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When Shearman & Sterling of New York City took the radical step of including a program of mandatory work-related sabbaticals for mid-level associates as part of a larger quality-of-life initiative the firm announced in January 1999, it was a strategy designed to attack the twin crises of associate burnout and attrition. Sixteen months later, some three dozen lawyers in the first Shearman classes of fifth- and sixth-year associates eligible for the sabbaticals have taken advantage of the program. And the anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least among those lawyers, the firm has succeeded in creating a happier and more loyal work force. Shearman reports that the percentage of associates who left the firm dropped from 17 percent in 1998 to 11 percent last year, surely in large part thanks to the sabbatical program and other quality-of-life perks such as long-term service bonuses and a scheduled comprehensive review after the sixth year. And mid-level associates have given the sabbatical program their universal acclaim. Benefits associate Doreen Lilienfeld, who is two-thirds of the way through a three-month stint working in Shearman’s Frankfurt office, said the time away has been a blessed escape from routine. “After two months living in Europe, I feel like a new person,” she said. “It’s just renewed me.” Under the program, Shearman, which assiduously avoids the use of the term “sabbatical,” requires fifth- and sixth-years to take time off and offers two options: one month off to pursue a career-related interest like business or foreign language courses (the “external development activity”), or a three-month stretch working in one of the firm’s 14 branch offices (the “non-home office” program). The firm pays travel and living expenses for each lawyer and his or her family. Associates who have used the program said the mechanics of taking the time off were surprisingly smooth. They simply wrote a memo outlining the major points of their proposed sabbatical and sent it to their department head and department assignment partner for approval, a process that typically took about two weeks. Final approval comes from Douglas Bartner, the partner who chairs Shearman’s Professional Resources Committee. Associates said the firm’s commitment to the sabbatical program has meant that they are truly able to escape from their practices during their time off. Charles Simmons, a sixth-year associate in the M&A group who spent a month with his wife living in Florence and taking intensive Italian classes, said he received only a few work-related e-mails during the entire time he was gone. And he said the sheer length of time involved prevents colleagues from using a “Band-Aid” approach and saving work for an associate’s return. For Ms. Lilienfeld, the impetus for spending the three months in Frankfurt was a desire to learn about the native culture of her husband, who is from Germany. But it also gave her the occasion to spend time living in another country, a long-held desire she had essentially given up on. “I’ve never lived abroad so for me this was just a phenomenal opportunity,” she said. “As a 31-year-old, practicing in benefits, who would have thought I’d get the chance to practice in Frankfurt?” An additional, unexpected bonus for Ms. Lilienfeld has been the fact that the Frankfurt office is not hooked up with voice-mail. “That in and of itself is a sabbatical,” she laughed. “You leave at night and there’s no voice-mails waiting for you in the morning.” Associates also reported that the firm’s foreign offices have taken pains not to overwork visiting associates and to allow them latitude for long weekends of travel. Ms. Lilienfeld was heading to France yesterday to visit another Shearman associate who is spending his month off learning French and living in Provence. She also has plans to travel after the end of her sabbatical by tacking on a month of accrued vacation, a practice the firm has encouraged. Keyes Hill-Edgar, a sixth-year M&A associate who has been active in corporate pro bono work, will spend his sabbatical in the month of July creating a guide to the incorporation of non-profit organizations, a project that is close to his heart. He said he will also have time to do some traveling and to, at long last, renovate his dining room. “It’s incredible. There are so many good things about it,” he said. “I’ll get paid for 12 months for doing 11 months of work and I’ll have a chance to spend a lot of time pursuing something else. And to be able to have that focus be pro bono work is very nice.” For M&A associate Gregory Puff, the focus of his sabbatical was an existing relationship with a firm client, the Japanese banking giant Sanwa Bank. In addition to learning how to use Microsoft Word in Japanese, he said his three months living in Tokyo with his wife (and their cats) and working as a sort of senior adviser at Sanwa left him with invaluable insights into the approach to doing business in Japan. “When you’re in the bank, as part of the culture, it’s really unbelievable,” he said. M&A associate Christa D’Alimonte took a month of intensive Spanish lessons at a school in Madrid with the business-related goal of regaining her former fluency. But she also poured herself into reading, catching up with friends who came to visit and traveling around Spain. “It left time to explore a country I’d never been to before and it left time to catch up on things in life that you often just don’t have time for in this job,” she said. Ms. D’Alimonte, who also used vacation time to take a bike trip in Morocco after her month was up, said she felt better equipped to deal with the pressures of her practice now that she has returned to New York. “I think people appreciate the opportunity to break away from what is otherwise an intense and demanding career path for a period of time,” she said. “And even when you get back and find yourself in the same intense routine — which I think all of us have — having had the opportunity to step back and focus on more selfish things makes it a more enjoyable routine.” SOME ASSOCIATES LEAVE For the firm, there is of course the danger that associates who take some time away will discover how much they like it. One associate who spent a sabbatical in Rome ended up leaving Shearman for the Rome office of Allen & Overy (Shearman does not have an office in Rome). Another associate, after spending a sabbatical working for a client, decided to leave the firm to join the client full-time. But associates said that those who want to leave will do so under any circumstances, and they noted that the sabbatical provides the benefit of allowing an informed choice. “People will do soul-searching if they have a month off,” Ms. Lilienfeld said. “But I think the firm has gotten beyond that and has assumed the risk.” That risk aside, from an organizational perspective, Mr. Bartner said the sabbaticals have a palpable positive effect on the firm, even for those who stay behind. “They’re excited before they go and they’re excited when they get back,” he said of the associates who take time off. “It just lifts the place in a way.”

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