Keeping Them by Sending Them Away: Sabbaticals and Lawyer Retention

  • October 13, 2009
  • Bob Tarantino

When the University of Illinois prepared a study of its own sabbatical programs, they also surveyed private sector approaches.  The report noted that “many corporations consider the benefits of sabbaticals so self-evident that they forego the expense of documenting them.” A stronger endorsement is hard to imagine. 

This article will describe the elements needed to determine if a sabbatical solution is correct for you and your firm: the arguments for and against; the building blocks of a program; the keys to successful implementation; and a sample policy which can serve as a starting point for your firm.

Historically associated with academia, often viewed as insular and untroubled by concerns about a bottom line, sabbaticals were adopted by some U.S. law firms in the 1960s and 1970s.   Among private employers, the popularity of sabbaticals tends to wax and wane with broader economic trends: offered as an inducement in times of abundance when firms need to compete with investment banks and the start-up down the street, but a frivolity to be cast aside once the leading indicators turn sour. 

Some might contend that embracing a sabbatical program is a throwback to an outmoded (even romantic) view of law as more profession than business  – but in an environment where the legal industry faces unprecedented retention and motivation challenges, law firms have something to learn from the nearly one-quarter of all U.S. employers that offer some form of sabbatical to employees. 

Dozens of U.S. law firms provide sabbatical options to their partners (and in some cases associates) – Lori Simon Gordon’s standard reference work on the topic, Rest Assured: The Sabbatical Solution for Lawyers, published by the ABA, provides examples from sixteen firms, ranging from sole practitioners to forty-lawyer mid-sized firms to six hundred-lawyer giants.

Sabbaticals Defined

For our purposes a sabbatical is a formalized program (rather than an ad hoc prize) for extended leave (either fully- or partially-paid) during which an employee devotes time to personal or professional renewal and development. 

Three defining elements are that the time away is planned (rather than the result of a traumatic personal event such as the death of a close family member), extended (at least four consecutive weeks) and that the employee is expected to return at the end of the leave. 

Beyond those parameters, and this is one of the most enticing features of a sabbatical, the concept is almost infinitely malleable.

Lawyer Sabbaticals in Canada

Outside of the academy and some government agencies, relatively few Canadian employers offer sabbaticals.   What accounts for the discrepancy in availability between the two countries?  Two factors seem paramount: the relatively recent emergence of very large law firms means that Canadian firms don’t have decades of experience during which sabbatical policies have been given time to develop and gain popularity; and Canada’s relatively generous maternity leave and vacation standards may help alleviate some of the demand for extended time away from the rigours of practice. 

As the pressures on lawyers on both sides of the border multiply due to the ongoing transformation of the legal industry, perhaps those impediments are better viewed as advantages.  There’s no need for Canadian firms to reinvent the wheel – we can learn best practices from those who have already developed them. 

Moreover, the skills and mechanisms which Canadian law firms have developed in accommodating and assisting colleagues who go on statutorily-mandated maternity leaves are equally applicable if those colleagues are (temporarily) departing on sabbatical.

Sabbaticals as a Lawyer Retention Tool

One key feature of a sabbatical program for employers is that it aligns the interests of firm and lawyer.  If you’re trying to convince lawyers to stay for the long term, the best way to do this is to reward them for displaying loyalty – rather than creating an “instant gratification” compensation system. 

Giving someone a higher salary today, or an iPod, does not address your desire to keep them in your employ five or seven years from now – certainly not in a “what have you done for me lately” culture.  Sabbaticals, by contrast, require lawyers to demonstrate long-term commitment before becoming eligible to receive the benefit.

Challenges and Benefits


The overriding concern expressed by firms about sabbaticals is a simple one: cost.  Obtaining a concrete dollars-and-cents measurement of the benefit of sabbaticals is difficult, if not impossible.  However, the same can be said of any number of employee retention or satisfaction initiatives – when was the last time your firm did a precise cost/benefit analysis of things like the annual holiday party or summer outing? 

The value of a sabbatical program is better arrived at by looking at costs avoided: according to a study by Catalyst Consulting, the average “turnover cost” to a firm of a lost associate is estimated to be $315,000.  

