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The cat died. That was the tipping point for Patrick Raher, head of Hogan & Hartson’s environmental group. “All of a sudden, the excuse for not leaving the house disappeared,” says Raher. Not only that, but Raher felt exhausted from work. He and his wife, Rosalinda, decided to do more than spend a few weeks at the beach. Instead, Raher opted to take a six-month sabbatical last year. Like many other high-powered Washington attorneys, Raher was more than ready for a break. “I love Hogan & Hartson, but I was tired,” he says. “Then I realized as I got into it that I was really more than tired. I needed a fresh outlook.” The problem was that “I was just consumed by [work]. I was a typical Washington lawyer in a large firm — that’s what we do,” Raher explains. “I was totally committed to the client, a 100 percent commitment, 100 percent of the time. That’s like a death spiral.” The sabbatical, during which he and his wife traveled, took up yoga, and rented a house in Key West, Fla., for two months, was an exercise in spontaneity. Raher’s rule for the road trip portion of the sabbatical was that the couple couldn’t plan anything more than 24 hours in advance. For instance, they stopped overnight at a flower farm in Colorado that takes in guests. Impulsively, they decided to stay for another week. About halfway through the six months, Raher made up his mind that he would retire when he got back to Washington. But as the months passed, he had another realization: “You don’t have to be rundown and you don’t have to lose that freshness.” He wanted to apply the new philosophy to his work. “To me,” Raher says, “that was a huge personal change and a growth. It would have cost a fortune and years in a psychiatrist’s chair.” THE UN-WASHINGTON STORY It’s kind of the un-Washington story. Time off for lawyers? Isn’t that like a pastry chef with a preference for Twinkies? Or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dancing on the tables at Hooters? Yet some law firms in Washington offer sabbaticals, ranging from work-focused stints for associates to study international law, to generous leaves during which partners drink wine in Provence. Legal sabbaticals tend to be measured in months, not days or weeks, although they’re usually less than the typical half-year or yearlong academic sabbatical. And unlike the Blackberry-on-the-beach and sand-in-the-keyboard vacations that many lawyers take, sabbaticals generally represent real time away from clients and beyond billable hours. Some firms see them as an anti-burnout measure. Others offer them to associates as a way to ward off headhunters on the lookout for young moneymakers with itchy feet. And then, since this is Washington, there are the firms and the attorneys who see sabbaticals as a way to, well, do more work. Although the programs are rarely well publicized, sabbaticals are offered by, among others, Arnold & Porter; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Crowell & Moring; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Hogan & Hartson; Katten Muchin Rosenman; Ross, Dixon & Bell; Shearman & Sterling; Sidley Austin Brown & Wood; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. The policies vary: Some offer sabbaticals only to partners who have been with the firm a set number of years. Other programs are only for associates, as a reward for meeting billable-hour targets for several years. Some partners receive a reduced take while they’re away; others garner a full draw during their sabbatical. The associate-only programs often provide a full salary and a reduced billable-hour requirement. Is there a stigma attached to lawyers who say goodbye to the office for an extended period? For firms that offer sabbaticals, the real limits may be imposed by the lawyers themselves. On the one hand, according to Hogan & Hartson’s Raher, “I could see that the leadership of the firm was taking sabbaticals, and they continued to remain leaders of the firm.” On the other hand, “I once thought about taking a sabbatical because I was offered a visiting position at Pepperdine” law school, says Sidley Austin managing partner Carter Phillips. “And then I decided that people on the management committee should not take sabbaticals.” One now-defunct California firm, Pettit & Martin, actually required its partners to take two months off every six years. “It wouldn’t work otherwise, because some partners wouldn’t take it,” notes former Pettit partner Carl Vacketta, now at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. That’s an innovation unlikely to spread here. Adds Vacketta, “I can’t imagine an East Coast firm agreeing to mandatory sabbaticals.” NOT FOR EVERYONE Indeed, some firms in Washington say they have absolutely no plan to offer sabbaticals to anyone at any time. Others may have a sabbatical program on the books, but woe to the lawyer who actually has the nerve to take an extended absence. In the past 10 years or so, “a lot of firms sort of abandoned” sabbaticals, says James Jones, a principal at the consulting firm Hildebrandt International and a former managing partner at Arnold & Porter. “My hunch is that they fell victim to the recession of 1991.” “I haven’t heard anything about sabbaticals in five years, and probably more like 10,” says Ward Bower, a principal at the consulting firm Altman Weil. He adds that sabbaticals were very much in the news in the 1980s, “just at the point at which exorbitant billable hours were becoming public.” While sabbaticals are not common, the lawyers who’ve actually taken them say they’ve become true believers in the necessity of a reprieve. Jones, for instance, is a huge fan — in part because he took a six-month break himself when he was an Arnold & Porter partner 20 years ago. But Jones is also a fan because, he says, sabbaticals offer several advantages from the firm’s point of view. First, people in a field that demands a 24-hour-a-day on-call mentality need a chance to “recharge their batteries.” Sabbaticals also allow for what Jones calls the “institutionalizing” of clients. In other words, clients become less dependent on a single lawyer handling all of their work and come to think of the firm as their counsel. Of course, that goes against the mentality of many attorneys, who tend to be a little protective about their clients. Finally, sabbaticals “tend to bind people to the firm.” At Arnold & Porter, Jones recalls, “you couldn’t pry them away” from the firm if they were up for a sabbatical. ACHIEVER VACATIONS Of course, we’re still talking about Type A personalities, so there are no stories of Washington lawyers taking six months off to watch “Jerry Springer” reruns and gorge on Cheetos. Instead, they tend to take achiever vacations: adventure travel to exotic locales. For instance, Mark Leddy, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb, took a whirlwind three-and-a-half months in the summer of 2001. “I think if you had surveyed my partners and asked them, ‘Would Mark Leddy ever take a sabbatical?’ they would have bet against it. I like what I do and am told that I do it intensely.” Nevertheless, after what he calls “three to five years of very intensive work and not a lot of breaks,” Leddy and his wife decided to take the plunge. They started off slowly, with a month at Wellfleet on Cape Cod. But Leddy hadn’t quite made the break from the office: “People were calling, and I was talking to them. I couldn’t just let it go.” Next, the couple rented a home in the south of France. From there, they traveled around Provence and also, he says, got to know the people at the local patisserie. Finally, “I wasn’t thinking about work, but instead about what we were going to eat for lunch or about going to Grasse to see the perfume factory,” Leddy recalls. From France, the couple went to South Africa and Botswana to visit vineyards and go on a safari. “It was magical,” Leddy says. Elizabeth “Sally” Gere, a partner at Ross, Dixon, joined a group making a circuit hike around the summit of Mont Blanc in the Alps for her sabbatical. Adventuresome sabbaticals are also taken by non-D.C. lawyers. Jim Cooley, a partner in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle, did a three-day trek, in the snow, to the top of Mount Olympus in Greece. And Andrew Bogen of Gibson, Dunn’s Los Angeles office took a trekking trip in the Himalayas. Howard Shapiro, co-chairman of the litigation department at Wilmer Cutler, left town for three months last summer. He and his family visited Israel, France, South Africa, and Zambia. They rented a house in Normandy for three weeks because his son, a World War II history buff, wanted to see the landing beaches. The family appreciated the time together, notes Shapiro. “I work, like everyone else in town, long hours, and I miss a lot of dinners and evenings. The opportunity for us to spend such an extended period of time together was fabulous.” Shapiro discovered that his Blackberry connection to the legal world did not work very often on the African continent. In fact, he says, “People learned that I only read e-mail that said, in capital letters, ‘YOU NEED TO READ THIS ONE.’ ” He admits he did join in one conference call while his children frolicked on a beach in France. WHO HAS THE TIME? Finding time when they can comfortably leave may, in fact, be the key obstacle between lawyers and sabbaticals. Some attorneys find that lull at the end of trials or big deals, but many don’t. “I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult for lawyers to take a sabbatical,” says David Lewis, a partner with Sidley Austin. “Things don’t come to an end — both clients and cases go on and on, and it’s difficult to say, ‘I’m leaving for two to three months or longer.’ ” Nevertheless, Lewis took a two-and-a-half-month break in 1998 after he finished settling several big cases. “The program is not for everybody,” says Carter Phillips. “But some people like the comfort of it as an option in the back of their minds.” At the same time, Phillips acknowledges the concern about losing clients: “I think it’s probably problematic at most large firms.” Once you step off the track, he says, “It might be hard to get back in.” “One of the things I worried about was that I was entirely fungible,” says Wilmer’s Shapiro. On the other hand, he admits, “nothing bad happened in my cases, and my partners covered things at least as well as I would have.” What Womble Carlyle’s Cooley realized, he says, is that “we tend to take ourselves way too seriously.” In fact, he now says he knows that “others can do what you do and you’re not indispensable.” MORE WONKY THAN WILD While they may not be indispensable, good Washington lawyers are expensive to replace, especially those hard-working associates who might suddenly rethink their decision to get on the partnership track. Giving them a break may be wise. “In my view, it’s very important to be flexible,” says Ellen Dwyer, chairwoman of the professional development committee at Crowell & Moring. “In a town like this where there are so many opportunities to do other things, our lawyers can do other things and know that they can come back here, and they’ll be better lawyers and more satisfied people.” Crowell & Moring offers sabbaticals mostly to associates and counsel, Dwyer says. The firm had a program for partners, she notes, but few people took advantage of it. In general, associate and counsel sabbaticals tend to be more wonky than wild. Instead of a total break from the job, the idea is often to help developing lawyers grow into their careers and maybe even develop new practice areas. For instance, Andrew Yeung, a sixth-year associate with Shearman & Sterling, took a monthlong sabbatical this year to work in Toronto for one of the firm’s clients, a commercial and investment banking company. “We don’t often get to see our clients every day,” he says, “so it was nice to actually work with them.” Katherine Nesbitt, a counsel with Crowell & Moring, is about to spend a year on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of South Wales in Australia. She’ll be comparing post-Sept. 11 detention policies in the United States and Australia. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, to live abroad. And it’s great that I don’t have to quit law firm life,” she says. Partners, too, sometimes opt for the working form of sabbatical. “Restful for me is not sitting on a beach,” notes John Olson, a founding partner of Gibson, Dunn’s D.C. office. Olson took four months off in 2003 to teach for a semester at Cornell University’s law school. “I was 63 at the time and thinking of it as a transition toward retirement,” says Olson. “But I found that as much as I loved teaching, I loved practicing even more. I missed the problem-solving and the interaction with clients.” That’s one of the best things about taking some time off, he says. “You find out more about who you are. I found out that I like being a lawyer.”
Debra Bruno can be reached at [email protected].

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