One Very Busy Lawyer's Most Excellent Summer Sabbatical
Imagine every day is Saturday. The week is over, the successes and failures of the work week are yesterday, the prospect of another work week - stress, demands, egos and self-importance - is days away. Do what you want, where you want and when you want. Just sit back and watch the world go by, or maybe choose to even be part of it.
From June 1 to August 31 of this year, that's exactly what I did. And then some.
As a busy criminal defense solo practitioner of 28+ years I decided to "tap out" for a three-month sabbatical to explore. No office, no court, no appointments; I would be available by email and phone only. All the travel that I have ever dreamed about but dismissed as "taking too much time", now I was making time for it.
Dublin to tour the centennial of my ancestors 1916 Rising and grab a pint while watching folk musicians in pubs. The Camino Santiago in Spain by horseback, riding through ancient Galician villages, overnighting in centuries-old monasteries and Manor homes, to arrive early one morning in the Plaza of the Catedral Santiago surrounded by other reverent pilgrims who had walked and biked from all over the world to the resting place of Christ's Apostle Saint James. Two weeks in Peru at my church's mission visiting the homes of dozens of materially impoverished but spiritually wealthy people so I can immerse myself in their life; taking in their grace, gratitude and joie de vivre. Buenos Aires to see the refinement & elegance of its people and architecture and to study it’s rollicking political history. Spend time with family when they show up from out of town. Read some books. Stay up late, sleep in. Have a beer with lunch and people watch downtown.
In two months, I made a new best friend with American Airlines, going from "Red Headed Stepchild" status to “Golden Child”.
Sheer insanity! How does a fully-scheduled, solo-practitioner courtroom lawyer get away for three months?
First and most importantly, you commit to yourself and decide that you are going to do it. Then you plan, plan months and months ahead. Trust and accept that expenses will continue and revenue will be down for those three months. Find a trusted colleague to cover for the inevitable emergencies and new cases. Have an experienced staff to cover the daily housekeeping tasks.
But it all comes back to making the decision to do it, with no excuses. Sometimes it is as simple as saying to adversaries and court personnel that "I am not available from June 1 to August 31." It means asking the people that you work with in the court system to partner with you. I was humbled and grateful to experience very little push back. I got to see the decency of my colleagues writ large, as people who really do want the same things as I do. I suspect that a few may even have been wishful to be doing a sabbatical themselves, and I hope a few seeds were planted in some minds along this journey.
Coming back on September 1 was eye-opening. I saw my court system, colleagues and practice in a new way. Being away for three months made the norms that we live under that much more visible and palpable when I came back. I saw the hurt that we can impose upon ourselves with our self-importance. I saw how pained the environment is that we work in, people and their toxic problems that have so metastasized such that they have to bring themselves to a court room. I realized that the world did just fine without me, and that I did just fine without it, and I could get right back into things when it was time to do so. I came back recharged and with a diminished burden of self-importance that we choose to wear as our mantle. I took more risks, enjoyed the court room and people more, felt looser and enjoyed making more free time.
The most valuable experience was a short week in Santa Barbara, California where I started my process of training to life coach. As lawyers, we spend our careers in the people-business: their problems, illness, addictions and egos. How can I use this unprecedented experience to open doors with others to find work/life balance? How can I help others build the path to try out a similar sabbatical journey?
Taking the gamble of a three-month sabbatical was the wisest career decision that I made in 30 years. I have no doubt that "tapping out" for three months at this point added years or even decades to my professional life, wherever it may take me.
I often heard others say "I wish I could do that but there's no way because (fill-in-the-blank)". My answer to that self-imposed, self-fulfilling absolutism is a question: if a family member were sick and needed three months of devoted time, would you make it happen?
So if we could do it for an illness, why can we not do it for our own health?
“Whoa! I can’t handle that just yet!” some might say. Fair enough, there is still much to be said for a mini-sabbatical. A young practitioner may not want to get away just as their career is blossoming. A work-horse practitioner may want to "try it on for size" before making the plunge into a full blown sabbatical. A mini-sabbatical may look different to each person but can be a long weekend away or even just an afternoon out. Your client can live without you for a few hours or a few days. Check in with yourself if your devotion or commitment may really just be your own sense of self-importance or your fear that they really may not need you. That trial that settled or appointment that cancelled? That's the universe making room in your schedule for you to get away. Take it. And turn off the screens!
Lawyers Mutual was enormously helpful in guiding me and the other lawyers who were covering my cases in making sure that our ethical and practical issues were addressed promptly and that clients were protected. They were very accommodating in adding to my policy so that all counsel would be covered.
Our Bar allows us three weeks of Secured Leave per year where our time off is sacrosanct. I hope that our Bar considers a corollary to allow three months of secured sabbatical time for every 10 years of practice. Imagine the Bar that North Carolina could have if just as we were hitting peak stress, that we could step away, regroup, get in touch and remind ourselves of what was important. How much better could we serve clients and the court system by having lawyers who are refreshed three weeks every year and three months every decade? How much addiction, stress, illness, unprofessionalism and malpractice could be avoided? The question is not can we afford to take off time but can we afford NOT to take off time?
About the Author
Chris Connelly is a Charlotte based solo-practitioner and Certified Specialist in State Criminal Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.