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Winter is coming, and the days are getting shorter. For Troutman Sanders partner and former bankruptcy judge Ezra Cohen, that means keeping a close eye on his watch on Friday afternoons and leaving work by 4 p.m. On his way out, he’ll walk past offices where colleagues are still embroiled in conference calls, brief writing or legal research. No one has ever given him a hard time about leaving. “I think the only person who feels bad about it is me,” he says. “I hate to leave work that early.” But Cohen has priorities. He’s an observant Jew. For him and others who adhere to the principles of Orthodox Judaism, sunset Friday night signals the beginning of the Sabbath, or Shabbat, a day of worship and contemplation that trumps just about everything, even the seemingly endless demands of law practice. Lawyers who share his priorities aren’t all that common in Atlanta. Cohen and others of his faith struggle to name more than a handful of Orthodox colleagues. But there are well-known examples of Sabbath-keepers of several faiths and professions. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman is a lawyer and observant Jew who leaves the campaign trail each week for Shabbat. WXIA anchor-woman Brenda Wood is a Seventh-day Adventist who keeps a Saturday Sabbath. Chik-fil-A founder and devout Baptist Truett Cathy closes his restaurants on Sunday. Though Sabbath-keepers’ beliefs vary, Orthodox Jews are among the most rigorous. On Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, they don’t work, either at home or at the office. They don’t buy or sell. They don’t drive. Many won’t even flip on a light switch or answer the phone. AWKWARD SITUATIONS For lawyers, these restrictions may require potentially awkward explanations to clients and colleagues. They may mean rescheduling hearings, postponing negotiations or delaying a deal. But observant Jews show that the law can flex around a belief system instead of vice versa, even in a profession known for its regular triumph over family, friends and personal time. They say the benefits of putting secular life on hold for a brief span each week far outweigh any costs. And sometimes there are costs, though clients and colleagues are mostly understanding when religious beliefs take precedence over work. Lawrence Stroll, a lawyer who changed careers to become a family wealth counselor for Geller Financial Advisors, recalls working as in-house counsel to Canadian software developer Vicom. He was structuring a private placement with three major underwriters one Friday afternoon. As Shabbat approached, he prepared to leave work for the synagogue though the deal was far from done. His colleagues initially were annoyed, he recalls, and worried that the deal wouldn’t be completed on time. He left anyway, he says, adding, “I had to remind them that I was there till midnight every day prior.” Still, Stroll says, this is the only time his beliefs have caused tension. By and large employers and co-workers are accommodating. Cohen also has faced conflicts between work and religious observance. For him it’s been something of a Hobson’s Choice. “Ultimately, if a crisis breaks, I always view the fiduciary duty I have to a client as overriding everything else,” he says. That includes Shabbat. He explains that he’d work on Shabbat if failing to do so would hurt his firm or clients. Though Jewish rules governing Sabbath observance don’t apply in life-or-death situations — it’s permissible to drive a sick person to the hospital on the Sabbath, for example — Cohen acknowledges the situations he faces aren’t in that category. As for his decision to put fiduciary duty first, he says, “I’m not sure the extent to which it is wrong.” Fortunately, he adds, he’s only had to make the choice once or twice. Usually, according to Cohen, working longer on weekdays and Sundays solves the problem. He became observant five or six years ago and says at first he worried about taking time off, especially for Jewish holidays that fell on weekdays. Now, he says, “I’ve realized that things can wait.” Other customs also affect the working lives of observant Jewish lawyers. Relying on the teaching that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, Saturday, observant Jews refrain from what they interpret as creative activities — for example, using electricity — on the Sabbath. That means that when Cohen is out of town on business over Shabbat, he tries to stay with an observant family rather than at a hotel. That way he avoids using elevators, electronic key cards and buying meals in restaurants. LAW SCHOOL PROBLEMS For Sam Bregman, a second-year law student at Emory University who clerked at the law firm Andre & Blaustein over the summer, Judaism cuts into study time. In September and October, Jews observe eight or nine Shabbats and other holidays which would bar them from working for up to an additional seven days. Also, Bregman goes to morning, afternoon and evening services at his synagogue every day. Though he misses study time, he says that unlike his classmates, he doesn’t watch TV, hang out in bars or frequent the gym. And his grades have improved since he became observant. “It’s not really divine intervention, some lightning bolt hitting my transcript,” he says. “But if you do what God asks you to do, he’ll sort out the rest.” Food is another issue. Orthodox Jews keep kosher, and for lawyers this means a prime way of generating business and cementing relationships — by sharing lunch or dinner with clients — becomes awkward or impossible. “I’ve just stopped courting clients in that way,” says Cohen. Now he relies more on his reputation and work product, though he acknowledges missing out on a certain level of intimacy that arises during mealtime chats. He says his decision hasn’t negatively affected his practice, but adds, “That’s another sort of sacrifice you make.” Stroll, a family wealth counselor who advises clients on life goals and estate planning, often spends the day at clients’ homes to see how they live so he can tailor his advice accordingly. Though usually the client makes lunch, Stroll brown-bags his own kosher meal. Clients are “curious, but respectful,” he says. THE GOOD SIDE Being an observant Jew, of course, isn’t just about dietary restrictions or what can’t be done on holy days. It’s about what can be done, and what it means. For Stroll, Shabbat means walking to services with his five-year-old son on Friday evenings while his wife lights the Sabbath candles at home. It means sharing dinner with friends, singing and discussing spiritual matters or life goals. For Cohen, it means shutting off a demanding practice in favor of introspection and spiritual renewal. For Bregman, who admits to compulsively checking his voicemail and e-mail “about 300 times a day” during the week, Shabbat means being completely unplugged from those types of communication. “I love it,” he says. “I’m telling you, for people of any religion to disengage, to turn off the TV, the cell phone, the pager, and just focus on family, on friends … to have time for introspection … it’s a gift.”
Law Practice Management: Managing People First. December 4-8.

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