Better yet, view the cost of a sabbatical program as not just a loss prevention device, but as safeguarding the investment already made in an employee – keeping them around provides more time to recoup and realize on that investment. 

While a lawyer on sabbatical represents a temporary reduction in revenues, their absence also potentially entails lower costs: a reduction in salary is one of the adjustable features of sabbaticals which can be tailored to the needs of the individual firm. 

From the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Retention of Women in Private Practice Working Group  to the Catalyst series on flexibility in Canadian law firms,  the message has been consistent: law firms must, for their own benefit and for the good of the profession and the public which it serves, find mechanisms to address rising levels of dissatisfaction among lawyers with their proverbial “work/life balance”.  Therefore, the proper metric is not simply the cost of a sabbatical program, but how much it a firm stands to lose if it does not embrace flexible work arrangements.

Sabbaticals as a Win-Win for Lawyers and Law Firms

The best kind of benefit delivers advantages to both employer and employee.  There are two facets to the retention benefits of a sabbatical: they foster loyalty and long-term commitment, and they also provide a motivating factor – a significant, meaningful goal to work towards.  For the leave-taker, the sabbatical presents an opportunity to achieve a number of goals, most of which begin with “r”: rest, relaxation, restoration, rejuvenation.  Those benefits redound to their employer as well – as Gordon notes,

“Happy and well-rounded lawyers contribute positively to law firm or law department morale.  They approach their jobs with a more positive outlook and experience better client interactions.  It is more interesting to talk to them and it is more fun to practice with them.” 

This quote alludes to the sort of “soft” benefits that you can learn on sabbatical, be they experiences gained while volunteering in a developing nation or skills learned while taking up that musical instrument for which you never quite had time. 

Lawyers who obsessively focus on the minutia of their jobs run the risk of not only being boring, but being blinkered – time away can provide new perspectives and inform new approaches to old problems, and even provide opportunities to develop contacts and networks which result in new clients and additional work.

Institutionalizing Client Service

At the heart of the firm is client service – how will that critical imperative be affected by lawyers being absent for extended periods of time? Will client needs be properly taken of?

It should be noted that a lawyer being away from the office is the same kind of “challenge” posed by vacations or maternity leaves – one which has been faced and overcome.  All three scenarios are an opportunity to implement systems and protocols that address the absence of a lawyer, thereby encouraging practice groups, partners and associates to work together collaboratively. 

Rather than focusing on an individual, clients can be better served by a team of lawyers – and having a team member absent also presents an occasion for junior team members to develop or strengthen client relationships, and demonstrate they are capable of handling new challenges. 

Coverage While Away

For small firms and sole practitioners, the biggest concern may not be costs so much as coverage: who will do the work of the lawyer on sabbatical?  In some cases there just aren’t enough hands on deck to take up the extra work. 

There are a number of possible solutions however:

  • Contract lawyercan be brought in on a temporary basis, or matters can themselves be contracted out to legal service providers who take overflow work. 
  • Developing relationships with other practitioners or small firms who are facing the same staffing challenges on a quid pro quo basis can also prove fruitful. 
  • Locum lawyers, essentially “traveling lawyers” who “stand in” and run a practice for absent lawyers, are an emerging phenomenon, popular in the UK  and recommended by the LSUC  and the Law Society of British Columbia  as a valuable initiative for assisting small firms and solo practitioners.  (The LSBC maintains a locum lawyer registry.)

Sending Them Away While Bringing Them In

As the economy softens, sabbaticals can also serve as a cost-savings mechanism: if there isn’t enough work to go around, sending someone on sabbatical can meet two sets of desires at once.  And imagine how the eyes of potential recruits will light up when they see that a sabbatical is one of the perquisites on offer.

Cash Concerns

There are also more mercenary aspects to the practice of law which need to be addressed.  Will colleagues poach clients? What if someone on sabbatical just doesn’t come back – doesn’t that leave the firm open to those who would take advantage of the firm’s generosity?

The latter can be addressed in two ways: the sabbatical policy can be crafted to require a reimbursement of any compensation received while on leave. 

