Take Time Off...Are You Kidding?
by Diane Hartman
Taking a sabbatical can be relaxing, enlightening.
Some Denver law firms with sabbatical polices practically push gleeful partners out the door. Others say taking off for several months is disruptive, expensive and interrupts client service. A few firms have a formal sabbatical policy, but nobody ever takes one.
Are we all working too hard?
A recent Boston Globe story said Americans work harder than anyone except the Japanese. Another story decried the tiny amount of vacation Americans take, especially compared to many Europeans who wouldn't think of working in August.
Sabbaticals (the word would indicate a leave every seven years, which is often what tenured academics get) are considered by firms from time to time.
Sherman & Howard decided not to make a formal policy. "Some people reacted negatively. They didn't want to take one, for whatever reason, and felt it would be unfair to be forced to do something they didn't want to. And they didn't think they should pay for others to do something they didn't approve of. We felt it would be divisive," said Michael Sanchez, managing partner. Still, "our policy is pretty loose and we pretty much let someone take one whenever they want. Most don't. Some people take them and come back invigorated and like practicing law more than they thought. Others realize they'd just as soon be doing something else."
Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber doesn't have a policy, but grants sabbaticals on a "case-by-case basis," which is what several firms said.
Davis Graham & Stubbs used to, but dropped the policy in the early '90s. Before it was dropped, Managing Partner Gale Miller took one and spent a month touring the East Coast. "Not everyone did them. Some felt their practice didn't permit. It was a fairness issue." He also said it seemed disruptive to some. "We're in an increasingly competitive external environment and people are nervous about going away for an extended period and abandoning clients. It's difficult to do with litigation schedules. You phase out cases until your sabbatical, then you have to phase back in. That's a lot of coming and going time besides the sabbatical. The firm does work out arrangements with people. One partner is spending time working with people in Vietnam and has taken a reduced schedule, and of course, reduced pay." He added (echoing what many partners said): "There hasn't been a big hue and cry about a sabbatical policy."
At Holme Roberts & Owen, sabbaticals are given for family or personal reasons, according to Kenneth Lund, managing partner. A former member of HRO said when they did have a policy he remembered three partners who took six months off to climb Mt. Everest. "One partner did it twice." But, he said, the time wasn't paid.
One of the firms that has a formal--but unused--policy is Otten, Johnson, Robinson, Neff & Ragonetti. Managing Partner Michael Westover said they enacted it expecting people would take them. "But it's very hard to set aside your practice for three months. There has been a lot of talk, but nobody has done it." Partner Tom MacDonald said he intends to take a sabbatical "or at least a long vacation" when his son is old enough to appreciate a trip to Europe.
Some people interviewed agreed "corporate culture" would stop younger partners from taking time off if more senior partners didn't. "Either all the partners take them or none of them do," said one. MacDonald said, "Americans are macho. We're gonna work until we die. We wouldn't be caught dead taking a long vacation. And our firm is firmly American."
On the other end of the spectrum are firms who embrace a sabbatical policy.
"It's pretty ingrained here," said Terry Kelly of Kelly Haglund Garnsey & Kahn. "We're small enough that we don't seem to have any trouble administering who gets to go when. People get their plans in early."
Seven of the nine partners have taken sabbaticals. Their policy started in the mid-'80s: "Each partner is credited with 15 days a year toward a sabbatical. You're eligible to take it after you've been a partner for two years. You're not supposed to let it build up beyond six months. Usually people take two or three months off."
Kelly said he and his family took a "roots" trip and traveled to Italy where his wife has family, then to Ireland, where he has relatives. "It seems like the best ones have been for families where the kids are in high school. The family goes away and either they kill each other or they really bond. Ours was a tremendous experience that we still talk about."
Kelly added that there's always the fear about whether you'll have a practice when you get back. "It's the lawyer anxiety: How will the world function without me personally coming down here on Sundays? And you know, everybody does kind of well without you. I've never lost a client. It may be one of the best things we do for each other. You come back with a great appreciation for the people who let you do this and gave you this gift. It's partners helping partners, it builds bonds." Economically, he said, they find it's "of almost no moment."
At Burns, Figa & Will, partners can take three or four months off every seven years. Phil Figa took his wife and children to Israel for a couple of weeks, and did more traveling. Then he taught a week at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. "I think you come back refreshed, energized to do whatever your priority is--and it may not be the same as before. It gives you the opportunity to see that law isn't the be-all and end-all of existence. No one has had any regrets." Kemper Will at that firm in on sabbatical right now; to read about his adventures, see www.burnsfigawill.com.
The firm always mentioned as "out there" is Holland & Hart. Partner Bob Connery proposed a sabbatical policy at H&H in 1973 and was the first to take one.
"We found people were hitting a burnout phase after 8 or 10 years and some got an itch to try something else. The other factor was to provide a safety valve for people who needed a break."
Bob said in those days "we were supposed to have 1,300 billable hours and everyone felt terribly overworked."
The program, a three-month sabbatical at full pay every five years, was adopted after two years of discussion. "Some of the issues included the impact on revenue, how many people would be away, if everyone was eligible, whether the hardest workers would never be able to go and if it was in the long-term interest of the firm."
Last year, 25 partners took sabbaticals--"we limit it to 20 percent."
Connery said the firm has a formula that shows the financial impact is small and "it's the most popular program at our firm." On his first, he took his family to London and rented a house off Hyde Park. On his most recent, he taught a six-month course on climate change and global warming law at CU in Boulder. "It's an area I've wanted to immerse myself in, it's on the cutting edge of law. I always thought I wanted to teach and would like to do it again."
Connery said "I try to manage my time so that I have other people working on the cases with me well in advance of the trip. It can be done."
H&H Managing Partner Ed Flitt has taken three sabbaticals. "My wife said she didn't care what we did as long as we cross the border on day one and don't recross it until day 90." Somehow his adult kids all find their way to wherever they are, he said. "They say it's a special time with me and that they've never seen me so relaxed."
One partner, he said, told his kids they each got a month of his time and he'd take them wherever they wanted to go. "One son wanted to follow U2 through Europe, so they did."
"The most noble way anyone has ever used it," Flitt said, "was when Bruce Buell put together a program called Wills on Wheels, where he traveled Colorado helping write wills for those who couldn't afford a lawyer."
The danger in sabbaticals, of course, is that you won't want to come back to stay. Former Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Steve Briggs (now with Judicial Arbiter Group) came back from an unstructured trip that took him around the world.
"The practice of law and the increasing billable hour expectations was like being on a merry-go-round that kept going faster--I had one foot on, but one foot dragging. It led me to career counseling, then to training in mediation and arbitration. I discovered my passion wasn't in advocating, but in helping people solve problems," he said.