WILMIC News & Risk Management Articles

Afraid To Take Time Off?

Vacation

A couple of things became very clear to me after I spoke to and visited with law students at both law schools in Wisconsin on several occasions during the past year. The students were very concerned about their job prospects (half the members of each graduating class reportedly were without job offers on graduation day), and many of them were not interested in the old-fashioned corporate-law-firm style of advancement. “Paying one’s dues” by billing more than 2,000 hours per year and working 12 hours or more per day was not their notion of the ideal law job.

Most of the law students I talked to were more interested in a healthy work-life balance. More experienced lawyers know all about making personal sacrifices to become professionally successful. It’s how many of them got to where they are today.

But many of today’s law school graduates see the world much differently. And while I’m as “old school” as anyone, I have to admit recent graduates might have the right idea.

Yes, working hard is important in any endeavor. But there is something to be said for making time for family, refocusing, and just plain recharging one’s batteries. The adage about “burning the candle at both ends” may have been something to which we should have paid closer attention in the “good old days.”

Many newer lawyers seem to recognize that. Appleton attorney Jennifer Lee Edmonson says, “I know there are young lawyers who are working very hard at earning their pay. I also know of younger attorneys placing more emphasis on balancing personal and professional life. Many younger female attorneys are working flexible hours or job sharing, or even working from home. It seems that now there are more options for attorneys compared to years past.”

It’s not just small firms and solo practitioners who are moving to flexible scheduling. Lori Kannenberg is the firm administrator at Lawton & Cates in Madison, which employs more than 15 attorneys. “We have a minimum billable-hours goal, and attorneys can take off whenever their case schedules allow. We also have the systems and procedures in place to accommodate the times when attorneys must work from home. Generally speaking, younger lawyers seem to adapt to flexible scheduling more readily than more experienced lawyers. However, experienced lawyers embrace the idea when they see first-hand how flexible work arrangements are successful and improve the firm’s bottom line.”

Promoting work-life balance in your law firm and among your associates, or even for yourself, especially if you’re a solo practitioner, makes some sense.

Brian Anderson is claims counsel at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. (WILMIC). He says there are many different causes for malpractice claims against lawyers, including missing a deadline, failing to properly apply the law, inadequate discovery, and neglecting a client. But he adds they sometimes stem from the same thing: an overworked lawyer overlooking something that could have avoided the problem in the first place.

“A common theme behind many of the claims we have observed at WILMIC is the client’s belief that his or her case was not important to their lawyer,” Anderson says. “When talking about the claim, the lawyer will often admit to us that the client’s case ‘fell through the cracks’ and that the overall communication should have been better. Many lawyers are starting to see the value of taking a day to just organize their files, better manage their caseload, or simply get away to clear their mind and come back reenergized.”

The Stigma

Can taking time off really help you become a better person and maybe even a better lawyer? Aren’t you just a slacker if you take too much time off? Lawyers and law firms are increasingly dismissing the notion that lawyers who work reduced hours are not dedicated to their work. Edmonson says years ago, taking time away from work was not a good thing for your career. “Back when my daughter was born, and I announced that I was going to ‘temporarily retire’ from the practice of law, I was met with a lot of critical remarks, such as, ‘Why would you want to waste your education?’ or ‘What’s a smart gal like you doing something silly like that?’ There weren’t any support groups in my town at the time, and I know many people’s impression of me took a down turn.” Edmonson admits it was tough to leave the profession for awhile. “I will say that there were many years that my self esteem did take a dip because of my choice to quit my job. Now, I notice with younger female attorneys who have opted to work part time, or not at all, people are more accepting and supportive of that choice. I am very happy for those who have come up after I did. They have more options, and more companies and firms are open to flexible work arrangements.”

