It’s that time of year. The never-ending winter is finally retreating and we’re getting the few weeks that pass for spring in New York, before the city turns into a humid swamp for four months. The lucky ones who pocketed spring bonuses want an excuse to spend them. Minds drift to thoughts of vacation — a temporary escape from billable hours and fleeting chance to remember what sunlight feels like. If only it were that simple.
Fact: Americans on average get far fewer paid vacation days than workers in other developed countries, including Japan, which invented the concept of karōshi (death by overwork). Sadder fact: most Americans don’t use the precious few vacation days that they have.
Lawyers are particularly bad about this. Biglaw attorneys are lucky enough to get four weeks of vacation each year, but most don’t use them. These 20 paid, get-out-of-jail-free days are part of your compensation package. Refusing to use them is essentially giving your firm 20 days of free labor. I don’t know anyone who negotiates a lower salary or feels guilty about taking advantage of the firm health plan. Why should vacation be different? The Firm has no qualms about taking up all 24 hours of every one of the other 345 days of your year. Why wouldn’t you use your vacation days?
Associates whine that taking vacation from Biglaw is impossible. No it isn’t. Sure, it may be difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible.
All it takes is little common sense….
Non-vacationers usually fall into one of two categories. The first are the super-gunners who believe they’re so important that the firm will crumble if they’re gone for even a day. They share tales with a misplaced sense of pride – “I haven’t taken a day off in seven years”, “I went into labor in the office,” “I missed my mother’s funeral because the deal was closing” (note: all true stories) — and mistake your look of horror for admiration. People in this category are impervious to reason and are beyond help.
The second category: junior associates who are paranoid that they’ll be fired if they aren’t instantaneously available at every possible moment. If this sounds like you, I have a message that you may not want to hear: you’re not that important. You are a fungible billing machine, just like every other associate. It’s not too late to start enjoying your life.
I’ve never heard of an associate being fired for taking a reasonable vacation. Sure, you have to be prepared to answer emails or handle things that come up while you’re gone. The constant electronic tether of the Blackberry is a reality of the profession that we all have to accept (if you don’t, your career will be a short one). Is it annoying? Absolutely. Is it more annoying than staying in your office and never taking vacation? Hell no.
The key is timing. This seems obvious, but junior associates still manage to screw it up. If you’re struggling to figure out how the vacation game is played, here are some basic pointers.
Don’t expect to skip town when your matters are at their busiest. A lot of your workload can’t be predicted, but certain things can, like trials and closings. If crunch time is coming, you need to be there. The timing may suck in terms of your personal life, but deal with it.
If you know that your superiors will be gone, you should plan to be there. This includes holidays, especially when you’re junior. You’re not in school any more; you don’t get holiday breaks. Your sense of entitlement and moral outrage about missing your parents’ annual barbecue means nothing to anyone other than you. Maybe one day you’ll be senior enough to hope for holidays off.
Just because partners are on vacation doesn’t mean that they won’t notice that you’re gone. Client demands don’t stop when partners go away. Someone has to be in the office to receive the partner’s drunken fax from the Caribbean passing along the latest
false deadline emergency. You don’t want to do be the associate who makes the partner scramble to find a replacement while on vacation because you thought it was a good time to try out a house share in the Hamptons. Besides, a week without partners in the office is the next best thing to vacation. Enjoy it. And then take vacation some other time.
Most importantly, don’t think that you can get around the vacation issue by “only” taking a bunch of long weekends rather than a few longer vacations. I’ve heard too many junior associates say things like, “I’m never gone during the week, I should be able to take weekends off,” or “I haven’t taken any actual vacation days yet.” This sends a clear message to your superiors: you think you have a Monday-to-Friday job. In other words, you completely misunderstand the nature of the job you’ve signed up for.
Worse, you’ll quickly earn a reputation for being unreliable. You’re always leaving early on Friday to catch your flight, screwing over your fellow junior associates who are left scrambling to meet Friday deadlines. You’re gone on weekends and taking the redeye back on Monday morning, leaving the senior associates to handle your work on the weekend and explain to the partners why they’re doing it rather than you. The explanation of your latest fraternity reunion or charity bike ride won’t be passed on with much sympathy.
Your constant absences will eventually backfire when you most need to actually be gone. When you’ve been gone four weekends out of the last two months, no one cares that you’re supposed to be the maid of honor in your best friend’s wedding this weekend. Or that you think the wedding merits a four-day weekend. You should have picked your battles more wisely. People who have been reliable are usually given some leeway for special occasions. You are not one of those people.
None of this is rocket science. Vacation is good for you and you should make use of your days. Even if you just want to use them to watch TV in your underwear, take a break. Just be smart about it. Don’t screw other people over, make sure to warn people well in advance, and make sure there are ample bodies around to cover the load. And then take a deep breath, cut the cord, and relax.
Life’s too short to spend every waking hour working. When you’re old and gray, do you think you’ll look back and wish you had billed more hours? I know I won’t.
And now I’m off to the airport. Please hold my calls.
Natasha Lydon is a new writer here at Above the Law. She graduated from NYU Law School and spent years at a Vault top 50 law firm. Follow Natasha on Twitter, at @NJLydon, or email her, at firstname.lastname@example.org.