Advice from a retired lawyer

To all you aging lawyers out there, it may be time to seriously consider the option of retirement.

Although conventional wisdom would stress that your individual financial situation should be your primary concern, I would suggest that your ability as a lawyer is even more important.

We all know lawyers who kept working long past their prime and became somewhat of an embarrassment to the profession before they finally retired or died. Unfortunately, no one comes right out and tells us when we are slipping, and it’s rather difficult to judge ourselves fairly in that regard.

After a number of years of doing the same type of law, it’s natural to get sloppy or stale. It’s not unheard of for older lawyers to show up for routine family or criminal matters slightly or obviously under the influence of alcohol.

Even more common is the older lawyer who is just working on instinct and past experience and who appears not to have any idea about the details of the individual matter on trial that day. That’s no way to properly serve a client.

Older real estate lawyers who leave the entire file up to their staff are another common example. Of course, there are certain aspects of all files that cry out for the experienced lawyer’s time and attention.

Teranet and LawPRO would be appalled to realize the large number of aging real estate lawyers who have not even learned how to start their computers let alone check and sign documents for completeness. That task is passed along to staff in many cases, something that puts the fraud protections under the electronic registration system into question.

I took my own advice and retired last September at age 62. I was called to the bar in 1973. My personal reasons for retiring as a real estate lawyer boiled down to three major concerns:

• I no longer enjoyed the job, mostly because I greatly disliked the new electronic registration system, which in my opinion didn’t operate efficiently for rural titles, especially relating to rights-of-way and easements or for possessory title situations. The result was many title corrections, and I felt like a novice again instead of a seasoned and knowledgeable lawyer.

• The new electronic system also suddenly meant that I was regularly dealing with out-of-town lawyers I didn’t know. We were virtually forced to pay all the money to the seller’s lawyer and accept that lawyer’s undertaking to pay off and discharge the existing mortgage.

This was a system that created huge problems 30 years ago when lawyers ran off with their trust funds, which prompted the Law Society of Upper Canada to begin insisting that we split the certified cheques.

Recently, however, we were back to the old system, and I didn’t want to end my career getting shafted by a crooked vendor’s lawyer. I also felt the new system of mortgage payouts didn’t adequately protect my purchaser clients.

• The electronic registration system took away my self-image as a skilled real estate lawyer, and I started to doubt my ability to do top-quality work for my clients.

If you are in your late 50s or older, I recommend that you attempt to examine the quality of your current legal work. Pick 10 recently completed files randomly and carefully go over them to determine whether you handled each one to your personal satisfaction.

If the answer is yes, congratulations. You still have the magic. If you discover things on some of those files that you wish you had done better or differently, then take some remedial action to improve your office system.

A further option would be to get a trusted colleague to examine the same files after you have done so. Does the colleague think you handled each of those 10 matters well?
If you can’t even be bothered to check some of your closed-out files, then you have likely lost whatever pride you once had in your career.

If you hate coming into work most days, that, too, is a recipe for disaster.

Also, be aware that it takes months to retire. There is a lot to do in preparation.
By the way, so far I love retirement.

To summarize, if the thrill is gone from your job, or if you could care less about improving the quality of your legal work, then it’s probably time for you to pack it in.

Once you retire, you should be able to look back on your career with pride. Like a professional athlete, it would be a shame to continue to work after your skills are gone.

Being forced into retirement because of negligence claims or continuing to practise law while knowing you’re no longer putting your clients’ interests first will ruin your retirement years.

Don’t practise with diminished skills.

Donald Desaulniers is a retired lawyer from Belleville, Ont.

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