This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.
Retirement. What does that word mean to you? Old or wise, laid back or charging ahead? Playing endless rounds of golf or attending endless board meetings?
Retirement has certainly been redefined; we’re working well beyond sixty-five. All we have to do is look to the Supreme Court as a prime example. According to Bloomberg, in an article by David Ingold, the projected age when a justice will leave the Supreme Court is now about eighty-three. That’s a ten-year increase from the 1950s. Wow, that’s ten additional years of being relevant and contributing to the decisions of our country’s most important issues.
Okay, I get it. Not many of you have an appointment for life—or do you? I think it depends on how you look at it. Have you had a lifetime of helping and mentoring, or a passion for the arts, or maybe volunteering to make life better for so many others?
My next lawyer has had a lifetime appointment. Quite frankly, I believe it’s in his DNA, and he couldn’t have done it any other way. John Kozyak was one of the founders of a bankruptcy and complex litigation firm more than thirty-six years ago, and is currently the chairman of the board of the Parkinson’s Foundation. He is the force behind the enormously successful Minority Mentoring Picnic that fosters diversity in the legal profession.
Black: John, where did your deep-seated commitment to diversity come from?
Kozyak: Well, I grew up in a totally segregated community in Southern Illinois, just a few miles from St. Louis. I graduated from high school in 1966 in a class of about nine hundred students, and not a single one of them was black. Of course, black was not a term used then, and where I grew up, I never understood the mean prejudice that was everywhere surrounding me.
My mother was the kindest, most wonderful woman I ever met. Surrounded by hate and prejudice, my mother was a quiet, small civil rights leader. Before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, the bathrooms and restaurants in St. Louis were legally segregated. When we went there to go shopping, my mother chose to sit on the segregated side of the Woolworth’s soda fountain counter. I’ll never forget her courage when people would call her an n-lover, and that’s when it started that I thought I could make a difference, and I would try.
I never spoke to a black person or a colored person or Negro until I was in the Army after college, but some would say I made up for it since.
Black: Well, John, I certainly can attest to that. So how did you focus on diversity as a young lawyer?
Kozyak: When I became a lawyer in 1975, I got involved in recruiting, and heard far too often, “If we could only find a good one.” That was code for someone who spoke like a white person, was unbelievably bright, articulate, well-dressed, and would not make waves—in other words, somebody who was far, far better than the people we were hiring.
Black: How did you happen to start the Minority Mentoring Picnic?
Kozyak: The University of Miami Law School had a program in the nineties and I loved being a mentor. The law school dropped the program, and I decided to pick it up and expand it.
My wife, Barbara, and I hosted receptions in our backyard for black law students at UM for several years before we had our first picnic. And we didn’t initiate or invent black lawyers and black law students getting together for a picnic either; we just decided we could help.
We had two hundred people come the first year. Barbara and my law partner, Detra Shaw-Wilder, served food, cleaned up, sent my mentor out for more hot dogs and beers. People brought food. And it was my first time to get a sweet potato pie, and I knew we were on to something.
The picnic grew. When we realized that many of the lawyers signing up to be mentors werewhite women and Hispanic men and women, we decided the second year to include every minority. We actually started looking for gays, lesbians, transgenders, Muslims, Christians, Dominicans, Haitians, disabled, women, and everyone else who might need a boost.
Now I’m so very proud, and know my mother would be proud, that I feel that we have the best diversity-oriented event in Florida—maybe the country. We bring everyone together for a day, and then, maybe, a lifetime.
There are so many good stories that resulted from the picnic. You can see the young children— Muslim, white, Hispanic, Asian—all of them playing together, and their parents enjoying it, their parents meeting new people. I’ve become close friends with many of my mentees, and I know that we have made a difference.
Black: What was your vision for your third act and when did you start thinking about it?
Kozyak: Strangely, I first started talking about retirement in my early forties as a way to rationalize my crazy workaholic lifestyle. I would tell people that I’d retire by fifty, or maybe teach a few classes, to get them off my butt about working too much.
In my late fifties, my mother and then my father were both diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It’s then that I recognized that I didn’t control everything in my life. I decided to live my life as if I was going to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s any day.
When I was approaching sixty, I decided I could do more than bill hours and make money. I also thought I should make up for all the hours I spent at my desk, in court, or on a plane, or up in the middle of the night, worrying about clients instead of people who loved me and whom I love.
Fortunately for me, that included a number of people I had worked with my entire career. I have the best partners and staff imagined.
Black: So what did you do?
Kozyak: I also wanted to go out on top. I have boxes of plaques and awards. I don’t tout my accomplishments, which have been many. I’m one of a handful of lawyers who are Fellows in both the American College of Bankruptcy and the American College of Trial Lawyers. I decided to officially slow down and sell my equity back to the firm a year before the recession of 2008. I was tired of hustling for work, and I thought I might have lost a little off my fastball.
