Act II

Mandatory retirement for partners of a certain age is a reality of law firm life. Waves of talented, driven, ambitious leaders move on to second careers or new ventures with gusto. Here, four Law School graduates who recently made the transition into "retirement" talk about the experience and offer their advice for getting the most out of life after the firm.

By Peter Kiefer

Summer 2011

When pondering the notion of retirement, the mind quickly conjures any number of visual references. For some, it may be the golf links in Boca Raton. For others, it is the sloping hills of Tuscany, 5 o’clock cocktails, or aimless strolls on the beaches of Southampton.

For Dana Freyer ’71, it was the steppes of Afghanistan.

Conventionally speaking, Freyer “retired” in 2009, after a 32-year legal career at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where she specialized in international arbitration and litigation. But when asked what retirement life is like, she is quick to rephrase the question.

“I didn’t retire,” she says. “I rewired.”

Just a few months before her going-away party at Skadden, Freyer traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, as co-founder of Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable rural development, a key element to securing peace in war-torn Afghanistan. It was just one of many trips she would make there. During the past nine years, GPFA—in partnership with local community leaders—has helped educate and train thousands of Afghan farmers while working to revitalize woodlots, vineyards, orchards, and other farm businesses. 

Freyer’s current activities with GPFA may seem exceptional, but her trajectory is not. She is but one example of a vast intellectual displacement that occurs each year, as tens of thousands of prominent attorneys retire from practice after decades spent working in the law firm setting.

The recent economic downturn has only served to increase the numbers of those discussing, considering, and planning for life after law firm employment. Like nearly every other industry, the legal profession has been impacted by the recession. In 2009 alone, 67 percent of law firms surveyed cut support staff, 43 percent cut paralegals, and 44 percent cut associates, according to a survey by the legal consulting firm Altman Weil titled “Law Firms in Transition 2010.” At a higher level, 25 percent of law firms scaled back the ranks of their equity partners in 2009, and often a reduction of equity partners results from a change in retirement age policy.

While career transitions can be among life’s most stressful events, it is often the case that those retiring from legal practice discover previously unparalleled enjoyment in applying their intellectual and practical skills in new directions. Lawyers, in particular, are well suited for this transition, as the legal field typically draws adaptable, motivated, highly educated individuals who will become well versed in several fields beyond law over the course of a career. And, as several Law School graduates point out, the term “retirement” really has become a fungible concept.

“When I made the decision to scale down at Skadden, it was simply a question of redeploying my time and energy to another area that challenged me and allowed me to make a difference in the world,” says Freyer. “There is nothing retired about me; I just transitioned from one form of work to another one.”

Welcoming pro bono projects in addition to her regular caseload, Freyer says, was key to positioning herself for stimulating work after retirement.

Like Freyer, who traveled substantially to foreign locales during her time at Skadden, Eugene Rostov ’64 experienced an unusually peripatetic legal career. Before he started his 38-year tenure at Baker & McKenzie, he and his family lived in France, then Nassau, Bahamas. For 14 years, he worked at Baker & McKenzie’s offices in São Paulo, Brazil, with the other 24 years in the Miami office, before retiring in 2007.

Rostov says his general curiosity about different parts of the world and his passion for travel have proven huge assets in the transition out of full-time firm practice.

“That Brazil experience in and of itself has led to a lot of opportunities that I could not have planned or even thought of at the time,” Rostov says. He now runs his own consulting firm based in Coral Gables, Fla., where he advises on the business aspects of mergers and acquisitions outside the U.S. His clients range from major manufacturers to chemical companies to banks and financial institutions. “I think most people underestimate what they can do when they leave the law, and don’t realize they can still find enjoyment and satisfaction by doing other things,” he says. Rostov adds that he benefited from taking risks—in his case, accepting foreign postings—that some of his colleagues and friends at the time considered, in his words, “crazy.”

“The most useful thing for me now is understanding the anatomy of a cross-border transaction,” he continues. “That was an important part of my work, and what I learned at Baker & McKenzie, which I have transferred over.”

Rostov is far from alone when it comes to the repurposing of skills developed through firm practice. As a result of mandatory retirement policies, more and more attorneys, at younger ages, are taking the skills they learned at firms and putting them to use in new settings. 

