Admittedly I’m biased, but I bet most lawyers—at some point—yearn to do more than practice law the rest of their lives. I was precocious on that score. Even as a first year associate, I felt I wanted to do something different.

I think loads of lawyers want something more meaningful but are clueless about what to do. And I’m not talking only about lawyer-malcontents like myself. From what I’ve seen, even those who like law and are wildly successful at it want more out of life, often as they get older, besides negotiating contracts, writing briefs or working on the biggest, most awesome deal/case ever.

But how do you cut the cord and reinvent yourself—especially if you’ve been a lawyer for most of your life?

Paul Irving, former managing partner and co-chair of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, has some answers. He ditched Big Law in 2010. Now chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, he’s also a board member of Encore.org (a nonprofit that connects midlife and older adults with public service opportunities) and a scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology.

Below is an edited version of my chat with Irving.

 

You went from being co-chair at Manatt to the nonprofit sector where you’re focused on aging and reinvention. You were only 57—hardly retirement age—when you left Manatt. Some people might think that’s foolish to walk out on a successful career. Not to be tacky, but wasn’t it hard to walk away from all that money?

Some of my old partners ask me how I did it. I tell them it wasn’t that bad [because] when you’re the lawyer on a deal, you’re often the poorest guy in the room! You have to think about priorities. I feel blessed that law gave me the resources to do other things. There are trade-offs. As much as I loved my work as lawyer, I find this more rewarding.

 

You were on top of the heap in law, and you still weren’t fulfilled?

I liked being a lawyer but you get to a position where the learning curve flattens. It happened that Harvard launched an advanced leadership fellowship and I got recruited to

Paul Irving.

go for a year to think about the next stage and what we can do to contribute more. I came back to L.A. and became part of Milken Institute on aging. I believe that aging is as high impact as climate change—it’s underreported and there’s an opportunity to elevate the conversation. And it’s changed my life.

 

You seem to think that most people—even those who’ve labored as lawyers for decades—crave at least one more act. Are lawyers, particularly baby boomers, just incapable of  chilling and going quietly into the sunset?

The data suggest that fewer people seek traditional retirement. They want purpose and ongoing stimulus. Lawyers have brains and connections to stretch themselves. We have a supply and demand challenge: great human capital, the resources of older adults, and we have needs that are crying for solutions. The question is how to connect the two.

 

You’re active with Encore, an organization that seeks to deploy the talents of our aging population for social good. Do you think people long to do good and make an impact before they kick the bucket?

If you study psychologist Erik Erikson, it’s established that we have an inclination to share our selves as we age. Older people’s priorities and ambitious change, and there’s deeper hunger for doing something important. You want to move from success to significance, and leave a legacy.

 

So do lawyers seek your advice about making a change and doing something more impactful?

All the time, and it’s one of the joys of my life to speak to people about it. They range from people with modest-level jobs to people in very elite positions in some of the most important law firms in the world. Some are interested in running a nonprofit, being involved in policy or joining a senior core group. I talk them through it, about how to manage with less money, how to talk to colleagues. I think searching is a human condition.

 

And how many actually act on it?

That’s a good question. The challenge is harder for people without money. On the other hand, success can bring its own impediments. There are issues of family, firm and spousal expectations that come with achievements. The discussion is how to break down those expectations and ask what you really care about.

 

Have you known people who made the jump out of Big Law and regretted it?

Overwhelmingly, people who’ve made the transformation are happier. It’s an affirmation of their ability to change.

 

Want to learn more? I will be moderating panel (Time for an Encore Career? Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life) on making a career change, Nov. 2, at the New York City Bar,  6:30-8:30. Panelists include Encore.org’s Marci Alboher (author, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life); City Bar Justice Center’s Lynn Kelly; BoardAssist’s Susan Fisher; and The Everest Project’s Pam Carlton.