Taking a year off doesn’t have to mean derailing your career. How getting off the treadmill helped four lawyers inject new meaning into their personal and professional lives.
Posted Feb 1, 2009 10:10 PM CST
By Leslie A. Gordon
When Dan Judge was 9 years old, his father, a San Francisco-based insurance defense lawyer, packed his wife and three children into a Volkswagen camper and traveled around Europe for six months. That experience so influenced Judge that he and his wife, Christina Cordoza, quit their jobs, rented out their Orinda, Calif., home and led their 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter on an open-ended trip around the world.
From August 2007 through last May, the Judge-Cordozas visited 18 countries, spending time in Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, staying at most two weeks in any one location. Their accommodations ranged from cottages and apartments to upscale hotels to “dumps,” and the family slept many nights on trains, boats and airplanes. Before they left, the family had a rough idea of where they’d visit but stayed flexible—planning six weeks in advance, and lining up travel and living arrangements at Internet cafes while on the road.
“We talked about doing this from the day we were married. We made a pinkie promise,” says Cordoza, 44, who was an employment lawyer for Lucasfilm. “We are crazy about travel, and our lives had gotten really kind of insane. We had big jobs and our kids were doing activities. Every day I had to write a long note for the nanny. It was like a house of cards—if one card came out, the whole thing would fall—and I didn’t like how I was feeling.”
Cordoza longed to connect with her family—her “team,” as she calls them. “I wanted to really know these guys. I wanted to sit and focus and answer their questions, and not talk to Dan about something via e-mail, not be two ships passing in the night. I wanted to show our kids the world. I wanted to be there when they saw the Taj Mahal, their first wild animal in Africa, the first time they ate pasta in Siena. We realized we’re not getting any younger. Now was the time.”
For his part, Judge, 45, who was a lawyer at the power company Calpine Corp., wanted to “step off the treadmill” the way his father had done. “We wanted the kids to appreciate the rest of the world and create [in them] some empathy and concern for others. Orinda is a great place to live, but it’s not how most of the world is.”
Taking prolonged time off would amount to career suicide for many attorneys. But others, like Judge and Cordoza, have found ways to make it work. Taking a leap of faith, these lawyers simply walked away from their law practices without any clear picture of what they were going to do at the end of their time off. Nor did that ambiguity deter them.
The couple were concerned about what would happen upon their return, but not unduly so. “With the two of us, we figured that we had twice the chance of somebody landing a job sooner rather than later, and there was always at least the possibility of contract or other short-term work.”
Though Judge calls himself and his wife fairly risk averse—especially knowing that they were blowing through retirement savings and their kids’ college funds while out playing hooky for nine months, they felt their around-the-world voyage had a higher calling that was worth the risk.
“To be honest, we were proud of ourselves for doing something that was on the wild and crazy side, and not characteristic of your average lawyers. We were trying to put family and life experiences higher on our list of priorities than building our careers or adding to our stock portfolios.”
Photo by Jeff Singer
Maria Hekker, a corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer, spent 10 years as general counsel of Barra Inc., a financial services technology company with offices worldwide; she worked in Berkeley, Calif. “I loved every minute,” she recalls. “It was a great job, incredibly intense.”
But at some point, she hit a wall. “I needed to do something different,” explains Hekker, a mother of three children—one of whom passed away.
In 2002, in the middle of a deal, Hekker approached the company’s CEO about taking a short break. But she soon realized that what she really wanted wasn’t a sabbatical but rather to submit her resignation so she’d have enough time to write a book. “I always, always loved mystery novels. I read them the way other people watch TV,” she recalls. “It was my fantasy career—like being a rock star.”
Hekker, 46, and her husband had “both been going full bore” in their careers—his in academic medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “It’s not like he was a [wealthy] investment banker,” Hekker explains about her financial situation, “but he did have health insurance.”
Plus, she adds, shortly before she quit, her company’s stock peaked—though she did not plan for or rely on that when she quit. “It was fortuitous.”