The problem of poaching may be a product more of paranoia than actual occurrence. But if it is concern expressed by firm members, then another opportunity presents itself for transformation: a firm’s culture should frown on pilfering clients and encourage firm-wide commitment to servicing client needs as a reflection of professional responsibility, rather than solely as a means to the end of compensation.

In short, for all the potential concerns of a sabbatical program, there are means of addressing them. Monetary outlays are best viewed as an exercise in off-setting: program costs are a proactive attempt to avoid the replacement costs of departing lawyers (i.e., foregone investment in the departing lawyer, the potential loss of client relationships and the cost of hiring and training new lawyer), and re-energized lawyers returning from sabbatical are likely to be more productive. 

For non-monetary issues, planning and preparation obviate most concerns – the approach is no different from maternity leave which, while potentially disruptive, has been successfully accommodated and embraced by firms of widely varying sizes.

Six Essential Elements of a Law Firm Sabbatical Policy

When devloping a sabbatical policy, consider the following elements:

1. Eligibility

Will the program be available to associates or only to partners?  Most policies are limited to partners, though some large firms (such as Shearman & Sterling ) extend availability to associates.

2. Entitlement

Will taking a sabbatical be an entitlement or subject to satisfaction of performance-based criteria?  Many programs are an entitlement, subject to scheduling and subject-matter approval.  Schedules should ensure that no more than a designated number or percentage of partners (usually within a practice group) are on sabbatical at the same time.

3. Length of sabbatical

Four consecutive weeks is generally seen as a minimum, with the most popular terms being three months and four months.

4. Length of service prior to eligibility

This element varies widely, but even those programs which are available to associates require a minimum of five years service.  Most programs set eligibility at a certain number of years (from two to five) after becoming partner.  A separate consideration is whether sabbaticals should be recurring – i.e., will another seven years service entitle you to another three-month sabbatical?

5. Pay while on sabbatical

Will compensation while on sabbatical be full or partial?  Some firms provide for full pay up to a set period of time (e.g., three months), with reduced or no pay thereafter.  This is partly a function of the term, and also affected by the mechanics of funding: consider “banking” or “withholding” compensation in the years prior to the sabbatical and then paying out those funds over the term of the sabbatical.

6. Content requirements

Many programs are entirely “free-form”, with the only caveat being that lawyers cannot take on remunerated work (or at least not in the practice of law), but some require activities to have an educational or charitable element.

Four Keys to Implementing an Effective Law Firm Sabbatical Policy

1. Commitment and Support

This is the cardinal rule.  Institutional support and acceptance within firm culture are absolutely vital – there’s no sense in crafting a policy if those who take sabbaticals are resented by their colleagues or the perk is extended only begrudgingly.

2. Authority 

Policies must be formalized and decision-making authority vested in an individual or committee.  Authority extends to determination of eligibility, approval of proposed sabbaticals and scheduling.  The decision-maker should also ensure that those entitled to sabbaticals actually take them.

3. Defense

Contractual provisions should ensure that leave-takers don’t take advantage of the firm.  Compensation paid during the sabbatical should be subject to repayment if departure occurs within one year of a return to work, and can be subject to a declining scale thereafter (e.g., 100% during year one, 66% during year two, etc.).

4. Communication (or the Lack Thereof)

Going on sabbatical does not mean that professional obligations go out the window.  Lawyers should be obliged to check in periodically or always be reachable somehow – but only in emergencies.  Remember the cardinal rule: a sabbatical must constitute legitimate time away from the office and the practice of law – there are very few situations which will necessitate calling someone on sabbatical.


Sabbaticals are not an initiative to be undertaken lightly.  They involve considerable planning and consideration, and can even require a modification in your firm’s culture.  But if the reports from re-energized lawyers and satisfied firms are at all credible, sabbaticals are worth the effort. 

Most importantly, however, they are properly viewed as a component of an emerging vision of what the practice of law can be.  Sabbaticals are not an excuse to forget other elements of a healthy work environment: they are not a substitute for, but an element of, a healthy workplace.

