Updates and advice for attorneys and law departments.

GC Succession Planning 101, Part Three: Departing with Grace & Defining Your Next Chapter

Preparing for retirement compels General Counsel to construct new plans and embrace their position in unfamiliar territory: a world of drastically expanded free time. Clio’s 2022 Legal Trends Report reinforces what we all know: that attorneys are accustomed to a “blurring of work and life,” with most working outside their preferred schedules long into their evenings and weekends. Upon retirement, those demands can vanish overnight, leaving experienced attorneys asking, “What’s next?”

In our General Counsel virtual roundtable, “Transition Strategies of General Counsel”, panelists discussed a variety of ways that they’ve kept themselves occupied after their succession. In fact, they demonstrated that retiring from a General Counsel position does not inherently mean giving up legal work altogether. Throughout the transition, and after, there are several ways that can allow you to stay engaged in a career you love while preparing for a rewarding and active future.


Thoughts on Planning Your Transition Period

Once you’ve decided on your retirement timeline and worked with your team to appoint your successor, invest the remaining time prudently to support that individual. Create probationary periods for certain responsibilities and define timelines in which you will relinquish overseeing those duties or practice areas while remaining in the background for your successor when needed. Herman Fala, retired General Counsel in the real estate development industry had this to say at our GC roundtable:

“One lesson is to have good people in house and have a transition period where we were working together because there is an awful lot to learn about a corporate enterprise….”

Due to the magnitude of responsibilities, some General Counsel benefit from delineating these responsibilities and roles in a structured manner. The Deloitte General Counsel Transition Lab breaks this idea down into four different categories: ambassador, strategist, steward, and operator.

The outgoing General Counsel possesses full accountability at the start of this transition. However, little by little, you transfer those responsibilities to your successor.

  • As an ambassador, they will learn how to represent legal positions internally and externally
  • As a strategist, they will provide leadership in directing and aligning strategies
  • As a steward, they will protect and preserve the assets of the organization
  • As an operator, they will balance costs and service levels to meet responsibilities.


Planning out your gradual release of responsibility can offer clarity and direction during the entire transition period. This piecemeal changeover can lessen the challenges for both parties.

Thomas Molchan, Esq., a retired General Counsel from both the telecommunications and food and beverage industries, describes this method as part of his transition:

“You can set up a pie chart of the things you want to do in a week and whatever it is, check back on that. For me, it has worked out pretty well. Otherwise, the days can slip by you.”


Ideas for Staying Occupied

Once the transition is complete, there is often a big question lingering in the air: how do you spend your time? Going from the multiform demands of helming an in-house law department to having open-ended and unrestricted days can be a jolt to the system.

In general, creating a sense of regularity in your daily schedule can be beneficial. Yet, on the other hand, there’s also an opportunity to create anticipation with larger personal trips, industry events, or short-term work projects that can maintain your excitement after you leave the structure of the job.

Marianne Schimelfenig, retired General Counsel in higher education, shared these words of wisdom:

“Know yourself, know what you want your life to be in your remaining years, and try to create a scenario that has as few regrets as possible. Learn how to structure time in a new way and learn how to involve all the people you want in your life.”

During our GC roundtable, panelists pointed to the following activities as satisfying ways to spend their newly found time:


Pursue Pro Bono Opportunities

Pro bono work is an excellent segue into retirement. You can support practices, even nonprofits, that have always aligned with your values, leveraging your preexisting expertise or exploring new areas of practice. Joining the board of directors for a charitable cause or nonprofit organization can further extend your legal acumen and executive perspective.

Undoubtedly, you have a running list of names or firms to reach out to from your current connections, but there are a few resources to mine if you want to broaden your legal horizon. The ABA Center for Pro Bono has a plethora of resources for senior lawyers, highlighting pro bono programs throughout the country.

From firsthand experience, Roberta Torian, retired Partner for a law firm’s financial service practice, knows how impactful these opportunities can be, but reiterates how it’s still important to be selective with your time.

“What worked out were the nonprofits that I stuck with. I resigned from a bunch of things, and I stayed with the ones where I wanted to make a difference… I think when you’re planning for retirement, it’s important to be very careful and very discerning about what you’re going to do when you walk away.  A lot of times, I have meetings until 8 o’clock, but I feel like I’m making a difference in a way that I never could when I was doing my 60 hours weeks and travelling back and forth across the Atlantic.”


Consider Starting an ADR Practice

Alternative dispute resolution is something to consider if you want to stay involved in legal matters but not necessarily in traditional court proceedings. In one sense, this option can be a second career path all on its own. Mediation, arbitration, and neutral evaluations can be impactful ways to resolve disputes but may not be a viable option for everyone.


Take up Teaching

Sharing your in-the-trenches experiences with students as an adjunct professor at law schools, colleges, universities, and community colleges can make a world of difference for aspiring lawyers. You can share anecdotes, explain strategies, and impart business knowledge far beyond what a textbook can offer or what a bar exam can test. This level of real-world perspective is indispensable.


Focus on Your Hobbies

Be sure to take time for yourself. Add rich value to your life by spending time with family and grandchildren, writing, traveling, and hobbies and aspirations you’ve wanted to do for so long – invest time the way you want. A few of the GC panelists from our roundtable considered the importance of this element of succession and how they knew it was time for retirement.

“I had conversations with some peers and trusted outside counsel talking about that and they all said, “What next?” The assumption was retirement but candidly, in the back of my head and maybe yours as you think of it, that may not be the reality. Somewhere inside you, there’s a feeling that you still want to provide value and the like. And I think that’s probably the most important thing.”  – Michael Helmsley, Esq., retired General Counsel in the healthcare industry

“I was ready for the next chapter. I didn’t want to be the person who went on vacation with our friends and was always on the conference call while they’re out having a cocktail.  It’s very hard when you’re solo, even with terrific back up, to be away.”  -Marianne Schimelfenig


Try Temporary Attorney Positions

While it may be time to relinquish full responsibilities as GC, you may find that you still want to work on small assignments from time to time. Temporary legal assignments can stimulate your desire for ongoing professional challenges, and working with the right legal recruiters can ensure that your skill set and availability are well-matched with exciting opportunities.


Looking for ways to stay occupied during your retirement? Assigned Counsel provides experienced attorneys with opportunities to use their practice area knowledge and leadership experience in ways that can fit perfectly with their retired life. Let’s talk!


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