The most important choice Hekker and her husband made, she says, was not incurring any debt beyond their mortgage. Also, “we worked very hard to live within the income of just one of our salaries so we could build our savings. Both of these principles—incurring little or no debt and continually building savings—would help anyone wanting to plan to take some time off.”
Though Hekker was “very open-ended” about her post-writing career plan, she did think that she’d return to a general counsel job, probably after a year.
In the beginning, “there was some mopping up to be done” after quitting the job that had permitted only three or four hours of sleep a night. Soon after that settling-in period, Hekker attended a mystery writers’ conference at a well-known Bay Area bookstore. “It was really a great thing to do right at the start. It got me excited.”
After the conference, Hekker formed a writing group with another attendee. They met every two weeks, each submitting a chapter for the other to review. “I needed a deadline because I had been in a deadline-driven field for years. Otherwise, I’d wind up saying to myself, ‘Let me go organize photo albums’ instead of writing.”
Hekker emphasizes that she did not quit law to be home with her children. In fact, she maintained her full-time nanny while she wrote, which ended up being about four hours a day, three to four days a week. Titled Out of Options, her novel centers around a young Bay Area attorney in the midst of a public offering. All told, Hekker spent 16 months on the first draft and then began revisions.
After working on the book for three years, she still had no plans to return to law, even though she’d been approached about general counsel jobs early on in her time off. But in 2005, a parent at her kids’ school asked Hekker to join his new consulting company. “I had unofficially helped him start up the company, and it was a very exciting, interesting business.” When he asked her to come in as chief operating officer, with responsibility for the legal work, Hekker accepted.
Even after taking the new job, she maintained the writing group.
“I was itching to get back to writing,” she says. “And the new business wasn’t taking off the way I would have liked.”
After two years at that company, Hekker decided to take another break; she now is back to working full time on the Out of Options rewrite. She’s close to finishing the novel’s “big remodel” and will soon give it to trusted friends to read—and then shop it to agents.
But even if the book is never published, Hekker insists that taking time off from her law practice will still have been worthwhile. “Leaving law to write enabled me to develop that part of myself. It was such a treasure.”
So many legal careers are “like runaway trains,” says Ellen Ostrow, a Silver Spring, Md.-based lawyer coach who also has an office in Washington, D.C. Attorneys like Hekker who take time off are “wise enough to decide if the train is one they want to be on before too many years [go by]. They are usually smart enough to know they need to take a step back and really regroup and think about the track they want to be on.”
Typically, lawyers who want to take time off are on the cusp of something—whether it’s partnership or a firm’s demand to ramp up business development or take on a leadership role.
In her experience, Ostrow has never known a lawyer to take time off who was not already financially secure. “It doesn’t mean they’re wealthy,” she explains. “But they know they can go six to 12 months without earning a lot of money.”
Often, attorneys who’ve been mulling over a career break decide to actually do it because of some unexpected opportunity, such as the end of huge litigation or a firm folding. “It’s usually not a sudden thing,” Ostrow says. “Every once in a while, something big happens that triggers it such as somebody their age dying and the lawyer being hit with mortality. Either way, the wish is to rest and explore opportunities.”
For some attorneys, being away from the law actually reinforces how much they enjoy it.
Photo by Rachel Holland
Jeff Bean had been handling high-end corporate real estate matters at a boutique firm he co-founded in suburban Detroit. He’d served as managing partner, handling administrative matters, including the partners’ retirement plans and the firm’s equity deals in real estate development. In 2004, he quit.
“I just stopped working,” says Bean, who left to manage his own investments, something he called a natural jumping-off point from the firm business he’d been handling. Bean was in a financial position to not work. “I was lucky. Other people my age live paycheck to paycheck.”
For several months, Bean traded options in the mornings, had lunch with his wife, then “hung out and kick[ed] back.” He was 48 and still had kids at home. His family supported the career move. “Their main concern was that I was doing something fulfilling.”
Eighteen months into his time off, a friend of Bean’s who worked at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss in Detroit had a large client that needed a senior attorney. Bean had not been actively looking to return to lawyering—especially at a firm—but the option to work part time appealed to him. “The client and I got along well and it was a nice firm,” Bean recalls. Before long, the position became full time and Bean is now a Jaffe Raitt partner.
