Step 3 – Understanding the “Way of Transition”

Winter Storm March 2018

Stephen P. Gallagher

For the legal marketplace, unexpected multi-generational family assistance is becoming the new transition wildcard, so law firms large and small, need to begin building support networks to help lawyers through these periods of transition. I recently met with a mid-career lawyer who had left practice a number of years ago to raise her four children. Now that the youngest child is off to college, mom will be looking to transition back into the profession.

By learning how to better manage these types of common, life transitions, individuals returning to work, or those looking to move away from full-time practice can make these sometimes-difficult transitions less painful and disruptive. The profession needs greater flexibility to allow lawyers to move back and forth into practice and this includes a greater support network to help lawyers wind down their law practice.

Transition Planning is the term frequently misunderstood in the legal community. Change and Transition are often used interchangeably, but this is a mistake. Change is a process you may have little control over. It happens to you. Being forced out of a law practice is a good example of an unanticipated change that will impact on many aspects of your life. Decisions are made and the change takes place. Learning what you do with yourself when you no longer have an office to go to is a good example of a transition that you will live through.

To better understand life transitions, I turned to the work of William Bridges who devoted his life to a deep understanding of transitions and to helping individuals work through them. Past President of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, Bridges is author of eight books including the bestseller, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes first published 35 years ago. Bridges defines Transition as the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become.

The time between the letting go and the taking hold anew can be a chaotic but potentially creative. When things aren’t the old way but aren’t really a new way yet either. Bridges calls this three-phase process – “endings,” “neutral zone,” and finally, “new beginnings.” These terms serve as a simple but effective way of looking at what you are naturally going through as you progress through life’s transitions. If you don’t have the support to work through these life stages at your own pace, opportunities for growth may be stymied.

Change can happen at any time but transition comes along when one chapter of your life is over and another is waiting in the wing to make its entrance. You’re constantly letting go of who you thought you were and how you thought life should be. It is not uncommon to find yourself constantly in Bridges’ neutral zone, unable to recover an equally unable to embrace your new life space. As we let go of what we have been and then discover a new thing to become – only to let go again in time and become something in new. Bridges refers to this as the Way of Transition, the way or path of life itself, the alternating current of embodiment and disengagement, expansion and contraction.

In today’s volatile legal marketplace, mid-career lawyers are just as exposed to career transition challenges as more senior lawyers looking to move away from full-time law practice. Working full time as a lawyer allows individuals to develop professional skills and competencies, but at the same time, lawyers are quietly working their way through life’s transitions occasioned by changes in health, employment, and intimate relationships. The profession needs to become more sensitive to these equally important parts of our lives.

I recently reconnected with an old friend who practiced law in Northern Ireland. He “retired” from his firm quite early. He told me he decided (probably unwisely) to fulfill a promise he made to himself 25 years ago (between university and law school) to take a year out. He told me that, “Most people do it at 19, whereas I’m doing it at 46….still, better late than never. I’ve a huge checklist of “must dos” and realistically I may not fit them all into a year, but I’ll have a damn good try….”

After “retiring” from large firm practice, he did take his year off, before spending the past 4 or 5 years as a freelance lawyer working (mainly in London) on a contract basis. He is now about to finish an 18 month stint with one of the large firms headquartered at Canary Wharf where he has been helping them with their Brexit preparations. My friend’s next transition plan is to take the Summer off and get into contract again in September/October. He suspects he’ll do that for one or two more contracts then possibly hang up his wig and gavel for good. He tells me that, “All my colleagues are at least 15 years younger than me! Not exactly sure when that happened! Working for myself has been very rewarding and I can’t say I miss much about life in my former practice.”