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Making the Most of Attorney Career Transitions

If ever there were a group of individuals who seem well-suited to respond quickly to changing times, it would be attorneys with high-end careers. After all, helping your clients respond nimbly to evolving circumstances is what you do for a living

But even for a successful attorney, it can be daunting when you face personal or professional transitions of your own. Whether it’s in the form of an appealing new partnership opportunity, an untenable existing relationship, or simply a desire to try something new for a change, do you have what it takes to make the personal and financial most of a career move?

Which way to go with your career?When you’re undergoing a career transition, it can be among the most exciting, thrilling, satisfying and terrifying times in your life … all at the same time. Believe me, I understand, as I’ll get to in a moment. Fortunately, most attorneys have both skill sets required to remain open to personal growth while sustaining financial well-being.

First, as successful professionals, attorneys know there’s no time to waste in capturing fleeting opportunities and reacting swiftly and decisively to arising challenges – for yourself and your clients. High doses of independent thinking and competitive energy can take you far.

At the same time, every attorney also knows how and when to be a team player – at work, at home and in your community. Here, success calls for patient planning and collaborative relationships.

Using the story of my own professional transition back in 2009, I’ll illustrate how to make best use of both talents – being fast on your feet when called upon, as well as patient and forgiving of yourself and others when warranted – to successfully navigate challenging but worthwhile professional transitions.     

Michael’s Story

Today, I am The Cogent Advisor, Personal Chief Financial Officer for a select number of successful attorneys and other high-end professionals seeking clarity in a world of complexity and achieve all that is important them. Before that, I was a high-stakes proprietary trader for some 20 years at The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). How and why did I move from Point A to Point B?

I believe I will always find the trading floor mindset addictively appealing. But even in my trading heydays, a skeptical part of me figured it was probably too good to last. In the early years of the new millennium, it was hard to ignore the electronic writing on the wall; I and my fellow CME members could see the inexorable advance of global electronic trading. Eventually, I concluded it was time to consider a new career - one that would sustain my temperament as well as a reasonable income stream.

Financially, I was relatively well-prepared for the shift. While trading, I had routinely set aside a portion of my earnings into a separate portfolio that I sought to manage according to my longer-term goals. I was still forming a disciplined investment strategy and had not yet developed an optimal wealth management team to guide my way. But even this relatively straightforward act of separation had significantly reduced the temptation to treat all of my wealth as an unlimited, ATM-like cash cow. (You can read my full story HERE.)

Transitions book to readEmotionally, transitioning from trader to wealth manager was more trying. In one of my favorite reads, “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,” author William Bridges describes a three-stage transitional process:

1. The Ending - Our old way of life has ended. We’ve shed many of our past connections and have gradually stopped expecting or hoping for their return.

2. The Neutral Zone - As the ending sinks in, we experience a confusing “What’s next?” period –sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy. We recognize that the “good old days” are gone, but the future remains blurry.

3. The Beginning - We eventually emerge from the neutral zone “no-man’s-Iand” to form specific plans for the future plans that guide us into new relationships, new opportunities… a new life.

As I moved through these stages to reach my own next “Beginning,” I found myself distancing myself from trading and seeking new insights as to what was next. After prodding from respected peers, I attended graduate-level financial classes at DePaul University. I saw an opportunity to serve the community I so love: professionals and their families seeking to sustain their successes over the long haul through deep and deliberate wealth management. At the same time, I was able to nurture and develop my own quest to grow as a person.

Soon, a business plan emerged, based on my research into the financial services industry and interviews of many seasoned professionals. I founded The Cogent Advisor (now Cogent Strategic Wealth), and a career that would enable me to serve as a Personal Chief Financial Officer to attorneys and others who are enduring similar journeys and overcoming similar barriers in their own successful careers. I was ready to make the move from “me” to “team,” and help others take a deliberate, long-term approach to managing their personal wealth.

Personal Wealth Essentials

Still, like most other high-end professionals I know, there’s that nagging doubt: What if we or external forces kill the good thing we’ve got going? Let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Feld, who ended his 80-year career with Goldman Sachs & Co in the mid-1990s. (Truly, 80 years – this is not a typo!) He then enjoyed quite a few years in retirement, passing away in 2013 at age 98. 

Given the slim-to-none odds that you will have the same job or even the exact same career for your entire life, are you as well-positioned as you can be to preserve your personal wealth in the face of continued changes in your industry and potentially your own life?

Simple But Not Easy

So what does it take to make for successful financial and emotional transitions? Among my favorite quotes from one of my favorite mentors is Warren Buffett’s observation, “Investing is simple, but not easy.” By that, we mean there are essentials that anyone can and should follow in accumulating and preserving personal wealth. But acknowledging these essentials and implementing them are two very different animals.

Particularly for high-end attorneys and similar professionals, personal wealth should be cleanly separated from your professional income, to ensure these assets are appropriately managed toward achieving your longer-term goals. And yet, placing a priority on minimizing costs and market risks in pursuit of market returns stands in stark contrast to the typical mindset about one’s daily cash accounts. Simple, but not easy.

As your life rolls on, you may remain a partner at your firm for another 80 years, or pursue any number of other avenues of interest along the way. The infinite possibilities are what make life worth living! Regardless of which of your many opportunities you are currently pursuing, I recommend taking some time to give yourself the gift of personal introspection. If seemingly simple questions arise about how your wealth fits into your dreams, and easy answers aren’t as forthcoming, we hope you’ll be in touch for a Cogent Conversation®.