“I’m back in the saddle,” he says. “If you asked me when I left if I would return, I would have said, ‘No way.’ [But my return] was a natural, organic progression—not, ‘Crap, I need a job.’ ”
Being away from law was very helpful, says Bean, now 53, who has been back at work for two years. “The change from small firm to big firm made a huge difference. It was really energizing. There are different people, different ages.
I was able to come in as a senior guy and mentor.”
Today, Bean plans to practice law indefinitely. “I am billing as many hours as I ever have in my career,” he says, adding that his children are now grown. “I have no pressure to be home. I don’t feel like I’m shortchanging somebody [in my family], and I really like the work I’m doing.”
For lawyers contemplating taking a break from a legal career, Bean advises living “within your means. If you want an escape hatch, have a capital plan for yourself—even for new lawyers.” Because he’d lived modestly, Bean wasn’t afraid “to step off track,” he says. “But I would have been scared if I didn’t have money saved.”
There are, in fact, distinct risks to leaving a law practice. And the longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back in, if that’s what you decide, career counselor Ostrow cautions.
But, she says, it’s hard to quantify how long is too long. “The amount of time is probably less crucial than what the attorney has been doing.”
In general, Ostrow adds, the longer a lawyer is out, the harder it is to demonstrate up-to-date skills and knowledge of the current market plus a commitment to the profession. “It’s also harder to sustain contacts over a long time unless you continue to actively travel in those circles. Sometimes someone who has been out for a long time can go back for formal training like an L.LM., and this makes returning easier.”
“If you are a lawyer with a well-developed practice and you have a lot of clients, it’s probably difficult” to take time off, Ostrow says. “You can leave your clients for six months if you leave them in good hands and you’re in phone contact. A year is hard. Traditional law practice has its own definition of commitment, and people in the industry are suspicious of people who don’t commit.”
If there’s even a chance you will want to return to a traditional practice, Ostrow advises not burning any bridges and also keeping one toe in the water.
“Unless you’re absolutely certain you never want to practice again, maintain your networks and keep your license current,” she says. “Stay involved in whatever way makes sense to you: Take CLE in a different area of practice or take on a pro bono case. That way, if you do want to return, you can say, ‘I never really left. I just took a step back and now I’m committed.’ ”
Despite the risks, taking a year off has distinct benefits. According to Hekker, an intense and stressful job can narrow the focus of your life, and taking a break helped broaden her horizons.
“You can rediscover parts of yourself that you were in tune with before the intensity of working,” she explains. For instance, Hekker had once been a competitive swimmer but says she never exercised much after she passed the bar. She’s since returned to the sport and now trains for triathlons, which she describes as “a wonderful, empowering thing to do.” Bean found that taking time off taught him about himself.
“I realized that I like being busy. It was the takeaway lesson. Now I can see working my whole life. I’m not geared, personalitywise, to sit and hang out. And that was interesting to find out.”
For globe-trotter judge, the risks of him and his wife quitting their attorney jobs were outweighed by the benefits. “The best thing was getting rid of all the pressures, the chores we have in our ordinary lives,” he says.
Cordoza adds: “I like the message we sent to our children: A job is not everything. Time with your family is No. 1.”
In between visiting the great pyramids, riding gondolas in Venice, observing tigers in India and surfing in Bali, Judge and Cordoza homeschooled their kids. They brought fourth- and fifth-grade workbooks for math and grammar, and the children had writing assignments each day.
But the real education, Cordoza explains, was off the pages.
“In Cambodia, for example, we spent a lot of time talking about communism and the Khmer Rouge. We went to the Killing Fields. We discussed why some countries were faring better than others. To us, that was their education,” she says.
“I remember teaching them long division in our Athens apartment. But what resonates with me was the conversations we had about different systems of government. They saw firsthand that communism sounds good but doesn’t really work. We talked about science, politics, history.”
