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MCBA President’s Message: Taking breaks from the practice of law

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Jill Cicero

When I was a young lawyer, I looked forward to summer not only because of our wonderful Rochester summers, but also because the pace of practicing law slowed down a bit—especially for trusts and estates lawyers. Clients were less inclined to focus on their estate planning during the summer months; as a result, it was easier to take a breath, work on long-neglected and nonessential projects and take some vacation.

In September, business would pick up again with the start of the new school year, even for clients for whom any connection to the academic calendar was long past. After a little rest and renewal, and time truly away from the office (with no cell phones or email), we attorneys were refreshed and prepared for the longer work hours and increased stress of busier months, culminating in estate tax planning strategies to be implemented before year-end and then the slog of tax season. There was a reliable ebb and flow of work, and there were opportunities for time away from the practice of law.

By the time I founded my own trusts and estates firm in 1990, however, the pace of summer practice had changed. There were fewer lulls in the practice cycle, and clients were just as likely to want to review their estate planning in June as in November or March.

In addition, as law firms transitioned from old-fashioned, professional firms to more bottom-line focused businesses, they pressed their attorneys to bill more and to be more accessible to clients. We also all felt the ratcheting-up of client expectations. As a solo practitioner dependent on my own billings to feed me, my paralegal and my administrative assistant, it was hard to say no to the demands of an unreasonable client when we needed the work—or to take vacation when there would be no revenue when I was not working.

But ever since my first year in my own practice, to the amazement of some of my fellow solo practitioners, I have taken several weeks of vacation each year and I have limited my work at home and on weekends. I tend to work a very long day during the week, but I have found that having a couple of days away from work on a weekend—when I am not reading and responding to work-related emails and phone calls—is more rejuvenating than working a shorter work day and parts of Saturday and Sunday.

Recent scientific research, reported in more articles than I could cite here, has shown that productivity increases significantly when employees take advantage of time away from work to refresh and recharge; they also perform better and are more satisfied in their jobs. These benefits are evident even for people who have only a free weekend away from work, not just those who take a week’s vacation or more.

However, even when attorneys are aware of the research noted here, or if they simply accept as common sense the fact that we all need time and space to recharge our batteries, they often find it very difficult to truly step away from the practice of law for even a short time. For some of us, the pressure to work more and be accessible at all hours comes from external sources that are hard to resist: firm billable hour goals, the expectation of the firm and your clients that you will be available at all hours, and technology that allows you to be accessible to your colleagues and clients 24/7.

Life circumstances may also make a longer day impractical, such as having young children you would like to spend time with before they are off to bed. The pressure to work weekends and defer vacations is also sometimes self-imposed. Over time, we start to believe that we are indispensable and that no one can serve the client as well as we can. (Or we have successfully convinced our clients that no one can serve them as well as we can!) Like teenagers, we become addicted to our devices and to reading and responding to emails, even while at home on the weekend or on vacation.

I believe we cannot do our best work or appreciate and enjoy the practice of law if we never take the time to step away and relax. That means taking your permitted vacation time, as well as not allowing working every weekend to become the norm. The first step is committing yourself to changing your work habits, and the second is changing the expectations of your colleagues and clients.

If you have demonstrated your commitment to clients and colleagues over time, and if you remind them that you are a real person with a real life and other personal commitments who will be better able to assist them when you are refreshed and rejuvenated, your relationships with clients and your stature in the firm should not suffer from taking reasonable breaks from the practice of law. And if they do, perhaps you are practicing in the wrong setting.

I’ll write more on that topic in a later column. In the meantime, enjoy our remaining Rochester summer!

Jill M. Cicero is president to the Monroe County Bar Association and is the managing partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached at jcicero@thecicerolawfirm.com (but not next week, when she will be camping in the Adirondacks, with no cell phone or email!).

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