Time for a break from the bad news. There is no fun in checking ATL and seeing layoff news on a daily basis. Even though that sort of action is likely to continue, as firms finally come to grips with what sophisticated clients are willing to pay for. Which is basically partner time, with allowances for some associate and paralegal time on occasion. In the good years when clients were gorging on legal services as if sitting at a ten-course chef’s dinner, partner time was the indulgent dessert. Now clients are eating at the local diner, and partner time is the eggs and sausage $4.99 main course. You hope the customer is willing to pay for a cup of coffee too, and get kind of worried that the diner across the highway is giving away the coffee for free. Because they are, and their glop tastes just as wonderful as your glop.
Vacations and Biglaw have an interesting relationship. For partners, late August and the end of the year were usually guaranteed time off, barring a trial or a deal in progress. For associates, it was a different story….
“You’ll never get a vacation” was always one of the cautionary admonitions hurled at those law school classmates silly enough to want a job that paid a living wage after three years of school. (How silly we all were, assuming that jobs awaited us at all.) In contrast, every Biglaw firm was absurdly proud of the “generous” associate vacation policy they offered. Three or four weeks was the norm, providing an easy retort when in the company of friends eager to highlight the ridiculous hours you were working at the time. “But at least I have four weeks of vacation! You are just jealous because your corporate job limits you to two sick days and a week off.”
Some enterprising firms even offered “unlimited vacation” for associates, as in “we have no policy, since our associates are professionals of the highest caliber, with the discerning judgment to decide when they absolutely need a day or two in a ‘resort’ that wishes it had as nice furniture as our offices.” There was an inverse relationship between how much vacation was offered, and how busy the firm was. If your firm offered unlimited vacation, you were lucky to catch dessert and some leftovers at a friend’s apartment late Thanksgiving night. Worked in tax at a sleepy regional firm? I hope you enjoyed your three full weeks off. The litigators grumbled but you enjoyed a week at Christmas, one after the rigors of “tax season,” and another week around Labor Day. Because of your astute selection of practice area and firm, you deserved it!
We all know how important vacations are. For those of us with families in Biglaw, vacations represent the absolute best chance for uninterrupted interaction. Notice I said chance, because the odds are that if you are still employed in Biglaw you will need to carve out some time for a call or two, and handle emails late at night. No need to make a big deal about it, it is just a fact, and a welcome one at that — especially considering the alternative of perma-vacation status.
Generally, when it comes to taking vacation time, the best approach is to avoid rubbing other people’s noses in your grand plans. It is the people who want to make everyone jealous with tales of the oceanfront villa they rented, or those who try and elevate a week-long trip to the beach to the level or “sacred” time, that cause and face problems on the work front.
Some tips for those with families. Most important, non-stop flights are your friend. Keep them short (four hours or less works best), even if your kids are a bit older. No need wasting precious vacation time on an airplane. You have work travel for that. And if the kids are still little, every minute of them crying on a plane is a particular form of torture for everyone on board. Spare everyone — including yourself. Staying away from connecting flights limits the chance of delays, or desperate gate-to-gate rushes after an inopportune potty break that runs long. And resist the temptation to have the entire family model the Neiman Marcus resort wear collection. Pack light.
Involve your kids in choosing the destination. It is part of the fun, and (partial) insurance against whining once you get there. Try and pick somewhere with an educational component. You are hopefully an intelligent person, and there is nothing wrong with teaching your kids something. The vacation does not need to be a non-stop museum tour — just try and work in something more than just theme parks or beaches. Even Caribbean islands have interesting things to see other than the shops and beaches. And don’t waste time shopping for “gifts” — unless you are in Disney and risk a thermonuclear child assault if you don’t purchase that Eeyore doll in the gift shop cruelly placed as you exit the Winnie the Pooh ride. In that case, just try and limit the damage. Everything you could otherwise want is available at home, and you don’t need to carry junk back with you.
Two more things. Resist the temptation to overspend on vacation, especially on luxury items like business-class plane tickets or super-luxury hotels. Even though you can afford them, particularly because your vacations are so rare. Your kids really won’t know the difference, and there is nothing wrong with leaving them something to aspire to. I am not saying to travel like a pauper, or even middle-class style. Think Westin or Hyatt, rather than Ritz-Carlton or St. Regis. Put the money you save toward their college savings, or the general “I want to be someone who makes no money when I get older since my rich parents will support my dreams” fund. That said, if you are a Biglaw-type who travels often, you should definitely be shooting for elite status with an airline or two. That status can work wonders when you are traveling with your family. Wield it with impunity, and thank your clients for sponsoring your work travel as you lead your brood in the express lane — past the impatient hordes waiting for their chance to get either irradiated or felt-up in the name of travel security. Enjoy the family time, and make some memories.
Any family vacation tips for the Biglaw folks hoping to actually take a vacation? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.