How a Solo Lawyer (or You) Can Take Vacation

How a Solo Lawyer (or You) Can Take Vacation

One of the reasons I’m not a solo practitioner is that I like taking vacations. I don’t want to feel like I can’t go away without worrying. Of course, even with a team of people, I still worry when I’m on vacation.

You can go on vacation. In fact, you must go on vacation if you’re going to survive this work. Vacations are an essential element of maintaining your health and happiness. You’ve got to get away.

Vacation has become a murky concept for me. I’m working remotely most of the time now, and I can do it from anywhere with a good Internet connection. Unrestricted access to my work is great in lots of ways. However, it does allow work to intrude even when I’m trying not to work. It’s a mental game, and it’s trickier now than it has ever been.

I was briefly a solo back when I started my firm, and I got married five months after opening my office. I learned some quick lessons about vacation when we left my brand-new practice for a week and headed off on our honeymoon to the British Virgin Islands. We were on tiny Mosquito Island right off Virgin Gorda and had no Internet. We had no Internet because no one had the Internet in 1990. Going online back then meant using CompuServe with a dial-up modem. We didn’t worry about the cell phone either. I had my very first cell phone, and I can promise you it had no service on Mosquito Island. The only phone on the island was in the kitchen area of the restaurant.

The lessons I learned back then apply pretty well today. I’ve learned a few things since, and I’ll include those as well.

1. Get a backup. There will be emergencies, and you’ll need someone to handle them. Work out an arrangement with another lawyer. He or she covers you, and vice versa. Work out a financial plan in advance for the coverage. Ideally, you’ll just swap time and roll with it not being exactly equal. Keeping up with time and worrying about the money takes some of the fun out of the trip. Think of it as a long-term arrangement: know that some trips will require more help than others, but it will work out over time. Ideally, you’ll have taken prophylactic measures to minimize the work required by your backup.

2. Book really early. There are a couple of approaches to planning the vacation, and this is the approach most lawyers take. Advance booking is pretty much essential if you’ve got kids and need to schedule around your calendar, your partner’s calendar, and the school calendar. You can often arrange a trip a year ahead of time and put it on the calendar. When you plan the trip way in advance, you can avoid conflicts more easily. In fact, my experience is that waiting until a few months out to book a trip makes it nearly impossible to find a totally free week or two.

3. Reserve really late and sneak out of town. An alternative to booking really early is to simply spot a free week coming up and shoot for a last-minute deal at a good price. Personally, I find this approach much more challenging. If I don’t block my schedule in advance, then my week almost always gets filled up with one thing or another. But different lawyers work differently and sometimes end up with a totally blank calendar for the week. If that sometimes happens to you, then try this approach and sneak off without much notice.

4. Give everyone notice.Tell everyone that you’re leaving. Tell them again. Then tell them you’re gone. Then tell them you’re back. It’s easy to send an e-mail to your clients and opposing counsel alerting them to your status, and it keeps them from being surprised and upset if they discover you’re gone during their “crisis.” Be sure to preserve client confidentiality when sending the e-mails. Don’t put everyone in the “To” field and expose all of your clients’ e-mail addresses. Explain what you’re doing and explain how the coverage will work if they need assistance.

5. Use your local rules to your advantage. Some jurisdictions build vacations into the rules. Our state has a provision allowing us to send a notice to the court designating time for a vacation, and then no one can schedule anything during the designated period. Know your local rules and use them to minimize the need for coverage.

6. Use technology to appear present. Some lawyers, myself included, try to look present, regardless of whether we’re working or on vacation. My voicemail message always says I’m working unless I’m somewhere without the Internet. I don’t send “out of office” e-mails when I’m away. I’m “working” 365 days a year as far as my clients are concerned. Is that a good idea? Maybe not. You’ve got to figure that out for yourself and decide how you want to deal with access to you. The bottom line is that I want prospective clients to leave me a voicemail or send me an e-mail when they need help, and I don’t want them thinking that I’m away. I forward the message to someone for handling regardless of whether I’m working, and I don’t want to decrease the likelihood of that message being left for me.

7. Check out the Internet before you go. If you’re going to work some from your destination, then it’s important to be sure that you’re able to connect. Many hotels and other vacation rentals claim to offer Internet access. Reality doesn’t always match up with what’s advertised. My system, especially if I’m renting a house or an apartment, is to ask the owner or manager to run a speed test and record it for me with Jing. The owner can then send me the video of the speed test. I know that sounds anal and overly paranoid, but I’ve had issues with the Internet in lots of these rentals. I also travel with a BearExtender, which sometimes makes a big difference in difficult Wi-Fi situations.

8. Get the staff on board. Explain to your staff that you really need to take vacations just like they do. Get their commitment to do everything possible to keep the clients happy and under control. Make sure they all understand the backup attorney’s role. Do the same with your virtual assistants and paralegals as well as your answering service. My experience is that my staff rises to the occasion, and I’m consistently amazed by the capability of my team. I often think they’d be better off if I’d stay out of their way more often.

9.Enjoy the trip. It’s easy to let thinking about work get in the way of really enjoying your time away. I struggle with letting work thoughts creep into my mind. That’s especially true if I’m checking my e-mail and voicemail on a regular schedule. You’re going to have to find your way through getting the most out of your trip while avoiding disaster back at the office. There’s no way around the fact that it’s a tricky balance that you’ve got to strike, and it takes years of practice to get it exactly right. For me, I’ve found that longer trips really help me disconnect from the office-related anxiety. However, I’ve found that each of us needs to figure out what works best for our particular psychology.

10. Catch up. Anticipate some chaos upon getting back to work: it’s normal and predictable. Build a couple of long days into your calendar before you leave so you’ll be back on track before long. Avoid scheduling hearings for the first day back. Avoid booking the first day with lots of client meetings. Visualize your return before you leave, and allow yourself some time and space for re-entry by blocking off some of your calendar for calls and document review.

Vacations are important. If you skip them, you’ll suffer the consequences. This work is tough. It’s exhausting, and it’ll burn you out if you don’t get some time away from the stress and pressure.

These tips apply to many of us, solo or not. Hopefully, you’ve already planned some time away for the coming months. If not, there’s still time. Take the time away and recharge, rejuvenate, and come back ready to do an even better job for your clients.