TBJ November 2021
Why I'm Retiring
A 40-year lawyer explores passing on the reins to the next wave of leaders and visions of his next stage
Written by Stratton Horres
What Is Retirement Exactly?
Although this essay is about retirement, it may not be what you think, as retirement is not some monolithic concept—it involves many considerations including career, family, health, and finances; can take many forms; and there are no right or wrong answers. It is also a fairly recent concept that originated in 1889 when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the idea to address high youth unemployment by paying those 70 and older to leave the workforce. Other countries adopted the concept. In the U.S., the Social Security Act and rise of pensions allowed us the freedom to not have to work until death. In some ways, retirement for lawyers is a misnomer. It can perhaps better be understood as what will the next stage of your life look like, which is how I approached this dilemma.
The Law Is a Jealous Mistress
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story famously wrote in 1939, “[The law] is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship....” As I approached my 65th birthday, I struggled mightily with how to end my 40-year romance (43 including law school) with the law and the law firm I have loved for over 29 years (Wilson Elser), having co-founded the Dallas office in May 1992 and been its managing partner for over 27 years. In the process, I grew the office from four to more than 50 lawyers, and served as the regional managing partner for the southern and southwestern regions at different times, an Executive Committee member for over 20 years, and the lateral hiring partner for a dozen years, opening many offices and bringing in talent across the firm.
I grant that to most of us, retirement is an intensely personal matter. In my decision process, I came to appreciate just how much the law has given me over the years. Her gifts to me were numerous, including financial independence, the most challenging cases in the country, and a rewarding career helping to build one of the largest firms in the country. Looking back, the years have flown by, and to my younger colleagues, I say take note of this because one day, sooner than you might expect, you will be in my shoes and figuring out how to make your own exit.
But as generous as my mistress has been, she has also extracted a high cost, for if anything, she has been incredibly demanding. The sacrifices include a first marriage; keeping track of my days in small increments; giving up precious family time and kid events; the postponement of many personal trips, some on short notice; and too many disrupted holidays to count. She generally controlled every aspect of my life. I did so without complaint, because after all, I knew it would be this way when I signed on to the relationship.
Why Consider Retirement Now?
As a result of my long relationship with this generous but demanding mistress, here I am, having had the best years in my career recently, writing an essay about retirement because just now on the other side of age 65, I am more conscious of these time demands and wish to be more present in the moment for my family and myself. This requires a rebalancing and readjustment of my life. I’ve always wondered if I’d know when the time was ripe for this momentous decision. The answer came to me quite naturally and organically, not based on financial or health considerations, but a genuine desire to turn the duties and responsibilities of management over to lawyers in my office who have worked hard and deserve their own opportunity to succeed. In short, it’s their time and turn to put their own stamp on the future. After all, I thought, Isn’t that the strength of a mature organization to evolve and transition other talent into key roles going forward and sooner than later? My answer to this question was an unqualified yes.
When the opportunity for other deserving lawyers was greater than for myself going forward, I decided it was time to step aside and give them their chance. It is the organic evolution of an organization and the preservation of its future to do so. This leadership transition should be embraced and given freely, not hung onto. It is a strength to let the next generation lead—and it’s also healthy. I realized that sometimes the best thing a leader can do is step out of the way and help develop the leaders of tomorrow. After all, my mistress had changed over four decades of practice and it was time to accept that fact and bring in new ideas, energy, creativity, and innovation.
Retirement From Law Doesn’t Have to be Abrupt
I concluded that my mistress, though generous and demanding, is also flexible so that you do not have to end the relationship with her abruptly. We have options that do not exist in other professions. I realized that I could step down from my role as managing partner but continue to work for my clients on their cases without totally giving her up. In crystallizing my retirement plan, I decided I would retire in stages, beginning with transitioning out of my leadership role. This would also allow me to assist in my own transition and be a mentor to my successors. In other words, I would be a resource that they could turn to for advice and counsel. At the same time, it would also allow the rebalancing of my own life and allow greater flexibility to do those things that I had long postponed, such as spending more time with my family and doing things like traveling, speaking, and writing. My attorney friend Ron Taylor had once advised me “not to retire from something unless you have something to retire to.” That struck me as a truth, and I am fortunate to have other passions to pursue, for you see my mistress has given me the freedom to do these as well without totally giving her up.
What Does my Next Stage Look Like?
What’s my next stage? Well, there are at least two more. After the transition is complete from management, I will relinquish my equity partnership at some point. This will allow me to continue to work on my cases and do other tasks assigned to me by senior management during this phase. So, I plan to continue servicing my clients, developing business, doing tasks assigned by the firm, and working on my cases. In a sense I’m ending my career as it began 40 years ago, as a working lawyer.
At this point in my career, it is also about giving back—and not just by allowing other deserving talent to move up in their own careers. It is also about giving back to the community, which I have served for so long. I am excited to begin chapter two for the Dallas office and for myself.
What Are Some of the Lessons I’ve Learned?
Which brings me to some thoughts about the lessons I’ve learned along the way since lawyers ask me this question frequently. For purposes of this essay, I will narrow them to three. The first is to lead from the front, or in other words, don’t ask others to do anything that you yourself are not willing to do. This is the lesson I learned from Alexander the Great, who was the first to lead his vaunted companion cavalry into battle. As a result, his troops followed him to the corners of the known world as he created the greatest empire ever known. The second I learned from the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose Meditations is a blueprint for leadership for all ages. His guiding principles were self-reliance and self-mastery—“It’s up to you!” He assumed personal responsibility for whatever situation he found himself. A good leader does. Finally, and apropos to this essay, never give up but know when to quit. Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar, as great leaders as they were, didn’t know when to stop and they paid the price. Alexander died at just 33 years old from either disease or poison, and after he died, his great empire was divided into fragments among his generals. Hannibal stayed too long fighting Rome in Italy, and by the time he was called back to defend his homeland of Carthage in North Africa, his army was too exhausted and worn out to fight the Roman General Scipio Africanus. Carthage was razed to the ground. As for Caesar, we know what happened to him on the Ides of March in 44 BC.
A jealous mistress yes, but I wouldn’t choose another to spend my
life with. TBJ
STRATTON HORRES, originally from Charleston, South Carolina, began his legal career in 1981 with Dallas firm Gardere & Wynne. In 1992, he co-founded the Wilson Elser Dallas office, where he was the managing partner for over 27 years as well as the regional managing partner of the firm’s southwest region. Horres is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and represents clients in catastrophic and high-exposure cases across the U.S. For more information, go to wilsonelser.com/attorneys/e_stratton_horres_jr.