All Hands on Deck!
Lawyers on Sabbatical Try New Things While Their Firms Broaden Client Relationships
Posted Jan 8, 2006 3:57 PM CDT
By Terry Carter
Sandra R. McCandless was a successful, big-firm employment lawyer in San Francisco 15 years ago when she decided to try another line of work: aiming a spotlight for stage shows such as 42nd Street on the cruise ship S.S. Norway.
For about three months, McCandless was one of 2,000 crew members serving 2,000 passengers, among the first on and last off at ports of call in the Caribbean. She was on sabbatical, adding another $300 a week to the full pay ponied up by her law firm, and adding life experience that is still “my favorite thing to talk about,” she says.
For a while, her law partners didn’t believe she was working on a cruise ship, and her shipmates didn’t believe she was a lawyer. “It was a lark for me,” says McCandless, who represented cruise lines and thus knew the business. “But it made me appreciate what others go through to make a living.”
McCandless can’t imagine taking another sabbatical, even if her new firm started offering them. She has always had a full practice of litigation and counseling, and is even busier these days with side work as chair of the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.
“But I think it’s tougher now that clients expect you to be on the other end of the cell phone or computer or BlackBerry,” McCandless says.
Just the same, sabbaticals are still doable and still done at some firms. They vary in length and pay, and require a lot of commitment by the firm and a lot of planning by everyone. Some lawyers long for them, wanting to get off the gerbil wheel of law practice and, to mix the metaphor, recharge their batteries. Others eschew the thought of walking away from work completely for months at a time, fearing the gerbil wheel might not whirl when they return—their clients perhaps poached by other lawyers.
“There’s no data, but my best guess is there’s been some shrinkage in the prevalence of sabbaticals since the early ’90s, at least since the last economic hit on the practice of law,” says Lori Simon Gordon, author of Rest Assured: The Sabbatical Solution for Lawyers, published in 2002 by the ABA Career Resource Center. “When economic times are tight, people feel more vulnerable about their practices and don’t feel as good about leaving for several months.”
With that said, Gordon offers that “at a number of firms sabbaticals are alive and well.” She dismisses one concern of law firm leaders: That those taking sabbaticals might not return. There are very low numbers on that one, she says, although Gordon herself is among them.
She took a seven-month sabbatical from Latham & Watkins’ Chicago office in 1985, extended it to a year and then decided to follow other paths. The firm didn’t have a formal sabbatical program and hers was more an unpaid leave of absence. Gordon now is loss-prevention counsel with Attorneys’ Liability Assurance Society Inc., a liability insurance provider for lawyers.
Probably the most important factor in sabbatical programs is the law firm’s culture. Some may offer sabbaticals but don’t encourage them enough that people actually take them.
ONE FIRM’S STORY
Perhaps the most sabbatical-friendly legal community in the country is Portland, Ore., where just living there is often a lifestyle choice. A number of Portland firms offer sabbaticals and one, Janik Ball, goes so far as to make them mandatory.
That might be expected, given two of the details listed numerically in a section on mission and principles on the firm’s Web site: “5. Encourage expressions of humor.” “8. Recognize that work is only one facet of each person’s life, that personal interests and commitments outside the firm are necessary and desirable, and that when the demands of work consistently interfere with those commitments, the individual’s long-term effectiveness and loyalty to the firm may be undermined.”
At the 50-lawyer firm, after five years as a partner and every five years after that, lawyers must take sabbaticals of four months at full pay. The same goes for the firm’s nonlawyer lobbyists.
“People who might have been doubters no longer are after they’ve taken one,” says managing partner Bradley S. Miller.
There are challenges. Many people want their sabbaticals over the summer, especially those with children. The firm has to adjust time frames accordingly and also ensure that several people in the same practice group aren’t gone at once.
And while some firms insist that lawyers on sabbatical be available in the event a client’s matter requires a quick trip back to the office, Ball Janik wants them gone in mind as well as body. Other lawyers pick up the obligations and burdens left behind.
“In that way, the last couple of years I’ve paid for my sabbatical by working a lot harder than I otherwise would have,” says Miller, a real estate lawyer who previously worked at a big firm.
The arrangement also helps institutionalize clients, he says. “Those going on sabbatical are forced to broaden relationships with clients and introduce them to other people in the firm. Senior associates typically get primary responsibility for some clients earlier than they otherwise might have.”
Some wonder whether the growth of megafirms might spell the end of sabbatical programs for those that have them. That wasn’t the case in the 2004 merger of Washington, D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and Boston’s Hale and Dorr, now Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
Wilmer Cutler lawyers had been getting three-month sabbaticals at full pay after seven years, and Hale and Dorr lawyers had been getting six-month sabbaticals after 15 years, with the possibility of reduced pay. The plans blended at merger, with three-month sabbaticals after seven years, at full pay, says a firm spokeswoman.