As we enter the legal profession's unofficial vacation month—August—lawyers are reminded of the positive impact of time spent away from the office. Studies regularly confirm that vacations are important both for attorneys personally and for the profession as a whole. The statistics on burnout rates, substance abuse, depression and even suicide support the need for rest and relaxation on occasion.
Law practices that facilitate these breaks retain happier colleagues with longer careers. Many law firms that value their attorneys' professional contributions and personal well-being strongly encourage them to take time off. Yet the same firms often fail to address vacation directly, leaving it up to individual attorneys to address. As a result, many attorneys simply never take real, disconnected vacations, and those who can get away fail to consider important steps for effective risk management.
While the needs of each attorney and law practice will vary, there are some common steps that they can take to minimize vacation-related risks.
Give notice of a planned vacation
Vacations often impact staff and other professionals in the law practice. For example, an extended absence will likely limit when other individuals might be able to take vacation or planned leave. Advising everyone well in advance of the vacation allows team members to plan their own work and personal schedules accordingly.
As a result, notice of the vacation should be communicated to potentially impacted colleagues ahead of time. Posting scheduled vacations on the attorney's work calendar is the most efficient way to disseminate notice, as the calendar entry can be shared with those who work with the vacationing attorney.
Get your ducks in a row
Procrastination poses serious risks: The attorney's ability to address deadlines, reschedule closings or hearings, or otherwise address calendared events decreases significantly or gets completely lost. To reduce or eliminate these risks, many attorneys plan early by setting aside potential dates for a vacation. Effective planning typically involves four steps:
- Identify scheduling conflicts. If deadlines or other events are scheduled during the planned vacation, address each conflict by obtaining an extension, rescheduling, or having it covered by another attorney. This will eliminate all ambiguity and ensure that everything is being handled.
- Notify all interested parties. Having everyone on the same page avoids surprise and significantly decreases the likelihood of an emergency during the vacation. To that end, consider whether courts, clients, and other parties should be notified of the planned vacation.
Typically, courts grant requested leaves of absence when made in good faith. Clients understand that attorneys are people who take vacations, too. And while opposing counsel may not like it, there will come a time when they need an accommodation. Courts have grown more impatient with legal gamesmanship by opposing counsel on the eve of vacations, sometimes imposing sanctions for unprofessional conduct.
The earlier the notice, the more effective it will be. This is because it is more difficult for clients or opposing counsel to complain about an absence if they have known about the vacation for a substantial period of time.
- Utilize technology to minimize the risks. Email and voicemail are the two most effective tools to set expectations and manage risks. For email, the "Out-of-Office Assistant" will provide an automatic response to every email when an attorney is out of the office. The automatic reply may include the dates when the attorney will be out of the office, how often (if at all) the attorney will check messages while out of the office, and the contact information for immediate assistance. For voicemail, the greeting often can also be changed to include the same information.
Even with these systems in place, attorneys' representations do not stop when vacations start. Thus, attorneys often have someone monitor their practice while on vacation. This may include opening and reading mail, listening to voicemail messages daily, and responding to clients, courts and opposing counsel who may call (even after being informed of the vacation).
- Clarify availability during the vacation. For all interested parties and the law practice in particular, it should be entirely clear what capacity the vacationing attorney will have to communicate during the vacation. For example, if the attorney expects not to have access to telephone or email, then clients, colleagues and everyone involved in monitoring the attorney's practice should know that.
If the vacationing attorney will check emails intermittently—whether by choice or if required by the law firm—then there should be some plan implemented to flag and follow-up on any critical developments during the attorney's absence. By contrast, if the vacationing attorney plans to read emails and check voicemails multiple times every day, then it is not much of a vacation.
Follow the Plan
Before departing the office, the attorney should attempt to finalize all preparations. For some attorneys, however, completely disconnecting from the law practice is either unfeasible or simply not preferred. Those attorneys may wish to set up a set time, place and procedure for someone in the office to reach the vacationing attorney in order to provide an update or to confirm that everything is under control.
Of course, attorneys should expect the unexpected. Having a contingency plan, such as calling an emergency telephone number, is critical to managing unexpected crises effectively.
Recognize the Risks of Working Remotely
When implementing a firmwide vacation policy, law practices might address the inherent risks of working remotely, assuming the vacationing attorney plans to do so. At a minimum, the majority of firms recommend securing smartphones and other devices with passwords. In addition, firms may wish to confirm the ability to wipe the device clean remotely, if it is lost or stolen, or to advise attorneys of the risks of unsecured wireless connections.
In an era where attorneys are almost always available by phone and email, time away from the office can help to ensure attorneys' personal health as well as the law practices' longevity. By taking some simple steps before unplugging, attorneys and their firms can reduce any risks associated with time out of the office.