Denver Bar Association
December 2006
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Lawyers Face a State of Vacation Deprivation

by Tanja Diklic

Reprinted from the June 2005 issue of Resources, Law Practice Management Report. ©2005 Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc. Used with permission.

Acording to a recent study by Harris Interactive, Expedia.com and Universal Parks and Resorts, every year three million years worth of vacation days go unused by American workers. It is estimated that in 2005, the value of the vacation time that Americans will give back is about $54 billion.1

Reprinted from the June 2005 issue of Resources, Law Practice Management Report. ©2005 Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc. Used with permission.

In law firms, taking vacation time is often met with silent disapproval. It is not unusual for lawyers not to take vacations. The pressure to bill offers no incentive to take time off. As a result, lawyers experience reduced productivity and even burnout. Recently, however, there has been an emerging trend in law firms where having a more balanced lifestyle has become an important factor when deciding to stay at a firm.

The emerging trend is reflected in the need for a law firm culture that is more supportive of family and personal commitments, coupled with more control over work schedules. Essentially, the message of this trend is that a law firm must support lawyers’ physical, mental and emotional well-being in order to help them achieve long-term, sustainable and consistent high performance. In turn, law firms will benefit from improved employee morale and loyalty, happier, better-served clients, increased employee retention and increased output due to improved focus and motivation.

Where would you rather be?

Why is it important to take time off?

The lack of balance between work and personal life impacts the law firm as a whole. A recent survey2 reports that for many attorneys, both men and women, leaving a firm is no longer a question of money. The primary concern is the balance between professional goals and personal needs. The survey demonstrates that losing legal talent, because work-life balance issues are not being addressed by law firm management, can cost millions of dollars a year.

The report was based on a survey of 1,439 attorneys (638 women and 801 men) at 100 Canadian law firms. The report demonstrates that the average total cost to a firm of an associate’s departure is $315,000 — approximately twice the average associate’s salary. The average firm break-even point on an associate’s recruitment, training and development is reached after 1.8 years of employment. Calculating the financial impact of turnover is the first step in enabling law firms to grasp the business impact of the issue of work-life balance and helping them maximize their investment in talented associates.

The report also makes it clear that the majority of men and women associates evaluate their prospects at other firms in light of work-life balance considerations. More traditional factors, such as greater advancement opportunities and superior salary, are not as high on the list.

In addition, taking time off is also good for lawyers as individuals for several reasons.

A lack of work-life balance ultimately influences lawyers’ performance on the job. Skipping breakfast, lack of sleep, drinking countless cups of coffee, grabbing lunch on the go or eating at one’s desk are not likely to lead to excellent performance.

The work-life balance issue also affects lawyers’ personal lives. Here is how The Anonymous Lawyer, a popular blog about the stories from the law-firm "trenches," written by a fictional hiring partner at a large law firm in a major city, describes the effects of long hours on the job and very little personal time.

"I asked one of my colleagues if he wanted to play golf after work this evening, and he said he couldn’t. He has to "baby-sit," he said. "Someone else’s kids?" "No, my own. My wife’s going out. It stinks." People here — and I don’t excuse my own behavior here — aren’t really parents, regardless of whether they have kids. At our partner lunches people talk about how it’s awful that summer camp doesn’t cover the entire summer, or how they don’t know how to avoid giving the nanny a holiday bonus, or how they don’t know why their kids hate them. They hate us because we’re never home. They hate us because we’re pulling out our BlackBerries all weekend while we pretend (and they can tell when we’re pretending) to enjoy being around them. They hate us because work is #1, and they’re #2 — or #3, or #4. It’s sad. Because it’s not like years from now we’re going to regret not checking the BlackBerry more often. It’s sad because time passes really quickly and it starts to feel like "too late" very quickly. That’s what keeps people here. By the time, maybe eight months into your first year, maybe a year and a half — but not much longer than that in most cases — by the time you realize what this job is doing to you it feels like you’re stuck. "It’s too late."

Strategies for law firms to investigate and implement in order to encourage better work and life balance

In light of the above, here are a few steps for creating greater work-life balance for lawyers:

  • Endorse flextime and alternate work arrangements, such as working from home or satellite offices during regular business hours.

  • Investigate the possibility of offering in-house childcare to professional and support staff, or welcoming children into the workplace.

  • Encourage lawyers to work out at a local gym by offering a 90-minute lunch hour. Offer incentives — e.g., to pay the initiation fee and/or a portion of the dues — to employees who work out regularly for one year or more.

  • Encourage lawyers to create "non-negotiable" blocks of time in their schedules at least twice per week. This time should be spent only on family, friends, getting a massage, or even doing nothing.

  • Coach lawyers about the time-management skills needed to help take control of their schedules.

  • Cross-train lawyers so there is always someone who could fill in some of the tasks while the other lawyer is gone and encourage them to delegate.

  • Encourage your lawyers to take the vacation time to which they are entitled. According to a number of studies, the body needs at least 14 days to start to actually relax and unwind from the stresses of work.

  • And most of all, don’t just give lip service to promoting work and life balance, but actually support it.

Conclusion

Taking time off has multiple benefits. It helps your physical well-being. It helps your personal life. And it helps the law firm. I have heard my colleagues say that they cannot take two weeks off because it would look bad and would put them out of touch with what goes on at the office. The truth is, life at the firm will go on without you. And waiting for the stars to perfectly align so that you can take a vacation will never happen.

If you are still timid about it, use the Attorney Work Life Balance Calculator (http://www.jdbliss.com under resources) to help determine the impact of billable hours on your personal life.

And if you find the time, let me know what the calculator says about the balance between your professional and personal life.

Tanja Diklic is a Consultant with Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc., a legal consulting agency offering strategic planning and business consulting to law and other professional service firms. Contact her at tdiklic@robinrolferesources.com.

NOTES

1. Balancing Life and Practice: Are you suffering from vacation deprivation? By lexisONE®, June 2005 issue.

2. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility, (Toronto, Catalyst, 2005). Catalyst is the leading research and advisory organization working with businesses and professions to expand opportunities for women at work.


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