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Associates in Baker & McKenzie’s San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., offices are in an uproar after being told earlier this month that they will no longer receive specified time for vacation and sick leave. Whether the policy will go into effect, however, is uncertain. The firm sent associates an e-mail Thursday saying Baker & McKenzie was in the process of reviewing and making changes or clarifications to the policy. “It’s pretty shocking,” said one associate, who asked not to be named. “People are pretty upset about it.” Peter Engstrom, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie’s San Francisco and Palo Alto offices, conceded that “people have been confused about what the policy means,” but when pressed, did not clarify it. The policy was “meant to treat people like professionals and give them the ability to make professional decisions about managing their case load,” he said. “You can take as much vacation as the client work load demands and allows, with approval.” What is confusing for associates is whether they must first meet the firm’s billable hour requirement to qualify for vacation and sick leave. The policy, a portion of which was obtained by The Recorder, states that “an attorney staff employee is entitled to take time away from the office according to his or her discretion and professional judgment, consistent with the needs of the clients and the firm, and so long as that attorney staff employee nonetheless satisfies the firm’s billable and non-billable hour and duties expectations.” Engstrom said the policy does not require that associates meet the 1,900 minimum billable hour requirement before they can take leave. But he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — say exactly what the language about billable hours and non-billable hour expectations meant. “You could read that a number of different ways,” he said. For associates, that’s “a vague nether world,” as one put it, since what constitutes “the needs of the clients and the firm” is not specified. Doing away with specified leave time may be unprecedented in the legal industry. “I have not heard of it,” said John Fox, an employment partner at Palo Alto-based Fenwick & West. As for whether the policy is legal, he said there is no state or federal regulation requiring employers of private employees to provide vacation. They do so “because the marketplace requires it,” he said. With regard to sick leave, however, Fox said that if an employee requires medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act, the firm would have to honor that. Otherwise, “No one could categorically say that it is an unlawful policy,” Fox said. Associates question whether the firm will be able to attract attorneys if it follows through with the new policy. “How the hell are we supposed to recruit when every other law firm in the country gives you vacation time?” one associate said. Asked if associates would be putting their r�sum�s on the street, he replied, “Oh, yeah.” Under the previous policy, associates say, they started at the firm with three weeks’ paid vacation and 10 sick days annually, and they were also able to accrue vacation and sick leave. The new policy says associates cannot accrue either vacation or sick leave. Baker & McKenzie has 3,731 attorneys in more than 60 offices around the world. It’s unclear whether the new policy applies solely to associates in the firm’s San Francisco and Palo Alto offices. Considered one unit, the offices, combined, have 95 lawyers, 70 of whom are associates or of counsel. Engstrom said he thought other offices are continuing to specify the amount of leave associates can receive.

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