Let it go: Why lawyers need to take vacations

  • Janice Mucalov

It's a simple truth: lawyers don't take enough time for themselves. They put in too many hours in a day, too many days in a week and too many weeks in a year. Labouring in the legal profession is a high-stress occupation, draining lawyers of energy and leaving little left over for family and friends.

There are a lot of things you can do to restore balance and harmony in your life. But one of the easiest might be to take a new approach to vacations.

Most lawyers don't take their vacations as seriously as they should. It's not just a matter of packing up for the cottage two weeks a year. It's about leaving your cellphone and laptop behind and not feeling guilty about it. It's about sharing carefree time with your loved one(s). It's about feeling good that you're away from work, and not worrying about everything that could go wrong in your absence.

What exactly is a vacation?
In many ways, a vacation is a frame of mind—of letting go—where you look at your surroundings with new eyes.

Fortunately, you need look no further than your imagination and the displays of brochures in your travel agent's window to uncover the vacation that's right for you.

Vow renewal in a romantic setting is becoming increasingly popular, says Martha Chapman, manager of corporate communications for Signature Vacations, which has been sending Canadians off on holidays since the days of the crocheted bikini.

Or you can bike around the French countryside on the cheap, enjoying picnic meals and sleeping in farmhouses. Or ditch the beach-and-Bacardi holiday, and learn a new skill or go eco-touring. And if planning the trip stresses you out, you can always book an all-inclusive holiday, where the work has been done for you.

How much vacation is enough?
The question of how much vacation time you need is like asking how much sleep you need, says Dr. Ray Baker of Vancouver. Baker specializes in helping lawyers and other professionals with the "invisible disabilities" of work and alcohol addiction, depression and the like. The amount of time off, he says, differs for different lawyers.

But no matter how much vacation lawyers need, it's certain that they're not getting enough opportunities, declares Jack Innes, a partner with Patterson Palmer Hunt Murphy in Halifax and a member of LPAC's board.

In the early '70s, partners in the downtown Toronto firms typically escaped for one month in the summer, plus another two weeks in winter to ski or soak up the Caribbean sun. In the small firms, lawyers would take Fridays off.

Now, says Innes, many partners only manage two weeks annually—and that's with phones and faxes—although the norm is probably four weeks. Associates get the short end of the deal at two weeks. Many public sector lawyers and corporate counsel are happy if they can get three.

Even judges could do with more. They're usually entitled to six weeks of vacation, says Justice William Vancise of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. "But I'd be surprised if most judges took more than a month."

Granted, says Innes, the amount of time you can comfortably accommodate depends to a certain extent on your practice area. "If you're doing commercial work, it's much harder to go away for two weeks," he points out. On the other hand, litigators may find it easier to work around their trial and court schedules by taking fewer, longer blocks of time off.

With his small business and municipal planning practice, Innes prefers to take Mondays and Fridays off instead. "I've never actually gone for two consecutive weeks in my 31 years of practice," he says, "but I'm far from burned out. I play a fair bit of golf in the evenings and on extended weekends."

Why it's so difficult to get away
Burnout is not only part of the reason for vacations; sometimes it's the result of preparing for one. We're all familiar with rushing around the office madly to get ready for a two-week holiday. When you finally hit the beach, it takes you days to recover from exhaustion. Long before your trip is up, you fret about the files back at the office. And when you do return, the stacks of paperwork and urgent phone messages and e-mails waiting for you require weeks of 12-hour days to wade through. You wonder if it was really worth it.

Today's lawyer faces greater client-driven demands, the burden of billable hour targets and more self-imposed pressures that their services must be perfect.

Litigators have an added difficulty: planning around court appearances. Vancise recalls when courts closed for the summer, freeing up July and August; now, most courts sit 12 months a year. Many a litigator has had to deal with cancelled trips because a trial has spilled over or a matter hasn't settled as expected.

In smaller law firms, partners must agree to your holiday time, which can sometimes be problematic. "It's critical to map out your vacation plans with your secretary and partner(s)," Innes says. "And the smaller the office, the bigger the effort you must make to get ready." Innes, who worked for 15 years in a two-person firm, recalls that no one ever took time off at month-end, "because that's when things always happened."

On top of all that, there's a real concern that firms aren't very supportive of lawyer vacations.

"But if law firms are concerned about the mental well-being of their lawyers, they should be insisting, as a matter of management practice, that their lawyers take vacations," urges Innes.

Instituting a policy of mandatory vacations—and monitoring it—is precisely what one large New York firm did to douse the flames of burnout among its bright young members quitting in droves, Innes reports.

The problem with all work, no play
"But vacation alone is not the whole solution," cautions Dr. Baker. It's just one piece of the whole pie - your life - that must be kept in balance.

"When I first see lawyers as patients, they list only two pieces [of the pie]—work and sleep," says Baker. The problem is that when the overworked lawyer's family life suffers, the lawyer dives harder into more work to achieve a sense of satisfaction.

He may be a bad father and husband, Baker explains, but at least he can say, "I know I'm a good lawyer because of my work achievements." Then, when the workaholic lawyer sets off on vacation, he or she is miserable, notes Baker, "because you've taken away the lawyer's 'mood-altering drug'—his work. Without it, family members tell you he's irritable, anxious, angry. He's in withdrawal."

Judges, too, can fall victim to the same self-defeating cycle, observes Vancise. "It always amazes me that judges think they're different from lawyers," he says. "But the pressures from work are the same. At the end of the day, matters on reserve stay longer on reserve, and everyone suffers, all because they haven't appreciated the need to take a break."

The trick is to learn to establish balance in your whole life, advises Baker. "Look at life as a pie which includes hobbies, spirituality, sexuality and family, in addition to work. Vacations are part of achieving overall balance."

And if you disregard the need for time off, you'll pay with your health, he warns. In addition to stress and burnout, Baker points to an increased susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, emotional and psychiatric illness, and cancer related to immune suppression from chronic stress.

The benefits of letting go
So holidays are good for recharging your batteries, boosting your mental health and putting passion back into your sex life. But they're also the best way to increase your productivity.

So go ahead. Take a break. And go on vacation. You, your spouse or partner, your kids—and your billing sheets—will all be grateful you did.

Janice Mucalov is a lawyer and journalist based in Vancouver.