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March 01, 2016

Sabbaticals: Off the Grid

A small firm offers partners a sabbatical program. The author finds the benefits well outweigh any lost income or work disruption.

Norman R. Mueller

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It was misting softly when we arrived in the small village outside Sapa, Vietnam. Our guide, Ha, led us to a small house adjacent to the narrow road. As we entered, a young girl sitting in the tiny doorway, engrossed in a school workbook, ignored us. Her younger brother glanced at us and quickly returned his gaze to the small television blaring in the center of the room.

No parents were visible. Presumably they were at work in the neighboring fields. Ha explained that the placement of furniture divided the single space into rooms. Food storage was in the small loft. The cooking area was outside near the water buffalo pen and featured a wood stove with embers glowing and a water barrel. Ducks, chickens, and pigs wandered nearby.

As we left and began the three-hour trek to a neighboring village, the mist turned to gentle rain. Soon we were joined by two Hmong women who accompanied us most of the way, one insisting on holding an umbrella for my wife. When the two finally announced they were returning to their village, they convened an impromptu market, showing us products of their handiwork stored in large sacks strapped to their backs—bags, scarves, hats, and various articles of clothing. After a bargaining session filled with lively negotiation, they left bearing smiles, the result of our modest purchases.

Ha was our favorite guide during our 65-day trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. One of 12 children, she was the only member of her family to leave their village, pursue an education, and live in what they referred to as “the city.” Primarily self-taught, she displayed impressive English skills and juggled her responsibilities as our guide with her maternal concerns for her beautiful five-year-old daughter who was suffering from a persistent cough.

Ha quickly embraced my wife as a mother figure, walking arm-in-arm with her as we hiked or visited local markets. Not wanting to alienate the vendors, many of whom she knew, Ha created a secret code for market excursions. If we were interested in something and asked Ha about its authenticity or quality, her simple reply of “yes” actually meant “no”; only a repeated “yes, yes” response signaled Ha’s true approval.

The journey to Asia was my sixth sabbatical from the practice of law. I joined my firm in 1983, as it expanded from four attorneys to five, and a few years later we started our sabbatical program. We followed a seniority schedule, which placed me in line for my first sabbatical in 1988. As that first sabbatical approached, I doubted I would stay out of the office for my allotted time. I remember thinking a four-week vacation would be nice, but much longer seemed unnecessary. I had always worked, and after six years as a public defender and eight years in private practice, I wasn’t that excited about being gone for so long.

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, I had few opportunities for any travel. It was only after law school that I left the country for the first time. But with three small children and not a lot of money, we took out a loan, bought a van, and drove to a rental house on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, stopping in every Major League city en route to catch a ballgame. Each morning, I ran on the beach or the narrow streets of the island, training for a marathon. I spent late mornings and early afternoons on the beach with the kids, until the heat and humidity drove us back to the air conditioning.

Books were consumed, the boys enjoyed their daily allotment of video games, and I took many restful naps. I could feel myself beginning to decompress, both physically and mentally. Driving cross-country with three young ones can cause grumpiness, but I became very aware that I was actually mellowing as time passed. I stayed away from the office for the entire three months, but I was anxious to return when the time came. Indeed, I had to fight the urge to return early, as we were at home for the last month, our travel funds exhausted.

After that first domestic sabbatical, every subsequent trip was foreign. With our still young children, we studied Spanish in Costa Rica and then, defying State Department warnings, drove around the safer parts of Guatemala. When the children had grown to teenagers and adolescents, we ventured to Thailand—where we were slightly overwhelmed by the chaos of Bangkok, enchanted by the night market in Chiang Mai, and challenged by driving throughout the northern part of the country. Then there was Malaysia, where we were immersed in the Muslim culture in Kota Bharu, marveled at the diversity in Kuala Lumpur, and witnessed our rental car being searched by some heavily armed soldiers. (Momentarily, I thought about questioning their probable cause, but the humorless soldiers seemed uninterested in a lecture on the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.) With the kids away and on their own, later trips included an intensive language program in Guadalajara and wanderings in Argentina and Peru. With each successive sabbatical, any temptation to return early disappeared. On the contrary, as each neared its end, I felt a certain dread and sadness, and I threatened not to come back from the last one at all.

The Sabbatical Program

The fundamentals of our sabbatical program are the same now as when it was created 30 years ago. The partner leaves the office for three months with full pay. There is no complicated formula to calculate a period of reduced pay, and no financial incentive to cut the sabbatical’s length by requiring that it be partially or fully self-funded. Sabbatical opportunities rotate through the firm—the number of years between a partner’s sabbaticals is strictly a function of the number of partners in the firm.

The departing lawyer’s main task is planning, and the primary concerns are client service and case management. I inform my clients well in advance that I’ll be gone for three months. I try to handle major case events by completing them before I go or delaying them until after I return. As an appellate and trial lawyer, I strive to gets briefs filed or trials completed before I leave or scheduled for when I get back. With conscientious planning, it’s possible to reduce, though not completely eliminate, the amount of coverage needed during one’s absence.

An extended-leave policy works only if others in your firm are willing and able to handle your cases. That has never been a problem at our firm. I designate another lawyer to be responsible for each of my cases while I’m gone and then prepare a detailed memo about the history of the case, the work that needs to be done while I’m away, and any deadlines that will arise during my absence.

The client is introduced to the covering lawyer before I depart. All of the transition work, both by me and by my covering colleague, is done at no cost to the client. We are careful to make sure the client is never billed for any time the covering lawyer spends getting up to speed on a case. This transition has always gone smoothly during my sabbaticals, and the quality of client service has always been maintained.

