Back in the Saddle Again
Whether it’s a vacation, maternity leave, or an unexpected absence, getting back in the solo saddle can be difficult for anyone without additional staff to cover the workload. To further complicate matters, many of us can barely spare the time to take a few days off, let alone the cost of lost time and low productivity when we return. And yet it never seems to fail that even a short vacation from the office will lead to weeks of being ridden by your clients. Below are a few basic practice management steps that can be implemented before, during, and after your absence to keep you trotting forward.
Before Your Vacation:
- Find a riding partner. Locate another solo or a member of your small firm team who will agree to cover any true emergencies while you are away in exchange for you doing the same when he or she needs backup. Knowing someone is available to take the reins while you’re away will reduce your anxiety and help your clients feel more secure.
- Use out-of-office features. One week before you depart set the out of office reply and voice mail to begin warning people when you will be out. Update them again when you leave to indicate you are no longer in the office. Be clear on when you will return, but always pad your return date by at least one day so that everyone isn’t attempting to reach you on your first day back. If possible, offer the contact information for the person who has volunteered to cover you.
- Plan your first day back. In addition to finishing projects before you leave, make a schedule for the date you return. Plan to meet with any staff and get an update on any issues that arose in your absence. Plan some time for a lunch out of the office or another enjoyable activity that will help you ease the stress of your return. Lastly, make sure to schedule plenty of time in those first days back to catch up, and don’t overload your calendar with new appointments.
- Prioritize. Organize your workspace so you don’t return to a mess. Leave behind a checklist of the deadlines and “to do” items that must be addressed when you return.
During Your Absence:
- Work a little during your downtime . If logging on to your e-mail or checking in with the office is going to destroy your time away, don’t do it. If, however, you can use airline delays, rainy afternoons, or holiday downtime to your advantage, you might find they provide a great opportunity for uninterrupted work time. If you feel that’s being too much of a killjoy, use the time away to read that stack of legal magazines you’ve been meaning to get to, or brainstorm on ways to improve your practice.
- Watch your routine. It’s easier said than done, but one of the reasons that many people feel sluggish after an absence is that their body clocks have adjusted to a later waking time. As much as possible, try to sleep and wake at your normal time. If that’s just too hard to do, try your best to get your body back on schedule the two days prior to your return.
- Take an extra day. If your vacation includes out-of-town travel, resist the urge to fly home late Sunday night and return to work immediately Monday morning. This is especially true if you are changing time zones. Blocking off one extra day or even a few extra hours will allow you to unpack, unwind, and recharge before heading into the office.
On Your Return:
- Arrive early. Arrive at the office 30 minutes before opening to avoid the flurry of questions when you walk in the door.
- Decorate. Bring some vacation or holiday memorabilia for your workspace. A digital picture frame or well placed memento can brighten your mood and provide a conversation piece as you meet with clients who have waited for your return.
- Sort your inbox. Most of us immediately start with the oldest messages; however, emergencies and inquiries in the legal world often have a way of resolving themselves. If you sort your e-mail starting by the newest, you are less likely to waste time responding to outdated request and will prevent yourself from addressing items that may have already been handled by an employee.
- Respect others right to time away. When we are back at work, we expect others to be doing the same. Do your best to respect the vacation or leave of fellow attorneys. Mark your calendars or files with dates opposing counsel will be away, and do your best not to leave voice mails or e-mails during that time. The attorney will appreciate the courtesy and will hopefully do the same for you the next time you break free.
- Plan your next trip. Although it may be months away, the best way to overcome the depression of returning to work is to spend a few minutes planning your next escape. Flip through a travel magazine, consider a weekend getaway, or simply focus on the next opportunity to spend time with your family.
Each of us deserves and needs time away from the practice of law. Unfortunately, the law is very much like a horse as summed up by the Yiddish proverb that states, “The wagon rest in winter, the sleigh in summer, the horse never.” Following these few simple steps will allow you time away, but put you back in the saddle to a successful practice.
Tiffany N. Provence is the managing partner in the law firm of Provence Messervy, LLC, in Summerville, South Carolina. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Web site at Tiffany@ProvenceMesservy.com.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.