A New York Times editorial from 1855 suggested that the city’s businessmen were overworked for no good reason: “The very bad results are palpable to every one. Continually we hear of some model business man who never leaves his counting-house but for his meals … suddenly and mysteriously attacked with bleeding at the lungs, or a complaint of the heart, or a trouble in the head.” The line between selfless civic virtue and mindless workaholism was drawn. In 1910, a figure of no less republican virtue than President William Howard Taft suggested that the average American should take two to three months of vacation “after the hard and nervous strain to which one is subjected during the Autumn and Spring.”
Yes, you need to take a vacation. In a recent issue of Time, the cover story was titled, ‘Who Killed Summer Vacation’.
Ninety-six percent of American workers recognize the importance of taking vacation, according to a recent study sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association.
..over the past 30 years, the U.S. has become a no-vacation nation, as the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research once called it, under-serving both stressed employees and employers who endure greater turnover and lower productivity when their workers get little time off.
The quality of vacation time has eroded along with the quantity. Technology now perpetually tethers workers to the office; the smartphone never takes time off. Most people–61%, according to a 2013 survey–say they typically keep working, even if they are not at work. For families, any kind of true escape from routine has become harder to plan as the average school year has gotten longer and school sports start earlier. And if two working spouses can manage to find a shared free week, it’s a minor miracle.
You’re a solo practitioner. It’s approaching summertime and you want to take a well deserved vacation with your family, whether a beach on an isolated island, hiking the Grand Canyon or a staycation tech-free. The question remains, “Who will take care of your clients?
Coverage in an absence remains a very real concern for most solos as well as the clients who hire these solos. According to the recent Census, 73.7% of all private practice attorneys in the United States are in law firms of ” 1 – 4 employees.” More than 52% (give or take a percentage or two) of all private practice attorneys are solo practitioners. Therefore, there is obviously a workable solution to these very real life situations or more than half of all attorneys in private practice would be unable to take a vacation, have surgery or be home for their newborn.
But no matter what I am going to discuss below or suggest, it won’t matter if you can’t wrap your head around the idea that you are both entitled to time away from your solo practice and can commit to putting down the technology long enough to be fully away from your office and present in the moment called ‘time away from the office’.
Going solo involves a conscious decision to own and operate your own business and to the be the chief cook and bottle washer. You deliberately are opting out of receiving the few remaining (and quickly diminishing) benefits of being an employee. As your own boss you have to network with other attorneys for a variety of reasons, referral work, peer-taught legal education and camaraderie. Another compelling and seldom stated reason to network is to create a coterie of other solos or small firm practitioners who will cover for you should you need to be away or desire to be away from your office for personal reasons such as a family vacation or a meditative retreat. (This, by the way, is one of the main reasons attorneys feel they need a partner. It is also a very poor reason to have a partner.)
In the instance of a planned vacation for a finite period of time, you will have advised your clients of your absence, rescheduled any courts appearances, any crises will be directed to a fellow lawyer you trust to handle your clients in your absence (because, naturally, you will have offered reciprocal coverage to this lawyer). But most importantly, when you first took on any of your clients you will have advised them, whether they asked or not, (because it will always be in the back of their mind), that should you, for whatever reason be unable to attend to their matter, you keep a meticulous file documenting everything pertinent to their case which will be entrusted to a fellow lawyer whom you work with on a regular basis. This understanding between you and your client will have been established at the time of your being retained so there will be no surprises.
Should you have an extended absence due to an emergency you will have created the same relationship with another lawyer for this type of event. The difference, however, is I recommend you have a written agreement with this lawyer regarding handling your clients, any payment of fees for coverage, and/or permanently transferring of files if needed depending upon the length of your absence or incapacity, (remembering that clients are “at will” and could leave you for this lawyer permanently, regardless of any arrangement). Any other terms of “temporary” representation you and the other attorney agree upon should be incorporated as well. Yes, there are many details and considerations but this brief list gives you a flavor of the possibilities which could surface as up operate your solo practice.
You will also have to expect to lose some new business. I went into labor with my son two weeks earlier than expected and it happened so quickly (thank goodness) there was no opportunity to make arrangements over the next twenty-four hours. On the unplanned day of delivery I received two new client calls. I returned the calls the day I came home from the hospital but the potential clients had moved on. Had they called when I was supposed to deliver, I had coverage. You will lose some business. That’s life.
When a client wants you this is their thought process, “I need an attorney now.” “I called you.” “You weren’t available or you didn’t call me back quickly enough” (or give me a satisfactory reason to wait.) “So, I called the next attorney on my list.” “I don’t need you anymore.” Therefore, you have to a mechanism in place to address your client’s sense of urgency even when you are not available.
When I was practicing, I had a relationship with one fellow solo I fielded potential client problems, filled in on emergency short calendar motions and also interviewed her potential new clients at her office while she was away on vacation or on trial and secured the representation for her when she returned. I collected the consultation fee for my time and she retained the client. Why miss out on new business or disappoint a potential client who came as a referral simply because you are away or unavailable? You don’t have to lose business or eliminate a vacation if you are smart about it and respect the urgency your client feels. Of course, you must have a very trusting relationship with the lawyer you choose to have cover you and vice versa. However, once you have your system in place, you can, as a solo, take time to enjoy life, too. This is why networking with other solos and small firms is key to your success both personally and professionally. It allows you to maintain your business, integrate with your peers and keep your sanity.
We are in a service business. If your client’s are serviced without compromise it doesn’t matter if you are a solo or office of 1000 lawyers. With smarts and creativity and solid relationships with trusted colleagues you can function in the eyes of your client and the legal community as a larger firm without all the complications of a professional marriage.
But if you don’t accept you are working to have freedom of time to be absent from the office, what’s the point? Start realizing and accepting that you actually can be away from the office for any period of time you wish providing you plan. This is the true beauty of solo practice. If you do this, you will have found the holy grail of solo practice – real freedom of time.