We never have felt a need to formalize our sabbatical policy in writing, but we have made a few adjustments to the program, informed by experience. The first was a “use it or lose it” rule. We’re all busy and we often feel personally essential to a case or a client. Sometimes case developments create a sense of urgency that makes getting away for three months feel impossible. But we decided long ago that delaying a sabbatical and thereby pushing back the other partners’ time away was unacceptable. Our program has been too important to each of us to permit it to die a slow death caused by delay or the inability of one of us to get organized enough to actually leave for three months.

We have, however, at times slightly adjusted the “use it or lose it” policy to accommodate scheduling issues. While we’ve never had two partners on sabbatical at the same time, there were a few years when the sabbatical partner, with the permission of the others, delayed a departure until the first part of the following year. The result—that two partners were absent at different times during the same calendar year—had an obvious negative effect on our firm’s cash flow, but we have been flexible enough to make it work.

As new partners have joined the firm, they immediately have taken a spot in the sabbatical queue. There is no “waiting period” for vesting. When new partners joined the firm simultaneously, their respective places at the back of the line were decided without much drama—either a coin toss or rock/paper/scissors.

Questions and Issues

There are of course many issues, and some firms might prefer or require a more formal policy and approach. Will sabbaticals be fully or partially self-funded, or does the firm bear the full cost? Who is eligible? Only partners? Or associates too? If associates are included, should theirs be self-funded, while partners receive full pay? Should there be a length-of-service before eligibility kicks in?

What is the right length for a sabbatical? A month is the bare minimum, but, frankly, that seems too short. There is no magic to the three-month sabbatical, but based on our experiences, my partners and I would agree that is the right minimum. We all need time to really get away if we are to achieve the true benefits of a sabbatical. And while some firms might want to impose some sort of content requirement on at least a part of the sabbatical, that would detract from what we perceive to be its main benefit—being forced to structure three months away from the law and to explore part of the wider world.

There are other potential issues we’ve never faced and therefore have never had to address. What if a partner wants to extend the length of the sabbatical? If the policy is three months at full pay, what about allowing another fourth unpaid month away from the office? Should there be a requirement that after a sabbatical, the returning lawyer can’t quit the practice for some period without having to reimburse the firm some or all of the compensation received while on leave?

What about minimum standards and time lines for planning a sabbatical? Should a lawyer’s eligibility be limited or eliminated if there is a failure to plan? Or if the resulting burden on the covering lawyers is unfair? Just remember that the more formal or rule-bound a program becomes, the flexibility needed to make the program a success likely suffers.

The obvious primary cost of a sabbatical program is financial. We have never felt compelled to put a number on the yearly cost, but every year we have a partner who isn’t billing or collecting for three months. And there are costs associated with preparation for the sabbatical and with the inevitable slow rebooting when returning to work.

It’s one thing to dictate memos and meet with covering partners to inform them about cases, but it’s another, much more difficult, challenge to return to a full workload, reintegrate, and get back to full-time work. After each sabbatical, even as I get caught up on the developments in my cases, I find myself wondering if my phone will ever ring again.

In addition to providing sabbaticals at full pay, we have created a safety net in our compensation system for the returning sabbatical partner. We protect the partner who has just finished a sabbatical from losing any percentage points, despite the inevitably lower numbers during that year. If percentage adjustments are made, no percentage points can be taken from the sabbatical partner.

Maintaining sabbaticals in a small firm requires a commitment to time away from the law. One year, early in our program, it was clear our revenues were down. Some questioned whether we could afford a sabbatical that year. We considered stopping the program or, at a minimum, delaying it for a year. Ultimately, though, we decided to forge ahead and all are glad we did. Even in a slow year, I don’t think any of us today would consider stopping or delaying a sabbatical for financial reasons. The sabbatical has become sacred.

It is much more difficult to truly leave the office today than it was before the advent of email and the cell phone. During my second sabbatical to Costa Rica and Guatemala in the early 1990s, I had to call my office several times using an international calling card in order to learn the judge’s ruling in a trial I had completed just before I left. But for the most part during our travels abroad, I’ve had no communication with my office. We subscribe to the principle that when your partners are experienced, capable lawyers who’ve been properly prepared, there is no such thing as a crisis that requires your input.

Still, times have changed. Staying disconnected last year during my Asian sabbatical was an exercise in self-discipline. Everywhere we traveled, the Internet was available. Whether we were in a nature preserve in southern Laos or on Inle Lake in Myanmar, we could read the New York Times and check email. I wasn’t always successful in fighting the urge to connect, and I have to confess to cheating a time or two. But what I was good at was not taking the bait and responding. As in the past, life at the firm continued, the clients were well represented, and my sense of my own indispensability took its usual battering.

A sabbatical program combats professional burnout. But it does more than that: It can inject one with energy and focus that could have been unconsciously waning before the time away. A sabbatical also helps build loyalty and commitment to those who worked while you were gone. By enhancing a sense of interdependence, it can add stability to a firm, small or large.

Perhaps what is most important, a sabbatical filled with travel changes lives. It did mine and those of my family. Experienced in world travel, all three of our children studied abroad while in college—in Mexico, Spain, and Nepal. Two later served as World Teach volunteers and then lived abroad in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Our oldest son formed and runs a business that takes high school students on community service adventure trips around the world. Not coincidentally, the mission of his company is to inspire the participants to become global citizens.

Our firm’s sabbatical program has inspired all of us to try to do likewise—engage with the wider world. I have always loved my work, but there is little doubt that our sabbatical program is one of the reasons I continue to go to the office after 40 years. It is a wonderful gift my partners and I give to each other. And if any of us is asked whether it’s worth the reduced income and the extra work that comes from being the covering lawyer, we would all reply, in Ha’s code, “yes, yes.”

Norman R. Mueller

The author is a partner with Haddon, Morgan and Foreman, P.C., Denver.