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Back in 1985 B.C. (before cell phones), menthere were few women in sightlined up at a row of pay phones in Edgartown, Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal tucked under their arms, they conducted business, did deals, and worked on cases. As a young law firm associate, I was shocked that these professionals couldn’t disengage from their work even on sunny days on Martha’s Vineyard. And then my life changed: I had kids. A family vacationan oxymoron when traveling with toddlersmeant that time away from home was more work than work itself. For the first time, I found myself missing the office ever so slightly. My husband and I checked voicemail, at first surreptitiously, and then overtly. It was our connection back to a life outside of parenthood and a reaffirmation that our brains, skills and wits still mattered. Even though my kids are older now, fall still comes as a relief. It’s not just because my children are back in school, but because I can work without the pressure of juggling responsibility with relaxation. It seems counterintuitive to look forward to settling back in at the office. But summer has its stresses, and with layoffs skyrocketing, the Dow dithering, and the economy declining, it’s hard to really get away from it all. Besides, if they can get by without you at work for a few weeks, maybe they could get by without you for all 52 of them. These tensions lead to a ritualistic summer dance in many workplaces. Clients “don’t want to admit that they are leaving early on Friday,” says one investment banking lawyer, but they still “expect you to intuit that they need the documents by 2 p.m.” And, if a junior attorney is slaving away, it’s bad form for a partner to escape early for that beach weekend. There’s also the outgoing message dilemma: Vacation locale and job security usually dictate the approach. The first tactic, generally reserved for honeymoons and nonelective surgery, is to say on your voicemail that you’re gone and will have no access to any form of telephonic or electronic communication. The middle-ground message says you’re away, but will check messages infrequently, sort of a “I may be on vacation, but I still care.” And the third type is usually left by those traveling with several generations of family membersthe “I’m on vacation, but leave a message, because I’ll be checking voicemail obsessively.” Fall brings an end to the gamesmanship; now it’s all about the work. For some, that’s welcome. Kate Crowley, a senior vice president at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., reconnects with bankers each autumn “to see what’s on the horizon” for the firm. She says she feels recharged after Labor Day, as if ready to start a new year. “If you liked school,” she says, “that mentality stays as long as you have a job you like.” Others, however, come back from vacation disheartened, no matter what projects await them. One law firm partner says that “the return to work is so painful, it is almost indescribable. I return, pull out my 401(k) statement, and fantasize about career number two.” That’s apparently quite common. Fall often brings a surge in lawyers who want to explore a career change, says Alisa Levin, a partner at the New York recruiting firm of Greene, Levin & Snyder. But this year, with job offerings slim and lawyers more risk-averse than usual, that’s less likely. There’s also the money factor. Many workers are loath to walk away if there’s any substantial bonus component to their compensation. There are no job changes afoot in my house this month, I’m relieved to say. And as soon as I pack up the last of the bathing suits and boogie boards, I’ll get serious about my next story.

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