Dan Judge and Christina Cordoza
Photo by Jeff Singer
The Judge-Cordozas’ worldwide trek was pricier than they’d expected but the family was able to afford the trip because, like the others, they’d always tried to live relatively modestly. Still, they will now have to work five to 10 years longer than their friends. “But we felt like that was OK,” Judge says. “This was the time to live life at its fullest.”
After about eight months on the road, Judge and Cordoza sensed it would soon be time to return home, mostly because their kids were tired. At that point, Judge sent a half-dozen e-mails to headhunters and other legal contacts. Three weeks later, a recruiter contacted him about what he calls “a dream job.”
From a small island in Indonesia, Judge interviewed for—and landed—the general counsel position at BrightSource Energy Inc., a solar plant design company in Oakland, Calif. Soon after they returned home, Cordoza picked up overflow work for a law firm as well as temporary assignments from Axiom Legal, a contract attorney firm that provides outsourced general counsel services.
Judge says he believes that being in-house lawyers made it easier for him and Cordoza to quit and return to lawyering. “It would have been harder to leave if we were partners in a law firm and were leaving a big client base.”
For Cordoza, the only downside of time off was that she now struggles to return to “this Zen place” that she reached while away. “It’s so easy to get sucked back into multitasking, racing around.”
Though Judge admits that he’d rather be playing, he is also “really excited to get back [to work]. My job right now is really challenging and demanding, but I can do it because my batteries are recharged.”
More importantly, Judge says, he returned to lawyering with more confidence.
“I’ve lost my paranoia about losing a job. I’m not as worried. I learned you can step away. Nothing is fatal. You can come back and land on your feet. It’s given me more perspective.”
Dan Judge’s Travel Picks
Turquoise Coast of Turkey—beautiful blue water, fun little coves, friendly people, and fascinating ruins dating from the days of Ancient Greece.
Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos—an unforgettable experience, hiking through pristine jungle in search of elusive gibbons, sleeping in a treehouse 150 feet off the ground, and getting from place to place via incredibly long (and high off the ground) zip-lines.
Gili Trawangan, Indonesia—the ultimate in mellow hang-out spots, with beautiful water for snorkeling, great food and a relaxing vibe. No deadlines there!
Ethiopia—Part A: Lalibela, an amazing place with churches hewn out of solid rock 1,200 years ago, and colorful people and customs. Part B: Turmi, or anywhere in the far south, where traditional tribes, rough roads and limited infrastructure make you feel as though you are as far as you could possibly be from the world of BlackBerrys and conference calls—or even grocery stores and mortgages.
Lamu, Kenya—a fascinating island where Islam and Africa mix with Italian tourists, including a white-washed stone town that looks right out of a movie set. Much more authentic than its neighbor Zanzibar, down the coast.
Dordogne, France—ancient villages, castles on hilltops, a lazy river snaking through beautiful scenery, and cave paintings from the Cro-Magnon—just to name a few of its attractions.
The Kids’ Picks
Tuscany, Italy—pasta, gelato and a swimming pool. Need one say more?
Serengeti, Tanzania—the animals, the animals, the animals! And the cool Masai warriors.
Bandhavgarh National Park, India—tigers in the wild. Let’s hope they’re still around in 20 years.
Bali, Indonesia—every food choice imaginable, fun shopping and surfing.
Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos—getting to ride zip-lines all day and sleep in a tree house.
Maldives—eels, sea turtles, sharks, and rays, all in one snorkeling session. Wow!
Egyptian desert—camping in the desert, four-wheeling on sand dunes, sand surfing.
Normandy, France—total heaven, for a WWII buff.
Vang Vieng, Laos—gigantic rope swings, and you get to drop into the river.
Lamu, Kenya—fishing in the ocean from an old Arab-style dhow sailboat.
Best Wildlife Experiences
Tigers in Bandhavgarh, India.
Komodo dragons in Indonesia.
Rhinos in Kaziranga, India.
The diversity in Ngorongoro and Serengeti, Tanzania.
Sealife in the Maldives.
Leslie Gordon, a former lawyer, is a legal journalist based in San Francisco.