After 42 years as a litigator at two large law firms, with an interlude of government service, I decided at age 70 that it was time for a change rather than fading away at the office doing less and less of the same old thing. A few months after my retirement, I was lucky to be welcomed at Legal Aid as a part-time volunteer staff attorney, working three days a week except for a long summer break in Maine. This ideal work schedule has gotten me out of the house just enough, has taught me a lot about the parts of my city that are not privileged enclaves, has provided plenty of intellectual challenge, and has given me the satisfaction of helping a substantial number of my fellow citizens over the last four years. While there is a good deal of frustration about the difficulty of our clients’ problems and the frequent obstacles to solutions, I can safely say that the gratification level is higher overall than I remember from private practice.
Some of the most satisfying work I do is “initial client interviews” with people who come in during our walk-in hours looking for legal help. I sort out their issues, make a preliminary determination whether they are within Legal Aid’s scope and, if so, send a write-up and recommendation to the appropriate unit for consideration of representation. More often, I wind up giving substantive or procedural legal advice to people I know we can’t take on as clients. Although I have to turn them away, many benefit from a sympathetic ear, referral to other resources, or frequently guidance and reassurance so that they can handle the problem themselves.
Until recently, the rest of my time has been spent as a member of the Public Benefits Unit, largely assisting clients with Social Security disability and retirement issues, which can be mind-numbingly complex. Among other things, I have become an expert on Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plans, which produce a flurry of activity in the last couple of months of each year; in the season just past I helped more than 35 low-income clients review their plans, make changes necessitated by plan changes or new prescriptions, and deal with the glitches endemic to the program. Currently, I continue to work with the Public Benefits Unit but am gradually transitioning to a more flexible work schedule with a heavier mix of special projects (in other areas as well) that I can work on from home.
Although it may not often be feasible to replicate my particular status as a staff attorney, there is a variety of opportunities for retired (or partially retired) lawyers to work out arrangements that meet their individual interests and the needs of the numerous DC legal services organizations. The points I would most emphasize is that one must think of the work as a job like any other, must be prepared to learn new things, and must be willing to take individual responsibility for nitty-gritty details.