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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: December 2023

Christmas in the Conference Room

Stanley Peter Jaskiewicz

Christmas in the Conference Room

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While everybody's having Christmas turkey, They bring me bread and water to eat. Christmas in jail, Christmas in jail.

We can all laugh at the perennial holiday novelty song, “Christmas in Jail.”

But for deal attorneys stuck eating midnight takeout in a conference room all December each year, is it really all that different?

Litigators’ beach vacations and holiday ski trips are not for transactional attorneys.

Thanksgiving and Christmas may be family holidays, but the tyranny of the tax code dictates otherwise.

For us, working through the holiday has always been an occupational hazard.

My firm has always had a “no vacation” policy at the end of each year.

I will never forget the complaint of a very senior attorney at a major Philadelphia law firm.

His client was buying a large business – we represented the seller – and had to move very quickly and confidentially to keep competitors from poaching key revenue producers.  Every day that we didn’t close increased the risk of a leak.

As the relationship partner with a major firm client, he had to be present at all negotiating sessions – even though he missed his grandchildren’s annual family visit from California.

(Perhaps he hoped that making everyone feel sorry for him would move the deal along.  It didn’t work – the deal didn’t close until the first week of January, long after everyone with whom he had wanted to spend time had flown home.)

That tragedy – that even someone at the top of the deal pyramid could not savor his limited time with his grandchildren – remains burned in my memory to this day.

I hope that I have prioritized my family time, not just in late December, but year-round.  I don’t want to be remembered as the “empty chair” at the table.

Of course, the advent of the internet has eased the pain – a bit.  And I don’t miss the cab rides home in the wee hours of the morning.

Instead, we can now work in an upstairs room at home, and at least hear the festive sounds of family gathering downstairs.  In fact, the smell of dinner sometimes is a motivation to work harder and faster – at least until a Zoom call is scheduled.

Although I have been able to be at home, physically, for the holidays, have I really been fully present?  Have I truly enjoyed our family holiday gatherings, in a mindful manner?

I think not – my mind has always remained stuck on details from the conference room, even while I sat at the dining room table. 

I have rarely experienced a truly mindful holiday, focusing my attention just on “each moment” of the celebration, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer. 

Thanks to the internet, it is easy to step out to check messages, or respond to an email, and return – hours later, to help with cleanup. 

It is easy to rejoice that a Zoom call eliminates the need to travel to a distant office, or even another city.  But what if the Zoom call requires travel to a spare bedroom serving as a home office, for several hours each day?

In the pressure to close, deal calls – and texts, emails, and other devilish forms of instant communication –- never seem to stop.

Many firms have recognized this problem and tried to ease the pain.  But the ubiquitous “Winter Celebration” in January doesn’t soothe the loss of memories never made when everyone else was gathering together in December.

Even if we can’t change deal dynamics, we can choose how we react to them.

For me, the Serenity Prayer remains something to which to aspire: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.”

I want not only to get through each year’s ordeal, but also to appreciate time, however fleeting it may be, with my family, while they are still here (both literally and metaphorically – the young children around the tree in my mind’s eye are now college graduates).

Even after my children were grown, my wife and I still enjoyed pilgrimages to the Macy’s annual holiday light show, and, more recently, to the Comcastic Holiday Spectacular – always combined with a stop at one of the traditional eating spots in Reading Terminal Market. 

So, like one of Dickens’ famous ghosts offering warnings from those who have been there, let me offer a few words of advice to those still toiling in the trenches this December. 

Deal work can be all consuming, but find a way – any way, even if only for a few minutes – to be fully present to your family, and, especially, yourself. 

A family visit to a holiday light display, or an outdoor holiday concert is a personal favorite – can clear your mind, and make a holiday memory that will last far longer than anything you can accomplish working another hour on the deal of the moment.