In 2008, there were all sorts of opportunities for a bankruptcy lawyer and commercial litigator, and I quickly got involved in a mega-bankruptcy, with the best result I had ever achieved, before I started to slow down. This success really helped me feel better about slowing down. It was a relief to know that I really, really was going out on top.
I’m quite fortunate, because my law firm has supported everything I have ever wanted to do. They prefer “slowing down” and “being selective” to the term retiring. And I’ve taken that approach, because I’m most definitely prepared to hop on a plane, handle a big hearing, meet a potential client, etc., when my firm really needs me and there’s a great opportunity.
I feel I have still lots to contribute to the firm and clients, but choose to use my time much more efficiently and wisely. I bill a small fraction of what I used to bill, make a fraction of what I used to make, and feel much better about it all. I could retire completely now, but I don’t have to and don’t want to.
Again, my career law partners help me take on opportunities and not get sucked back into my old ways. I still enjoy analyzing a big messy matter and developing a strategy with a team, and then watching others implement it with some help here and there.
Black: You were the chairman of the board of the National Parkinson’s Foundation. So was it clear that Parkinson’s would be your focus?
Kozyak: No. I really never thought about Parkinson’s until my mother was diagnosed. Maybe it was fate, but I ran into the CEO of the National Parkinson’s Foundation a week or two after her diagnosis, and he helped me get her an appointment with the best neurologist in St. Louis.
A couple of years later, I was being recruited for the board and I remember telling the chair and CEO, “The last thing you need is another white sixty-year-old lawyer on your board.” But they still wanted me, and I joined.
The first few years of board service were rather uneventful. However, when the chair role became available about five and a half years ago, I was really the only person who had the time, energy, and interest to take it on.
I tried being rather laid back, and let the professionals and the others run the organization at first. Then a board member persuaded me to either find my successor or make a difference, and once I chose the latter, I really threw myself into it.
I couldn’t see my mom very often, but I could feel that I was making her proud and helping lots of other people living with Parkinson’s through my work. By every standard,the Parkinson’s Foundation is a stronger organization after merging with another national organization and expanding. My term as chair will end in six months and I want to wrap up several projects before then.
I met some terrific people living with Parkinson’s. I’ve been with billionaires asking for their help. I’ve cried, watching my mom and dad deal with the disease’s last stages. And I feel pretty fulfilled as I start thinking about what’s next when I turn seventy.
Black: How would you advise others to think about their third act and how would you have prepared differently, knowing what you know today?
Kozyak: First, start saving early, and don’t live beyond your means. I think it’s obvious the government is not going to pay for a good retirement. Barbara and I have lived in the same house for the past thirty-five years and we’ve never upsized, so we don’t have to downsize or pay a mortgage.
As we were approaching sixty, we changed financial planners. We really feel comfortable with the team we have now, and that’s provided lots of comfort. I wish I had met them in my thirties.
Second, I recommend building a strong, diverse group of friends in a supportive network. We love getting together to cook, drink good wine, and be with people who are younger and older with all sorts of interests and experiences. Find something passionate to do, and give back at least a few hours a week. It’ll make you feel better.
Take ownership of your health. Get good advice and try to follow it. I need to do this more.
My time on the board of the Parkinson’s Foundation has proven the importance of movement and positive thinking.
Lastly, don’t let others let you own their crap. Relatives, colleagues, and others who are takers may try to take advantage or try to fit you into their idea of what you should be or should be doing. You are not responsible for all the woes in the world, or even your or your spouse’s extended family. Disassociate if necessary to protect yourself from toxic people.
I’ve gotten lots out of mentoring students who care and are willing to learn. I don’t mind telling others that it’s not working out.
I love spending time with my granddaughter and my boys, and choose to spend little time with others who do not provide a positive experience.
Black: John, do you have any last words you’d like to share?
Kozyak: Tell the others around you, like your wife and your best friends, how much you love them, and go out of your way to be nice to them. Little things can be a big deal.
Since I slowed down, I have tried to bring my wife coffee in bed every morning that I’m around. It’s a damn good way to start the day. We also try to have a glass of wine each evening together, and with friends most days. Often it’s a couple of glasses as we think about what we might like to do tomorrow, next week, or next year, or when we get old.
John has contributed to and encouraged hundreds of lawyers from many, many diverse backgrounds. He has had a lifetime of giving back, and it’s no different in his third act.
I would say it’s been a lifetime appointment, wouldn’t you?
John advises us that we need to take ownership of our health, physically and financially. It’s never too late to start, I might add.