In addition, more solo practitioners are getting away from the idea that if they aren’t at the office all the time they’ll miss out on sorely needed business, especially in these tough economic times. Kannenberg agrees that attitudes among lawyers and law firms have definitely changed. “When I started working in law firm management approximately 20 years ago, the general belief was that all employees had to be treated equally. In addition to thinking that all legal assistant/secretarial staff had to work for the same number of attorneys, everyone had to work the same hours without regard to business or individual needs. Now, attorneys better understand that some practice areas require more supportstaff assistance to maximize profitability whereas others require less. Employees understand that their needs for flexible schedules will be considered and, whenever possible, adjustments will be made. In our team environment, coworkers understand the value the firm receives by allowing flexible work schedules for those with needs.”

Mitigating the stigma of flexible work arrangements is the first step for a law firm to make in allowing lawyers and staff to work a reduced-hours schedule. Recognize that lawyers who bill less than the average number of hours per year are still valuable to the firm. Make sure you have someone in place at the firm who can help implement flexible schedules and answer questions about them.

Flexible Hours

The most often used approach to help lawyers balance their professional and personal lives is reduced-hours scheduling. Some firms also use telecommuting, also known as work-at-home arrangements. Most lawyers’ work and time are just as valuable when the lawyers are working at home as when they are working at the office.

Another option sometimes used is “nontraditional” hours. For example, a lawyer may want to see her daughter’s soccer games at 4 p.m. three times a week. So that lawyer works until 3 p.m. on those days and works the remaining required hours later those same days or works more hours the other two days of the week. The possibilities for flexible hours, of course, are endless. You can be as creative as you want. The key is making sure the proper time and attention are being given to your work and you are giving the appropriate amount of service and care to your clients.

Kannenberg says that support staff as well as lawyers can benefit. “Good, skilled employees are hard to find. Once found, it’s important to do what you can to keep them. Offering flexible work arrangements is one way to create a positive work environment, which has a positive impact on employee morale and loyalty.”

Kannenberg also says it’s important to tailor flexible hours to each particular employee. “For example, would the employee who desires a flexible work schedule be more productive splitting the eight-hour day between work and home? Or, would that employee be more productive working a compressed work week at the office? Some employees are able to focus on work-related projects while working at home whereas others cannot. Some employees are productive working longer days with one day each week off whereas others are not.”

Recharging Your Battery

Do you ever feel like you need some time off after a difficult, stressful trial ends or a long, complex transaction closes? Some firms are giving attorneys time off following events like these, allowing the attorneys the chance to rejuvenate before starting up the next wave of stressful cases and hectic work hours. Even strongly encouraging their attorneys to actually take their full vacation time can make a big difference and help them avoid some of the missteps that can result in an unhappy client, a bad result, or a malpractice claim. Anderson says, “Even a careful lawyer, when working under stress and time constraints, is more likely to make a mistake. We find that lawyers who keep a good balance in their lives between their professional responsibilities and their personal enjoyment, whether it’s family or hobbies or whatever, are less prone to costly mistakes in their practice.”

In addition, some firms are giving their attorneys the chance to work less for less money, either permanently or on a temporary basis. This can be especially beneficial for the attorneys and the firm if there is not enough work to go around.

Conclusion

Practicing law today is very different than it was many years ago. Among the differences are the way law firms approach the work load of their attorneys and the way some attorneys have decided to structure their lives. Many law school graduates are no longer thinking about landing a big-firm position, working long days, and ascending to partner as quickly as possible. As Edmonson says, “Many attorneys are foregoing working for a larger, corporate firm and instead are opting to either start their own small practice, or work in a smaller firm.” As Kannenberg points out, many large firms have revised their approach as well, giving attorneys and staff the chance to work reduced hours or flexible hours without the stigma that would have been attached to such an arrangement years ago. Anderson says it’s worth considering.

Whether you are thinking about reduced hours, working from home, taking sabbaticals, or just leaving work at the office on weekends, it may be worth it if it helps you do your job better and serve your clients more effectively. As for her focus on family, Edmonson says, “My family and I live a comfortable life. Of course we would have more income if I worked full time or even took on more cases. But for me, I was and still am willing to sacrifice advancing my career in exchange for having more time with my family. I am not sure that it has made me a better lawyer, but I know it has made me a better and happier person.”