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.
One memory from Sullivan & Cromwell that’s still etched into my brain after all these years is from my first vacation. I took a week to fly to England for New Year’s and visit my old friend, Liz.
I arrived in Oxford exhausted and frazzled and settled into a comfy chair by the gas fire. Liz went to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. I heard the phone ring.
A moment later Liz re-appeared, looking puzzled.
“There’s a terribly rude American woman on the phone who says she needs to speak with you right away.”
It was a senior associate from S&C. I’d been at Liz’ place for approximately 5 minutes. The associate berated me for some screw-up in a side agreement I’d worked on. It wasn’t clear that it was my fault, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it in England at 9 pm on Sunday night. But she needed to vent, so she called.
That’s all behind me now. I’m a psychotherapist, and I take vacations.
For those of you who have written in wondering what’s become of The People’s Therapist – the answer is I’m taking a break. In-house counseling will return in all its glory to AboveTheLaw.com in September.
Until then, I’m enjoying some long weekends, working on a book project, and seeing my usual weekly caseload. For the first two weeks of August I’ll be on my annual pilgrimage to Northeast Vermont, the land of dirt roads and pristine forests, where I’ll hunker down in a cabin that’s been in a friend’s family for decades. There’s no internet, no cell phone reception, no running water – nothing but serenity and a wood stove and a clear, deep pond. The cabin has one working rotary phone, but you’ll have to let it ring for a good long while – we’ll probably be out canoeing, or curled up with our dachshund on a hammock strung between two birch trees. I plan to read a stack of books, listen to plenty of Duke Ellington and fill my mind with ideas.
See you in September. Meanwhile…take a vacation. Please. Even lawyers can learn to relax if they try hard enough.
Your soul requires billable hours, too.
[This piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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