In its most recent national survey on lawyer retirement policies, issued in 2007, the legal consulting company Altman Weil found that 50 percent of participating law firms maintained mandatory retirement provisions. Of those firms, 38 percent set retirement at age 65, 36 percent at age 70, and the rest somewhere in between. At smaller firms, the most common mandatory retirement age is 70. Of the lawyers polled in the survey, 38 percent approved of mandatory retirement policies, while 46 percent disapproved of them, and 16 percent were undecided. The statistic about how many lawyers planned to continue working after retirement was most inspiring: 61 percent said they had no intention of giving up work entirely once they left the law firm setting. 

“Mandatory retirement age policies have been around for a long time,” says Mark Zauderer, a partner at Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer who chaired a committee responsible for a 2007 New York State Bar Association study on retirement-age policies at law firms. “But what we have seen in recent decades is a reduction in that age.” Some firms, Zauderer says, have policies requiring retirement when lawyers reach their late 50s. But most policies require retirement when partners reach their mid-60s, he says.

The early retirement discussion is made even more relevant because of the sheer numbers of baby boomers who are facing the prospect of retirement across all industries. Furthermore, advances in modern science and medicine now allow professionals to extend careers years, and in some cases even decades, beyond what was the post–World War II norm.

For Dan L. Nicewander ’66, life after his firm career was never going to be a struggle, as he kept himself engaged in a whole host of activities outside the firm where he worked. Immediately after graduating from the Law School, Nicewander took a position at a boutique law firm in Dallas then known as Gardere, Porter & DeHay. At the time, he was just the ninth lawyer hired at the firm. When he retired 42 years later, there were 185 lawyers at Gardere Wynne Sewell.

Nicewander has a laundry list of activities that keep him occupied, and, as he explains it, he is happier than ever. In addition to his work as a director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, Nicewander volunteers his time for projects at the history department at the University of Texas, remains active in the Sons of the American Revolution, and is a member of the American Council on Germany—all activities he engaged in prior to retiring. The key, he says, is knowing when to move on and then taking decisive steps.

“You have to make a clean break,” Nicewander asserts. “If you try to do part-time this and part-time that, it doesn’t really work. I could have practiced for another 20 years, but there is more to life. You have to leave a little meat on the bone, as they say down here [in Texas].”

But there are no typical paths, no rule books that must be followed.

When Marie Garibaldi ’59 left firm practice in 1982, it wasn’t for the purposes of retirement. In fact, her transition away from firm life made history, thanks to what she would be doing next. Thomas Kean, then New Jersey governor, appointed Garibaldi to serve as a justice on the state Supreme Court, and she was the first woman ever to hold that position. Her appointment came after working for six years at the Internal Revenue Service and for 18 years at the firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Newark, N.J.

“It wasn’t really such a change,” she says of the transition. “There are so many activities you can do in the judicial system. And [at the firm,] I was active in dispute resolution, so it was a very similar type of work.”

Garibaldi adds that the non-firm-related professional activities she engaged in during her time at Riker Danzig proved extremely beneficial throughout the remainder of her career and beyond. “I had a lot of outside activities when I was working in private practice,” she says. “I was active in bar associations and [various] bar association committees. You can get to know a lot of people that way—and not only lawyers. My theory is: You may be brilliant, but if no one knows who you are, it is hard to move forward.”

Garibaldi retired as judge in 2000 and thereafter served on the board of Crown Holdings Inc., before stepping down in 2007. She is currently second vice chairman of the board of governors at the Hackensack University Medical Center.

What the diversity of Garibaldi’s legal career and her post-retirement endeavors have shown, she says, is the flexibility a law degree can provide. And that point appears to ring especially true when it comes time for retirement. Attorneys, it seems, are as well equipped as any to confront that type of career transition—and to get the most out of every new development that arises. 

Freyer, who returned to Afghanistan this spring, makes a strong case for embracing life’s opportunities and challenges.

“I am passionately excited and engaged every minute of every day,” she says. “There are daily challenges while working in Afghanistan. The rewards are very different. I find myself gratified in ways that are truly meaningful.”

Peter Kiefer is a New York–based journalist who has written for the Rome bureau of The New York Times.