Sample Law Firm Sabbatical Policy

The Law Society of Upper Canada has created a model “flexible work arrangements policy” which includes a number of elements which will be of interest to those drafting sabbatical policies, including mission statements, caveats and criteria for eligibility. 

Below is our own sample policy, based on a survey of actual policies used by law firms:

1. Eligibility and Accrual

1.1  Eligibility. A Partner is eligible to accrue sabbatical credits if he or she has been a member of the firm for at least six years (whether as an Associate or Partner) and has spent not less than two years as a partner, provided, that the Sabbatical Committee (the “Committee”) may waive this requirement in exceptional circumstances, providedhowever, that in no event will a Partner who has been a member of the firm for less than two years be entitled to take a sabbatical.

1.2  Eligibility – Second and Subsequent Sabbaticals. A Partner will not be permitted to take a second or subsequent sabbatical until at least six years have elapsed since such Partner’s previous sabbatical.

1.3  Accrual. Sabbatical credits will accrue as follows: Partners will accrue sabbatical credits at the rate of one-half month for each year of service to the firm, up to a maximum of six months. A Partner who has accrued six months of sabbatical time will not accrue further credits until he or she has used some or all of his or her existing accrual.

1.4  Limitations on Accrual. Notwithstanding the foregoing, a Partner docketing less than 1500 hours of billable time in a compensation year will receive 50% of the sabbatical credit to which such Partner would otherwise be entitled, and a Partner docketing less than 1300 hours of billable time in a compensation year will receive no sabbatical credit for such year.

2.  Length

2.1 A sabbatical must be at least three consecutive months in duration, and no more than six months in duration, providedhowever, that in exceptional circumstances the Committee may approve a longer duration for long-term pursuits such as teaching posts.

3. Scheduling

3.1  Application. A Partner wishing to take a sabbatical will submit his or her request to schedule a sabbatical to the Committee not more than three years and not less than eight months in advance of the anticipated start date for the sabbatical. All sabbaticals must be approved in writing by the Committee. Partners on sabbatical may engage in any activity consistent with the firm’s other written policies and with the Partner’s professional obligations. Partners are encouraged to undertake activities which will promote individual rejuvenation and personal development and also inure to the collective benefit of the firm.

3.2  Committee Discretion. The Committee shall have complete discretion, to be exercised reasonably, in scheduling sabbaticals, taking into account such factors as the economic effect on the firm, time previously spent by the relevant Partners on sabbatical, any previous deferrals or denials of sabbatical requests for a particular Partner, and the effect of any deferral or denial on particular sabbatical plans (e.g., plans which revolve around time-specific initiatives (such as teaching or in connection with particular events) will be given priority). Partners who have spent less time on sabbatical will be given preference over those who have spent more time on sabbatical. To the extent possible, the Committee will not deny a requested sabbatical if the result of such denial would be the loss of further accruals for such Partner.

3.3 Limitation. No more than [x percent of all Partners][x Partners][x Partners within the same practice group] may be on sabbatical at the same time.

3.4 Contact Information. A Partner on sabbatical will provide the Committee with reasonably detailed contact information prior to departure, and will update such information with the Committee to the extent reasonably practical while on sabbatical.

4. Compensation

4.1 Determined by Committee. Compensation for Partners on sabbatical will be determined by the Committee. Such compensation will be consistent with the historic level of compensation of the relevant Partner and the firm’s financial performance during the year of the sabbatical.

4.2  Limitation. A Partner will not be entitled to receive compensation for any portion of a sabbatical after the initial six months of such sabbatical period.

4.3 Outside Income. Partners on sabbatical will be entitled to earn and retain income from outside sources,providedhowever, that any income earned in respect of the rendering of legal services (other than honorariums) will be remitted to the firm.

4.4  No Cash Value. In no event will a Partner be entitled to any payment or other monetary consideration for unused or forfeited sabbatical time accrued, including upon termination of employment.

4.5 Repayment. Any Partner who has taken a sabbatical within the twelve-month period prior to his or her departure from the firm for any reason (other than death or disability) shall reimburse the firm for the Partner’s income received during the sabbatical period.