Originally published on Lawyerist.com.
It is no secret that lawyers do not take enough vacation. This is all the more true for solos, who are entirely responsible for the functioning of their firms. The need to take a break, though, cannot be overstated. Lawyers who fail to take time away from work are more likely to end up committing ethical violations. Yet with how important we all know it is to take breaks, why do we not actually do it?
In looking at the popular literature, there is an emphasis on how to physically leave the office while maintaining productivity, mostly through the use of technology. What if you decided to do it differently? What if you actually unplugged, leaving the office both physically and electronically?
I recently did just that for a full seven days, and I truly believe it was the best thing I could do for myself, my practice, and my clients. So here are my top five tips for how to make it happen for you.
1. Find a backup. You have probably heard this advice before. Every solo should have a backup attorney. It reduces your malpractice exposure, and may even reduce your malpractice insurance rates. What more personally gratifying incentive could there be for finding a backup attorney than going on vacation?
What does it mean to find a backup attorney? That really depends on your practice. In some firms, there is no avoiding that a client or court will need something while you are away. In those instances, a backup attorney is likely to be someone with whom you work in close physical proximity and who shares your practice area. You probably need to go over all of your cases before you go, and the backup will need to know what to do for each of your clients. They’ll likely need access to your files, too. This person will be substituting for you quite fully.
In other practices, you may be able to have a backup who gets called only in an absolute emergency by a client who needs you during vacation. This person would need to be informed on the general status of your cases, but would be less likely to have to actually act on your behalf. If they do, their action would be more of a band aid to keep the client from bleeding out while you are away. They should be familiar with your practice area but may not work in it.
For me, most of my cases were at a point where they would be able to wait a week for me to be back. I had a backup paralegal who knows my work and knew the general status of my cases. My answering service and my email auto response put clients in emergency situations in touch with my paralegal. In my week away, I had one such case. My paralegal was able to take action to keep the matter from becoming more urgent until I got back. That was sufficient.
A backup will never be the same as if you were there, but it can be close enough for you to get your break. In taking the leap, you do have to accept that work will pile up because your backup is not a replacement for you, but they will keep the office from burning down.
2. Use technology. Out-of-office replies and outgoing voice mail greetings are critical to keeping clients and others who contact you happy and informed while you are away. Set your emails and phone messages so that people contacting you understand when to expect to hear back from you and what they can do (contact the backup) if they cannot wait.
3. Give advance notice. For anyone you are dealing with on a regular basis, provide the courtesy of advance warning that you will be away. This would include active client files and opposing counsel. If you are a litigator with active court cases, utilize your state’s procedure to give official notice to the court and opposing counsel of your unavailability. Such notices are intended to prevent opposing counsel from serving you while you are away with process that requires a timely response. It should also keep courts from scheduling court dates during your absence. (Check your local rules for specifics.)
4. Plan ahead. This requires a lot of work before your absence, but do all that you can to get your work to a point where it can afford to sit for the period of your absence. Get briefs done and out for review to clients; get articles written and scheduled for publication; get discovery responses ready to send out upon your return. Move everything along to the point it can afford to wait.
5. Follow through when you get back. This last piece is not the prep, but the re-entry. If you have a terrible experience when you return from unplugging, you probably won’t do it again. The way to guard against that is to make sure that when you come back from vacation, you follow through on your promises made in your out-of-office replies, your outgoing voice mail greeting, and your prior communications with clients and opposing counsel. If you promised return calls, make them; return emails, send them; that you will send something out when you get back, do it. Keeping in mind that everyone you are dealing with would love to do the same unplugging as you, you can demonstrate why it should not be such a taboo and instead show how well it can work.
The way I went about this to both fulfill my promises and maintain my sanity was that I triaged all of my emails on the return leg of my travel (when I was semi-plugged back in). I responded to anyone with a critical issue that was waiting for a response at the earliest possible moment; I marked as second priority anyone with a pertinent issue needing a fairly quick response; and everyone else waited until I was done with those. The first level got responses that Sunday afternoon as I traveled home; the second level heard from me Monday, even if I couldn’t fully answer them but I could at least tell them I was back and working on their question. Three weeks later, I have not lost a client or had anyone pitch a fit that I was away.
In the end, unplugging is good for you, your practice and your clients, and getting away requires getting over your fear of it and executing a few carefully planned steps. Get away and enjoy. The work will be here when your well-rested self returns.