My first law boss loved to boast that he hadn’t taken a day off in 11 years.
The fruits of his superhuman work ethic were right there for the whole world to admire: a ginormous income, majestic corner office, fleet of European automobiles and a house on Sullivan’s Island overlooking the Atlantic.
Then again, there were two failed marriages, three children whose names he kept forgetting, migraines, peptic ulcers, irrational outbursts of anger and an alarming skin rash that tended to flare up just before big trials.
But those were mere details. His major problem – one that created crippling office stress and chaotic staff turnover – was an inability to put down his Dictaphone (remember: this was long, long ago in a universe far away) and pick up his life.
Oh sure, he had his charming side. He loved dogs. He had excellent hair. And don’t get me wrong. I am grateful he gave me a job.
But he believed to get to the top you had to fight, claw and take no prisoners. He believed life – and the law – was a struggle. He believed each new day brought more problems to be contained, controlled and conquered.
What he did not believe in was vacations.
Things Will Be Fine When We’re Gone
“Every person needs to take one day away,” writes the late Maya Angelou. “A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
I doubt my old boss has ever read Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now, the source of the above excerpt.
And he is not alone. The website FindLaw has a Career Center with helpful tips for new and wannabe lawyers. Here’s what it says about vacations:
“Vacation time for lawyers is a chronic problem. The demands of many law practices are extremely intense, and vacations are often sacrificed to client needs and litigation schedules. Many lawyers with a good sense of balance in life make a conscientious effort to set aside vacation time, as well as evening and weekend time, for themselves and their families. However, these efforts often face serious pressure. Many lawyers have a highly developed sense of duty, and business pressures in private practice often make it difficult to tell an anxious client to wait. Many personal and family relationships of lawyers suffer harm as a result…. If you are significantly motivated by a desire for regular and generous vacations, you may wish to consider another field – for example, teaching.”
Wow, if that doesn’t cause a stampede of students clamoring to get into law school, I don’t know what will.
Fight the Fear of Having Fun
Workaholics and vacation-phobes come in all shapes and sizes. But they share a common motivation: fear.
My old boss was afraid that if he dared to step away from the office somebody might goof off. Or even worse, the whole empire would come crumbling down.
Following are some other professional fears that discourage taking time off (courtesy of Rosezetta Upshaw and the ABA Journal):
Fear of letting the team down and not pulling your weight.
Fear of missing out on an important client that will bolster your practice.
Fear that your boss will think you prioritize fun over work.
Fear that an emergency will arise that only you could handle.
Fear of losing face time.
Fear of being passed up for a promotion or partnership.
How to Create a Firm Culture That Values Vacations
“We live and work in a culture of distractibility,” says psychologist and executive coach Maynard Brusman. “[L]aptops, iPads, smart phones and other remote tools allow lawyers to have easy access to the office. Creating time away could be the healthiest step lawyers could take.”
Here are 7 tips to help you take that step:
Plan ahead. Schedule vacations well in advance. Allow plenty of time to finish major projects. Delegate tasks. Prepare written instructions on what needs to be done.
Tell your clients. Let them know when you will be unavailable. Tell them who to contact in the event of an emergency.
Clear your calendar. Make sure all court appearances are continued or will be competently covered.
Try bite-sized nuggets. If you’re a vacation newbie, take baby steps. Spend a weekend at a luxury hotel. Take a three-day weekend. Cue up Netflix and schedule a staycation.
Celebrate each other’s vacations. Encourage co-workers to bring in photos and stories about their awesome expeditions. Share them at your next staff meeting.
Make vacations a core value. Be generous with leave time. You will be repaid royally by a grateful, motivated and refreshed staff.
Vacation like you mean it. When you’re lounging on the beach or strolling in Paris, act like it. Turn off your smartphone. Leave your laptop in the hotel room.
My high school track coach used to say rest, relaxation and recovery were not the rewards of training. They were an essential part of training. The same is true with law and vacations.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 919-619-2441 – but not in the last two weeks of July, when he will be on vacation.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.