IN A NEW AREA, YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF ALL OVER AGAIN.
Don’t shy away from that challenge. There is no way to avoid it. There is skepticism if you are an unconventional hire – even if they hired you. It’s fun – and there is very little downside.
Finally, my last general principle:
7. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THAT, AFTER RETIREMENT, YOU ARE LIBERATED FROM AMBITION.
For most of our lives, we take jobs thinking about how we are going to become partners, or get clients, or build a bigger practice, or if we work for a company, how to get promoted, how to become general counsel or CEO, how to make more money –or whatever. After retirement, we are pretty much beyond that. Not because we don’t value those things any more, but because it is hard to do much about them at this stage. You should enjoy the fact that this might well be your last full-time job, and that you are doing it primarily for the contribution you can make, its intrinsic interest, or the sense that you are really helping others. One of the great things about being a Dean is the immediate and tangible effect you can have on the lives of others – students and faculty. It is a wonderful feeling.
After almost a year, I have never been so happy, excited, continuously challenged and satisfied about anything I have done. While I did not know academia at all, I had some experience in moving into new organizations with new cultures, and I had good instincts – honed by many prior mistakes – about some things not to do. Many deans complain about all the problems they have to deal with – but lawyers spend their whole careers dealing with other people’s problems, and there is nothing unusual about the kind of problems you face as a dean.
Running a complex institution is fun, building a consensus for what you want to accomplish is a constant challenge, but when you are successful, it is a great feeling. Many people ask me about fund raising. Of course it is an important part of the job, but the reality is that no one will give substantial amounts of money to a school unless it satisfies one of their own objectives – so the trick is to listen carefully enough to identify those objectives and then be creative enough to find ways to meet them and benefit the school at the same time. It is actually a very satisfying process – and I never liked fund raising in the past.
Finally, only a year has passed so far, and although I feel very good about my first year, you never know what the future holds. The other day, someone told me that law school deans are like mushrooms. In the first year they plant seeds; in the second year they grow in the dark; and in the third year they are canned! We’ll see.