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Archive for July 21st, 2010

What is it about lawyers and vacations? Like the old saying about long-horn cattle and a Texas fence – they just don’t get along so good. It’s like a physical aversion.

I worked with a client recently who was planning, in utter frustration, to quit his medium-size firm in a medium-size American city. The partner was lecturing him about his billable hours, but business was dead slow so there was nothing to bill for. The lawyer found out later that all his peers were simply billing for work that hadn’t been done yet, on the theory that they’d be laid off by the time the proverbial cow-patty and the fan were joined in unison.

He couldn’t bring himself to fake his time records to that degree, so he was stomping mad, announcing in stentorian tones that this was it, he was quitting. I urged him to stick around and see if he couldn’t get laid off with everyone else, so he could at least receive unemployment. No, he insisted – he needed out now.

Well, I reasoned, then why not take some vacation, so you can cool off and kill time simultaneously?

That was unthinkable.

It turned out he hadn’t had a vacation in 8 months – and that vacation was for 3 days.

Yes. THREE DAYS. Actually five, he said, since he took the weekend, too.

He took the weekend.

His objection to taking a vacation now? He wasn’t going out like that, on a sour note. That wouldn’t be right.

So. Quitting in a huff was okay. But taking any of his accumulated vacation time when the firm was so slow there was nothing for anyone to do and everyone was faking their hours? Inconceivable.

Flash forward six weeks. He didn’t quit. Instead he managed to convince a partner to dump a bunch of work on him, and actually managed to approach the insane billable hours requirement for last month. Now he’s totally exhausted, and his fellow junior associates are complaining he’s hogging the work.

How about a vacation? I suggested.

No way. He’d just made his hours – how could he take a vacation now?

But isn’t that the whole idea? That you’ve earned some time off?

He looked at me like I’d gone mad. If he took vacation now, all the other associates would get his work and he wouldn’t be able to make his hours. Besides, if he took vacation, he’d have to work twice as hard.

Why? I asked. If you’re off for two weeks of the month, you’re only expected to work half as many hours, right?

Wrong. It doesn’t work that way. You still have to make your hours for that month, even if you take a vacation. You just have to pull double-shifts.

Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of taking a vacation?

He shrugged me off, exasperated. I didn’t get it.

In the twisted mind of a lawyer, taking a vacation is simply bad. To take a vacation when the firm is slow rubs the unthinkable in their face – that the firm is slow. When things are busy? Well, then you’re not pulling your weight, are you?

Of course, you can’t simply “take” a vacation at a law firm – you have to clear it with the partner. At my client’s firm, the standard response was: “this isn’t a good time.”

There is no good time.

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