The Legacy Paradox

The legacy paradox? If you’re confused as to how legacy can invoke a paradox, I hope you’ll stick with me because the two different contexts for legacy that I’m referencing are critical elements to consider for anyone involved in the practice of law (in any form) and especially for any lawyer practicing law in a firm or as a solo practitioner. More specifically, legacy is an important consideration as you define and pursue your law career, and it’s an equally important consideration when it comes time to consider transitioning out of the practice of law (whether for retirement or some other reason).

In order to understand the legacy paradox, let’s start with some basic definitions. A relevant definition of legacy from MacMillan is “something that someone has achieved that continues to exist after they stop working or die.” In the context of the practice of law, legacy could relate to getting clarity about what lasting impact you intend to have as a result of your active engagement in the practice of law. Achieving this clarity often involves asking and answering this critical question: Why are you practicing law? Many of you may not yet have asked and answered this vital question beyond “It’s a job.” I invite you to consider this question because in finding your why for practicing law, you will find the practice of law to be more engaging, empowering and enjoyable.

In contrast, the concept of legacy often surfaces for lawyers who are contemplating the transition of their law firm in the future (i.e. succession planning) and / or their retirement from the practice of law. In both cases, the concept of legacy relates to the things that continue on after you are no longer practicing law. In other words, you seek to identify the legacy you want to create (that will outlive you) and you contemplate what the legacy will be as you’ve leaving the practice of law. While they may seem similar, they are very different in that one relates to your intentions around legacy during your law career and the other relates to looking in the rear-view mirror as your law career moves to its closure (however that occurs). This will make more sense below.

With this foundation for the concept of legacy in mind, let’s now look at the concept of paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “someone who does two things that seem to be opposite to each other or who has qualities that are opposite.” In order to better explain the application of a paradox to legacy, let me take you to a recent conference where I facilitated a two-day session with law firm leaders on succession planning. Succession planning can be a complex topic (which I’ll cover in next month’s article), and the lawyers in attendance were quick to highlight the many challenges with succession planning. One of the more prevalent and consistent challenges was simple – the “retiring” (whatever form that took) lawyer’s unwillingness to let go of clients, of relationships, and in many cases the ongoing practice of law. In other words, even in situations where lawyers had agreed to their transition timing and process, when the time came they were reluctant (or in some cases simply refused) to let go. By holding on the lawyers prevented their legacy from becoming a reality, since legacy is that which carries on after you have left the practice of law.

There are many reasons for lawyers not wanting to let go and actually transition out of the practice of law, including the following:

  • Uncertainty about what comes next in life
  • Inability to shift away from the habit of work (and the practice of law)
  • Lack of confidence in the people who are identified to take over their practice, clients or relationships
  • Financial realities that urge them to continue working (and generating income) in order to meet their financial needs
  • Lack of a clear legacy beyond their day-to-day practice of law

In addition to the foregoing, one reason that often surfaces is that the lawyer’s identify has become intertwined with the practice of law or the role of a lawyer. In other words, lawyers struggle to envision themselves beyond their status as lawyers.

In short and often without realizing it, the “retiring” lawyer is asking this question: Who will I be when I’m no longer practicing law? Without a clear and satisfactory answer to this question, many lawyers will choose to hang onto the practice of law (and thus their self-identity) to the detriment of their family, their firm, their physical health and their mental health.

If you’ve already put your transition or succession plan in place, then you are keenly aware of the issues and challenges discussed above. If you’re not there yet (or are early in your law career), the concept of transition or retirement may seem far distant in the future. However, no matter where you are in your law practice journey, the key is to ask and answer the question: What do you want your legacy to be? The sooner you answer this question and the clearer you are with the answer, the more you will enhance not only the lasting impact of your legal career but, more important, your current and ongoing level of satisfaction, contentment and even peace (this is the Peaceful Lawyer) with and from the practice of law. The great paradox of legacy is that it only happens after your career, but is completely shaped by what you do during it. Thus, it’s never too early to contemplate your legacy as a lawyer, and becoming better at defining yourself beyond being a lawyer will also greatly ease your transition out of the practice of law, whenever and however that occurs. What will be YOUR legacy as a lawyer?


  1. Phanemonel breakdown of the topic, you should write for me too!

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