A year after giving up legal practice in his 40s, the author reflects on whether he would have done anything differently given his time over again

"Be careful for what you wish" is an old adage, and a true one. As you may have read in previous articles, I had for some time wished to retire from private practice, and, in January 2008 that wish was granted. Over a year has now passed and I thought that it might be of some passing interest to report on how things have progressed since then. I have no doubt (and a little factual evidence to confirm) that many at the moment are wondering just what life is like outside the legal world.

Let’s be honest, no matter what life is like after private practice at the moment, it couldn’t be much worse than life in it (in some sectors anyway). At a recent dinner when I was asked "the difference between a conveyancing solicitor and a pizza" (the latter can apparently still feed a family of four), it did strike home with me just how poorly some sectors of the profession are faring. Many practices have now shed staff and short working weeks are the rule rather than the exception. While there are some small signs of improvement, there seems little realistic prospect of us returning to the business levels of 2005-2008 anytime soon.

I can say then that there is really no part of me that would have wanted to be in practice through this very difficult time. In some ways the recession has made coming to terms with my decision somewhat easier. There are however many times when a part of me does look back on elements of my professional life with a degree of yearning and a dawning realisation that nothing in life is perfect, even if it’s doing nothing!

Life without a routine

My circumstances are slightly unusual. At 47, my working life is far from over and I fully expect to be involved in commerce again. I am also fortunate enough to be able to choose my time to re-enter the business world. So, you might ask, is this article just an opportunity to gloat at those trapped behind a desk? Far from it; I hope that this time out has given me a little perspective on what went right and wrong in the "glory" years and a chance to weigh up both the pros and cons of the first part of my working life and to share these insights with you.

So, what have I done in the last year or so? Well I’ve travelled, run (a lot), cycled (a lot) and become very good at computer games. I’ve also though written articles, presented seminars, tutored at the university and carried out various pieces of consultancy work. It’s been a good mix, enough to keep me in touch with the profession and the world in general but not enough to stress me. In essence, in sporting terms, it’s been a perfect warm down. Working in a busy, deadline driven legal practice is full of stress, far more than I ever realised at the time, and just to have stopped dead would have been foolish. This period of working at a slower pace with fewer commitments has been ideal in creating a smoother transition into the next phase of my life.

Having said that, there have been issues. It’s taken me till now to be comfortable without a fixed routine. I used to rise at 5.45am, be at the gym by 7am and at my desk by 8. The weeks and the months had a definite structure of settlements, meetings and reports. It is strange when these areas of your life are removed (even if by your own choosing) and suddenly there is seldom any need to be anywhere by a particular time. New more flexible routines do arise, but it has been important to ensure that I don’t allow myself to fall too far out with some of my old ones.

I do therefore enforce on myself certain structures in the day, even if these are only to give myself a sense of comfort. You would have thought that I would be able to go to the gym and to run etc far more than when I was working. Strangely though, without a structured day I’ve often found myself doing less. I’ll often tell myself, "Go out running later when the weather clears", and it doesn’t, or I become distracted with another project. Previously I had limited time so I managed to fill it far more efficiently.

Following on, my hobbies have always been running, cycling and sports in general. I did believe that this career break would afford me the opportunity of perfecting these areas and training for new and exciting challenges. To an extent this has been true (I’ve managed a marathon, a triathlon and various other events), but all sports are best done with others. As a result a lot of my training takes place in the evenings and weekends, the time when others are available to join me. There is a definite lack of daytime playmates.

Similarly with travelling. I’ve spent more time than ever abroad, but again travelling companions can be limited (my wife still works and my son is at college), and there are commitments at home that need to be fulfilled. That’s not to say that finding people is impossible: it's just more difficult, and you are required to look for those with similar time patterns, be they unemployed, on shift work or similarly between careers.

Work, a social activity

Likewise, for many of us, we spend more time with our work colleagues and staff than we do with family and loved ones. The workplace becomes an important central part of our social life. There is constant interaction with those around us as we work towards a common goal, and occasionally there is some time for a chat or a beer in between it all. Suddenly though, these people are gone from your life. Not all are missed but certainly there is a sense that a part of your social interactions are missing.

