• Early retirement can be a new beginning if you give yourself a chance; disappear for six months
  • Never swing at the first pitch and refuse, on principle, the first offer that’s made to you, unless the first offer is so unexpected and leads you into such a totally uncharted territory as to be irresistible

Not easy to retire early. Easier, I guess, to wait until you are kicked out of your job because you’ve reached the age limit. The decision, at least, is yours. And you cannot blame anyone else but yourself if you later realize you should have worked longer.

I retired from the Federal Court of Appeal close to 10 years before the mandatory retirement age of 75, much to the surprise of my colleagues on the bench and my friends and family. I was seen as a workaholic, utterly law-minded and unlikely to survive long in the jungle of the do-nothing.

But my time had come. Doing justice, as judges like to think they do, cannot be a permanent goal; there is no absolute concept of what justice is really about. Justice is too abstract to be the end of the world. The time had come for me, not to stop doing anything forever, just to stop doing something for a while. A kind of worker’s temporary burnout.

I was retiring knowing I would be doing something preferably not in the area I had been working in for the past 40 years of my life. Not knowing what that would be was not a big concern. It was part of the solution; I knew there was a something somewhere awaiting me.

All my life I had believed in Lady Luck. She had led me to where I was. She would lead me where I was destined to go. I had only to get in touch with her. She is never far when she is needed.

The best advice I got was from a  friend: Disappear for six months, he said. Your network, the extent of which you simply cannot appreciate, will work for you. Don’t wait for the phone to ring. And if a first offer is made, refuse it as a matter of principle, because you are in no hurry, you are wanted and other offers will come up. The last thing to do panic and accept whatever comes first.

I cheated a bit on the advice. Twice. But in such a way that I did not offend the principle.

First, I decided to do some volunteer work at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, which were to be held seven months after my retirement. The decision was not premeditated. I was having dinner with friends in Montreal. I had just told them that I would be retiring in the coming months. That I would love to somehow get back to what was my first love before my parents (quite rightly) persuaded me to get into law: sports.

As a kid I was a goaltender. And, according to some, a good one.  My dream — like that of all youngsters playing goal in Quebec — was to play in the National Hockey League. Dreams can come true if you’re any good. I chose to abandon that dream, even though I kept playing hockey, first for the faculty of law and then on the university’s junior team.

I would never have thought that you could earn a law degree and end up in the NHL. But along came Ken Dryden. McGill Faculty of Law graduate, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. Winner of six Stanley Cups. He realized my dream and I’m glad he did. I like to think that, had made it to the NHL, he would have been sitting on the bench as backup to me. As it was, I ended up on the (legal) bench and Ken tried to become the first goalie prime minister of Canada, a PM able to see all the shots coming at him, even from his own team, and yet able to protect his goal.

My friends told me the Vancouver Olympic Committee was short of French-speaking volunteers. Being a judge, I did not want to contact any potential employer directly before my retirement. Yet I had no choice but to make my interest known immediately. A former colleague on the court made a few phone calls. I registered as a volunteer. Soon after, I was offered work as a Canadian dignitary assistant. I accepted. I do not consider this offer as a real “first offer”.

On my last day on the court, in late June 2009, I was giving a speech about my 20 years on the bench. I walked back to the court with someone who had experience in international sport. He asked me about my plans for retirement. None yet, I said, except for my work as a volunteer at the Olympics. He then asked me if I was interested in sports. Well, yes.

He suggested that I apply to the Court of Arbitration for Sport — a body set up to settle disputes related to sport, most of which involve doping or transfer disputes within professional soccer — based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Three months later, I was appointed as an arbitrator to the court. How could I have refused that offer? Surely my friend did not mean that I should say no to any first offer. In any event, it was not a real offer. It was an answer to an application I had made.

There are many morals to this story. Retirement is an end; it can also be a beginning. Do not wait until you are totally drained. Discuss your plans — or absence of plans — with friends. Follow your friends’ advice. Go where your heart is. Don’t hesitate to make decisions that are clearly out of your traditional patterns, such as paying to be an anonymous volunteer for the Olympics and not attending any competition. Give speeches to the right audiences. Walk home with the right people. Make your bilingualism profitable. Always refuse the first offer, unless . . .

Robert Décary, who remains honorable despite his looks, recently retired from the Federal Court of Appeal after 20 years of service. In October 2009, he was appointed as arbitrator to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Lausanne). In his younger years (i.e. a very long time ago) he was special assistant to the Secretary of State for External Affairs. Before losing his freedom of expression upon his appointment to the Bench, he was a part-time columnist with Le Devoir and La Presse in Montreal. He lives in Gatineau, Québec.