June 17, 2019 Practice Management

Under Pressure? Loosen That Release Valve with a Long Vacation

By Stacey L. Romberg

As Queen and David Bowie so eloquently put it:

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets1

As the owner of a small virtual law firm in Seattle, Washington, I have woken up many times with that song in my head, mindful of the day before me. I imagine most attorneys in solo and small firm practices have joined me in humming that song a time or two. It’s the nature of our chosen careers to hear the constant drumbeat of the high-intensity responsibility of practicing law and running a small business. When does it stop?

This year marks my 20th anniversary of owning a law practice. Like so many other solo and small firm practitioners, I’ve worked relentlessly to establish my firm in a competitive marketplace; to finely tune all the systems and processes that a small law firm needs; and, of course, to provide an outstanding level of client service. That all takes time—time spent working through weekends instead of joining friends and family at fun events, time spent working while on vacations, and time spent tossing and turning through sleepless nights, wondering how to handle an internal problem in my office or address a troublesome client issue. As my 20th anniversary grew near, I sensed that taking a significant break from my practice would tremendously benefit my mental well-being and help me maintain my motivation for the years ahead.

In January, I embarked on a vacation that lasted for essentially an entire month. I traveled to Australia, where I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Sydney and Melbourne, including making friends with some extroverted kangaroos, tasting wine in the Yarra Valley, and attending the Australian Open tennis tournament. And, lo and behold! No one appeared to have died due to my departure. Knock on wood, I have not been sued for malpractice nor hunted down by the tax authorities. The world continued to revolve on its axis, and I now feel more connected to it after some much-needed downtime. So, how did I do it?

Plan Ahead

1. Consider your dates. I began to put plans into motion almost a year before I left. Most importantly, I needed to ensure that I had adequate attorney and administrative support during my vacation period. In my firm, January is a terrific month to take a vacation. Most of my office team members want to take vacations during the holidays or perhaps in February, for a long President’s Day weekend. Consider which month might work best for your particular firm and areas of practice.

2. Let your clients know of your plans well in advance. I started informing our firm’s clients in October that I would be out of the office in January through several means, including our client newsletters, notices in their monthly invoices, a bolded notification in my e-mail signature line, and direct reminders whenever I spoke to them on the phone or by e-mail. This long lead time to communicate my absence proved to be quite wise. No one was shocked or panicked, or felt that their needs wouldn’t be adequately met in my absence.

3. Adjust office routines to accommodate your time away. My law firm has had a set billing cycle at the beginning of each month. I needed to adjust our long-established routine of reviewing and finalizing client invoices due to the New Year’s holiday coupled with my flight to Sydney on January 3. After discussions with the vendor who generates our bills and other office team members involved with billing, we agreed that the December bills would be sent out right after Christmas instead of early January. We informed our clients of the change in our billing schedule in early November so there would be no surprises. I also budgeted for the cash flow differential that would occur from shortening the December billing period, as well as for my lack of billable time in January.

4. Communicate with office team members and third parties. Early notice of my departure allowed office team members to spot potential issues that might arise when I was gone, discuss them with me, and brainstorm solutions. Over time, as various items came up, the inevitable question was raised, “How should this be handled when you’re gone?” This planning with my team helped alleviate panic for everyone when it was time for me to board the plane for my exceedingly long Qantas flight.

In addition, I normally teach a continuing legal education course at the very end of December. My participation at that time would have made leaving in early January problematic because I would have lacked sufficient time to engage in the earlier-than-usual monthly billing process. I informed the course organizers of my departure well in advance, and they were graciously willing to bump up the dates of the course by a week.

5. Consider a limited durable power of attorney. Depending on your desires for a longer vacation, you may not be able or willing to be accessible during your time away. If that’s the case, consider executing a limited durable power of attorney—allowing a trusted member of your office team to take over certain key tasks, such as signing checks or agreements with new clients or firm vendors, during your absence.

Be Realistic

In relation to my law practice, I knew that I could not realistically avoid all work responsibilities for an entire month. However, I determined not to be thrown off or frustrated when my professional responsibilities popped up while I traveled. I brought with me to Australia my laptop, mobile printer, MiFi cellular hot spot, and cell phone with a global pass—intending to work. I traveled in cities with adequate Internet coverage. Significantly, I purposely put some open spaces into my itinerary for work. If I had planned on never working at all for an entire month, I would likely have become angry and frustrated when issues arose requiring my attention. That frustration would have compounded if, say, I had to cancel some sort of expensive tour due to work responsibilities. Instead, I enjoyed several one-day tours where I was off-grid, the shorter formats enabling me to check in with the office on the following day. I ultimately ended up working about five hours per week. Because I had set those expectations and adjusted my schedule in advance, rather than being frustrated about having to work, I was instead delighted that it only took such a limited amount of time!

Share the Fun with Your Clients

I tend to be fairly camera happy, and I enjoyed taking hundreds of photos during my time in Australia. I shared some of these photos on social media and in our client newsletters. Clients seemed interested in my trip and more willing to be supportive of my time away when they could share in the fun of the journey.

Care about Yourself

Queen and David Bowie said it right: “This is our last dance.” In addition to being lawyers, we need to remember to be humans as well. And humans can’t work nonstop. I found that taking a longer vacation helped me tremendously in terms of my ability to unplug and come back refreshed and energized. I can hardly wait to return to Sydney and Melbourne, and also discover Tasmania in January 2021!

Notes

1. Queen / David Bowie, “Under Pressure,” 1982.

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Stacey L. Romberg is a Seattle attorney whose focus is business law, estate planning, and probate. For further information, please see Stacey’s website at www.staceyromberg.com.