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It might not have been the coldest deal that’s ever been done, but it’s got to rank right up there. Alternately banging away at his daughter’s laptop and negotiating via cell atop a gondola ski lift in Vail, attorney Roy Oppenheim alternated ski runs with contractual points while closing a $35 million mall development deal in Broward County, Fla. in the spring of 2003. At a larger firm, Oppenheim might have been able to schedule another partner to at least hold his clients at bay while he enjoyed himself on vacation with his family. But the Pilelsky in Oppenheim Pilelsky is Roy’s wife, Ellen, who was also busy enjoying the family vacation. “The bottom line is, wherever I am, my clients know they’re going to get personalized attention,” says Oppenheim, who in May conducted another negotiation from under a beach umbrella while friends visited them in Weston, Florida. “Small firm practice is like that. I enjoy working, but I don’t enjoy sitting behind my desk. So I treat work and family equally when I’m in the office and when I’m not in the office. If one of our kids’ graduations goes on the calendar, I treat that like any client obligation, and I can’t be interrupted. But that means that when I’m on vacation, I’ll take calls.” Good thing, too, because for many small firms where the principal partners are married to one another, there’s no such thing as a work-free vacation. While that doesn’t mean vacations can’t be pleasant and relaxing, it does mean that married small firm partners should expect to make different preparations from their big-firm — or single — counterparts to ensure that the ship doesn’t go down while they’re away. Married attorneys interviewed by Small Firm Business cited typical small firm vacation planning issues, such as scheduling proper emergency coverage and keeping in touch — even from a distance — as the keys to avoiding disastrous results for their firms. But avoiding disastrous results for the marriage part of the partnership relies on a different set of plans: communicating expectations about one’s workload beforehand, and even redefining the meaning of the term “vacation” as something that might involve rest, but also the acknowledgement that some work just can’t be avoided. The redefinition part might be the most important to let the vacation serve its chief purpose: lowering stress and having some fun, according to Thomas Davidow, a psychologist with Genus, Inc., a Needham, Mass. family business consultancy. “Look, if you’re taking calls during your vacation, it definitely can interfere with your goals of relaxing,” says Davidow. “At the same time, you could be even more worried about what’s going on at the office while you’re away. You have to decide what you’re most comfortable with.” Gordon Wase, of elder-law firm Wase & Wase in Philadelphia, tries to limit his exposure while he’s away by making sure that both the staff and his associate know exactly what to do — and he tries to make sure his clients know as well. “I generally brief the associate,” he says, “but we also make sure we educate our clients that most of what they’re dealing with won’t be an emergency.” Husband and wife firms with an extra attorney or two working for them can try to delegate responsibilities, but those who only have themselves often arrange to trade coverage with friends and colleagues. When Shelley McKeon, a sole practitioner in Rockville, Md., goes on vacation with her family, she takes her office manager — and husband — Jack McKeon with her. For emergency coverage, she relies on other solo practitioners she has met through networking for the Montgomery County Bar Association, trading “on call” time with friends. While she still puts in 20 or 30 minutes of maintenance time per day on vacation, she says, “If you’re in control of your calendar, you can schedule around things.” Greg Brown, who runs a three-lawyer firm with his wife Michelle Charbonneau in Los Angeles, says that calendar control doesn’t just involve short-term planning, but making sure things are scheduled far in advance. “There’s a lot more planning that needs to go in at the front end, from payroll to trial calendars, to try to eliminate the unexpected,” Brown says. “The main thing we’ve started doing with our vacations is really trying to plan the calendar to know what’s going on up to a year in advance. I didn’t ever used to have to do that.” KNOWING THE RHYTHMS OF ONE’S PRACTICE ALSO HELPS “I wouldn’t schedule a vacation in January, or in August,” says Gordon Wase, whose specialty often involves guardianship issues during medical emergencies. “The hottest and coldest parts of the year are when people who are the most frail have the most health problems.” A willingness to take client calls during vacations can keep things steady at work, but it’s good advice to not let things run out of control. “It’s the ‘I thought you weren’t going to answer that call,” issue,” says Laurel Bellows of Bellows and Bellows in Chicago. “[My husband and I are] each on the other side of that conversation many times. It’s always said with a sense of humor, but also with a bit of an edge.” The way to lessen the edge is to keep each other informed, says Joel Bellows, the firm’s other principal. “The most important thing is understanding, before we step on the airplane, that we have communicated where each of us is in terms of our work responsibilities,” he says. “That way, we can maximize the time we spend together, and get done what we need to get done.” Finally, it helps to understand that the intensity of running a small family enterprise like a law firm doesn’t necessarily go away when that family leaves the office, according to consultant Davidow. “When you’re so involved in the business together, and you live it every day, it becomes your life, and it’s very difficult not to talk about it while you’re away,” he says. “If you’re in business together, you enjoy it, you find it interesting, but you should try to limit it. Maybe you only talk about it on the beach, but not over dinner.” In fact, married partners often use vacation time to have big-picture conversations that day-to-day firm life tends to push off until later, according to Laurel Bellows. “We don’t avoid it,” she says. “We love what we do.” Of course, that doesn’t mean the whole family does. And when it comes to limiting conversation about work, nothing helps like the kids. “With [4-year-old] Madeline around, she’s not going to put up with us talking about the office,” Jack McKeon says. “It’s just plain boring to her.” Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer based in Boston. He can be reached at [email protected]

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