I am also aware of a lack of a sense of satisfaction or achievement at times. Previously, success could be easily measured either by numbers of transactions or amounts of fees. Few of my interests now are income or numbers driven so it is at times harder to achieve a sense of personal reward in many of the tasks I’ve undertaken. While I have enjoyed the recent good weather, it is extremely difficult to sit and just enjoy the sun without a strange sense of guilt. I am working hard though to address this!!

There is also a real sense of loss of control to be dealt with. In my working life there were many areas where I was the boss, the decisions rested with myself alone and I had a team that were there to assist me. Now, barring areas of the garage and garden, there are few areas of my life where I am in total control, and for myself that is something that I miss.

I hope that I have no airs and graces. I certainly never believed that my profession made me any better or worse than any other. It is however strange how we invest a little of who we are in what we do and what we achieve. When asked now what I do, I always feel a little unsure of how to answer. When at dinners and functions I somehow feel a little more vulnerable without the trappings of my status as a business owner and the income that generated. Small matters perhaps, but noteworthy. Strange also to notice the reactions of others. If I say I’m retired that’s always met with a sense of admiration or envy; if I’m a consultant, there is limited interest; if I say I’m unemployed a different reaction again.

All about money?

I do remember having some very strange ideas when in practice about the cost of living and the amount that we as a family required. When time was at a premium, often it was expeditious just to buy the solution. There was little time to shop about; it was often easier to pay someone else than to do it myself. There were also all the expenses of commuting, holidaying during school breaks etc etc. There was almost a sense of being trapped in having to earn just to pay for a lifestyle.

I have however been pleasantly surprised that to date, the cost of living has been far less than I ever imagined. I don’t belong to a gym at the moment: I run on the beach most days and swim in the local pool. I’ve learned how to cook and at least do some basic handyman chores. I’m not foolish enough to believe that it won’t change (inflation looms somewhere on the horizon), but certainly few of my fears in this area have, to date, been realised.

There is no doubt that the credit crunch has effected everyone, however, and like many the portfolio shows the effects. I have however become a little less fixated with building wealth and a lot more focused in enjoying the moment and finding solutions that are not always money driven.

With hindsight

So, having summarised all of my "woes", would I change anything? Well, not in so far as the foregoing points are concerned. In hindsight I’ve been pretty lucky and some of the issues I’ve dealt with here are a natural part of the transition that I have made. I mention them simply for those considering following in my footsteps. The things I would change in hindsight perhaps relate more to the business model and my attitudes prior to my departure from my firm.

An old friend once said to me: "There is a stage in your life when the last thing you need is additional income; what you need is the ability to build in longevity." While I took the advice on board at the time, it is advice that still resonates with me. There also is absolutely no doubt in my mind that capital never replaces income, and when read together with my friend's original advice it is clear to me that income streams are essential. In summary, what I miss is my profits!

So what would I have done differently? There is no one answer and my answers may be different from yours. Here though are some of my thoughts.

I would have strived to make my working life more enjoyable. This would have taken a number of forms:

