You need a vacation. You’ve earned it. But can you manage to get away? A March 2023 Pew Research Center survey shows that only 48% of U.S. workers use all their allotted vacation days each year. It’s a good bet that the percentage is even smaller for lawyers.
According to a July 12, 2022 Forbes article, the benefits of taking a vacation are clear: it results in improved productivity, lower stress and better overall mental health. It also spurs greater creativity. Time off allows us to come back feeling refreshed and recharged, with renewed focus.
Although vacations can save legal employers money by reducing absences from stress-related medical issues, burn-out, lower morale, and decreased productivity, most of those organizations don’t really encourage time off. Despite official vacation policies and benefits, client needs and profit considerations are paramount. Annual billable hours targets must be met irrespective of vacation plans. Therefore, taking any time off means increasing billables at other times.
You’ve earned it
Law firms vary in the length of annual paid vacation time they offer. Several don’t specify the number of days but give associates and counsel “a reasonable amount” of paid time off subject to client demands and other professional obligations and responsibilities. Lawyers at those firms can take whatever time they feel they can fit into their busy schedules–which usually isn’t much.
Your vacation days are part of your compensation package. Not taking advantage of them essentially gives your firm an equivalent number of days of free labor. Whether you want a vacation for your physical or mental health, to spend quality time with loved ones, or to avoid leaving money on the table, you must thoughtfully and carefully plan your escape strategy
Finding the right time to go is the most difficult part of taking a vacation. Lawyers can’t predict much of their workload, but you must work around trials and closings. Optimal vacation time can differ by practice area. For litigators, August usually is slower because judges often vacation then. Similarly, tax attorneys know when their business ebbs and flows around various regulatory deadlines.
In our volatile legal marketplace, with layoffs looming and companies and law firms dissolving, merging, or adding or dropping practice groups, it’s not wise to leave the office for an extended period if your organization or department is going through major changes. You want to safeguard your position in the new version of the entity going forward. Likewise, don’t knowingly absent yourself when top management or important clients visit.
It’s irresponsible to take off when too many others or key attorneys on client matters are out for any reason. Just because partners are on vacation doesn’t mean they won’t notice you’re out. Client demands don’t stop when lawyers leave town. You need to be there if an urgent matter arises, or if a vacationing partner calls in for assistance. This includes holidays – which need lawyer coverage – especially when you’re junior. The more seniority you accrue and the larger client base you control, the better shot you’ll have at time off during holiday periods.
Even if you’ve plotted the least disruptive time to leave, and given everyone plenty of notice, something can pop up at the last minute to foil your plans. If a client is in crisis, you must be there. A word to the wise: Buy trip cancellation insurance.
How long can you be gone at one time? While it depends on where and how you want to travel, two or more consecutive weeks out of the office might leave you too far behind. The stress of extricating yourself and catching back up might not be worth it.
Law firm life is not a five-days-a-week job. Beware of trying to skirt the vacation issue by taking too many long weekends rather than scheduling longer chunks of time off. You might be able to extend a business trip a few days here and there, but pick your battles wisely. This practice was less noticeable with remote work policies, but with legal employers increasingly requiring in-office attendance, repeated absences on Mondays and/or Fridays can earn you a reputation for being unreliable. This is especially true if you leave colleagues scrambling to meet Friday deadlines or handling your work over weekends. Furthermore, constant absences may backfire when you need to be out of the office on a required in-office day for an important event.
Many attorneys – especially those gunning for partnership – worry about appearing less dedicated than their counterparts. Thus, they fear that taking a vacation may hinder their future success at the firm. Your best bet for deciding how to schedule your vacation time is to look at your firm’s culture. Do partners routinely skip vacations? How did the newly minted partners manage their vacation time as they were moving up through the ranks? This is a matter you might want to discuss with your mentor.
As soon as you’ve decided when you want to take your vacation, talk to your practice group leader or supervisor about your plans. Rather than ask permission, state the dates you plan to be out and ask whether there are any issues or conflicts. Look at your client responsibilities and confirm there is ample coverage for the workload.
Ensure your client files or projects folders are organized and easily accessible. Brief your superior and/or colleagues who will be covering for you. Write status memos, if necessary, highlighting any deadlines. Include contact information for clients, witnesses, and co- and opposing counsel. If others need to access password-protected electronic files, check that all appropriate parties know the password. An option is to change all passwords to a single vacation password, and change them back upon your return.
Inform your clients, colleagues, and co- and opposing counsel of the dates you’ll be gone, whether and how you can be reached, and who will handle matters in your absence. Leave messages on your phone and e-mail letting people know you’re out of the office, when you’ll return, and whom to contact should they need immediate assistance. Mention whether you’ll check messages during your absence and when to expect your response. In any event, leave an emergency contact number with all appropriate people.
Although you plan to return to the office refreshed and ready to jump back into the fray, don’t schedule meetings or travel for the day or so after you get back. Before you leave, plan what you need to do upon your return to get back on track quickly, but be realistic about your catch-up plans.
During your vacation
In this technologically connected world, it’s difficult to escape completely. Even those who do take time off often don’t disconnect completely. A June 2022 survey of senior executives by executive search firm Korn Ferry showed that more than a third planned to check in with the office multiple times a day while on vacation, up from 19% who expected to do so in 2021. The percentage of lawyers doing so probably is much higher.
Unless you’re going off the grid (and you might want to go somewhere unreachable on purpose), the reality is that you may be checking voicemail and emails reasonably regularly. Although most lawyers are Type A personalities, keep your hands off work as much as possible. But make sure all client matters are being handled, and respond to urgent situations as soon as you can. Otherwise, trust your colleagues to handle things in your absence.
After you return
Keep the relaxed post-vacation vibe going as long as possible by giving yourself re-entry time to catch up and get acclimated. Acknowledge that the firm survived in your absence, and strive to remember that fact the next time you contemplate taking a break.