  • I would have made my offices as comfortable as possible. If I’m going to spend more than half my day there, they should be at least as comfortable as my own home. This might have been bigger rooms, better furniture, more areas to relax and to think. In general a focus on the quality of my experience in the office, not just on bottom line profitability.
  • While many would tell you that I holidayed regularly, I’d have taken more. If the systems were in place to allow work to be carried out to the appropriate standard then there would be no reason why management and other issues couldn’t have easily been dealt with from abroad or from home. In this day of emails, Skype and instant messenger, the need to be in the office is becoming less and less.
  • I remember when I used to have some time to tell a joke or share a story with a colleague on the phone. How did work become so pressured that there was no longer time in the day to do this? Somewhere along the line it seemed to get lost in the ever increasing pressure to do more and more in a shorter and shorter timescale. Maybe also I became a little jaded and some of the excitement that I used to share with others became lost. If I did it again I would want to rebuild more of the personal connections in the day. Latterly I seldomly spoke to fellow agents, bank and building society managers became extinct, and insurance inspectors had become a thing of the past. We are social beasts (some more than others) and as such thrive when these needs are met. Bring back personal settlements, I say, and give yourself 15 minutes in the day with a fellow solicitor discussing what is happening in the world!
  • I would have focused perhaps on a slightly different business model. Things I would have considered would have been:
  1. Building a succession plan. I would have invested in the people and systems that would have allowed me to exit from the practice over a period of time while continuing to maximise my income. That’s not to say that as a firm we didn’t try, but the importance of the long term value of some of the individuals that passed through our office was at times sacrificed for short term profitability. In essence the traditional model of young solicitors being made junior partners, then progressing through the business, is still, in my opinion, the best for the small to medium sized practice. With so many firms shedding staff at the moment, is there perhaps a danger that some are throwing the baby out with the bathwater? There is also no doubt that as a business owner, there would have been a far greater return on my investment, particularly if I was able to extend my career by 10 or 20 years, with a far clearer exit route at the end. Lastly, a structure of this nature might well have allowed me to move away from the coal face and into other areas, thus maintaining my interests.
  2. Diversification of the types of business undertaken and a widening of my knowledge base would have been essential. While carryng out one task such as conveyancing repetitively brings efficiencies and with them profit, it can remove satisfaction and a sense of achievement. Many will be aware of the four levels of competence. Most reading this article will be unconscious competents in their chosen fields. Like breathing, you carry out your work often without the need for conscious thought, the systems and the processes being so familiar. The challenge however is that like breathing, many no longer realise how wide and extensive their knowledge is and accordingly fail to value it. As a result some of the sense of satisfaction is lost. A wider knowledge base might well have maintained my interest in law for much longer as I honed skills in new and more challenging areas. Certainly tutoring this year has re-ignited a desire to learn and has served to remind me not just of how we do things, but more importantly, why.
  3. Bearing in mind the effects of the credit crunch, as a conveyancing firm making good profits, it would have been wise to diversify and invest in some of the emerging work types while business levels remained positive. Legal firms, like the Titanic, cannot easily or quickly change direction. An eye needs to be kept on the horizon and threats noted in sufficient time to allow action to be taken. Generally, any business that relies on only one or only a few products is open to the vagaries of the market, and accordingly a degree of diversification is essential. Like a chair, a business with only one or two legs is far from stable. With hindsight should more firms not have been investing in insolvency or other areas at the height of the credit boom? Again, a word of warning for those now considering cutting conveyancing departments completely at this time. The converse is of course true and when other areas in turn start to decline, conveyancing will again become profitable. Indeed, for those who retain efficient and productive departments, good times will return and potentially with much less competition as many firms do retreat from this currently unprofitable area.

It's the way that you do it

So, having said all that, if I could go back in time, would I change anything? Probably not. I do believe that we make the best decisions possible at the time based on the information then available. Different decisions would have led to different consequences, and who could say for sure what these would have been? While there is little point for oneself, perhaps there are lessons to be learned for others considering their careers or the structure of their own practice.

I’d recommend that, where you can, find ways to enjoy your professional life as much as possible. The bottom line is important, but perhaps balancing it with the bigger life issues should be more of a focus. Certainly having clear goals and a plan of how to achieve them is essential, as is the ability to identify the odd iceberg that life throws at you and the foresight to avoid them. Most importantly of all, perhaps, realise that all decisions have consequences and that generally as humans we want the bit that we don’t have. I think if we could all learn to be happy with the bits that we do have, the world will become a much better place.

The Author
Stephen Vallance is a former partner in Vallance Kliner & Associates, Glasgow. He is happy to undertake consultancy work. For any queries arising from this article or any issues surrounding practice management, profitability or marketing, contact him at svall45193@aol.com .
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