Matt Kaiser with daughter Zoe in Denali National Park this summer.
Matt Kaiser with daughter Zoe in Denali National Park this summer. (Courtesy photo)

White-collar litigator Matthew Kaiser had quite the negotiation to pull off in July.

He and his daughter found themselves in Alaska’s Denali National Park, across a river from three grizzly bears. He noticed first, and needed to convince Zoe, 11, not to panic. She wanted to see the bear.

“We looked at them for a little bit and then walked swiftly—but did not run away from them,” Kaiser said of his ursine experience. He and Zoe continued on adventuring through Alaska for four weeks, capping a June-through-August sabbatical from Kaiser’s law firm.

Kaiser, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based boutique KaiserDillon, wasn’t the only law firm leader with an exotic challenge to conquer this year. Alexandra Walsh, a co-founder of Beltway-based boutique Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, also recently left the practice of law to take a yearlong sabbatical traveling around the world.

Though these two lawyers’ trips show how younger leaders in the industry have clamored for more work-life balance, sabbaticals aren’t common at most corporate defense firms. Walsh had a unique situation, as her firm still has no formal policy. KaiserDillon now has a sabbatical policy that will allow each partner to take a two-month leave every five years.

Occasionally, opportunities for extended leave materialize at some Big Law firms, such as at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, both of which have policies permitting sabbaticals. But for the most part, corporate defense lawyers are too well-compensated and dedicated, working at the mercy of often demanding clients, to be able to take leave.

Walsh used her time away to help her family bond. The activity her four children, between 6 and 15, and husband embarked on resembled as much of a “gap year” of travel as it did a research venture, the traditional definition of sabbaticals, which are common in academia. The family kept a blog to record their experiences and photos. Walsh’s family started in Morocco in late July 2016 and ended their trip in Southeast Asia this May.

“I’ve never been one of these [people that say], ‘I have to have perfect balance.’ No particular day is going to be balanced,” Walsh said of the time she spends with work versus family. “But if you measure your balance over a month or six months, I always felt we were getting it about right.”

Kaiser felt drawn to travel for similar reasons. He said his kids, Zoe and 13-year-old Owen, are old enough to remember the experiences they had together.

“They’re relatively independent in a lot of ways. They can carry a backpack, which is useful,” added Kaiser. “It feels like it was a really strong statement to my kids, that they matter a lot.”

Kaiser’s trip consisted of almost three weeks in the wilderness with Owen in Olympic National Park in Washington State, and the trek with Zoe was in Alaska through Denali and Glacier Bay National Park. Cell phone signal was scarce.

“My daughter and I went out in Denali and came back, and I missed an entire White House communications director,” he joked, referring to the short-lived bureaucrat and Harvard Law School graduate Anthony Scaramucci.

Kaiser thought his sabbatical could also be healthy for his four-partner boutique, which the former Williams & Connolly and Zuckerman Spaeder associate founded by himself in 2009. Last year KaiserDillon hired former Williams & Connolly associate Jonathan Jeffress as a partner and recruited partner William Pittard, a former top lawyer in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Office of the General Counsel.

“The firm was getting to a size where it felt like it was possible,” Kaiser said. “It occurred to me that if I stepped away—truly stepped away—we would have to figure out a way to put in systems so that people were really equipped to run the business when I wasn’t here. I thought that was really important for us and our longevity.”

Walsh and her husband, Brendan O’Brien, a stay-at-home dad, conceived of the trip ‘round the world while she still was a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. She and colleague Beth Wilkinson had talked about starting a boutique together as part of a five-year plan. But when Walsh went to Wilkinson with the idea that she would leave the practice of law for a year, they set into motion leaving the distinguished Am Law 100 firm for their own.

“From the beginning, it was, this was what’s happening, we have to plan around it, work around it,” Walsh said of her sabbatical idea. “Beth and I were ready.”

They started Wilkinson Walsh in January 2016, then Walsh pulled her kids out of school in Washington, D.C., and the family set off for its first of at least 10 surf camps. From Morocco, they jetted to Portugal, Spain, Rome, Sicily and India, staying more than a week in most places.

After almost two months in India amid a national banking crisis, they hiked in the Himalayas, surfed near Sri Lanka, mountain biked through New Zealand and went scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A spin through Southeast Asia—Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—ended the Walsh family’s trip before they decompressed for 10 days in California.

Looking back now, both Walsh and Kaiser remember far more great moments from their diversions than bad ones. Walsh recounted how her eldest son, William, asked them to cancel the trip before the family left. And Kaiser recalled a moment with his son tramping across a remote rocky coast in the Pacific Northwest as the tide crept closer to washing them away.

“We had to break down our stuff and then had a fall, and then it started raining,” Kaiser recalled. “The wind is coming off the ocean, and we’re cold and it’s raining, and we hit these rocks with the seaweed on top. And then I’m looking at my watch thinking we have 45 minutes before we get washed out to sea.”

They made it to the other side, had some oatmeal and all was well again.

Both Kaiser and Walsh are back in the office this fall, grinding away again on client disputes. Kaiser is now president of the voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia. And Walsh’s firm has been involved in several high-profile corporate suits, including the recently dismissed containerboard antitrust class action against their client Georgia-Pacific LLC.

“This town, us as lawyers, there’s a huge sense of importance about all of it,” Walsh said. “To realize it’s kind of a small thing in the [grand] scheme … It helped me realize I love what I’m doing. And I can’t imagine doing this until I’m 70. There are a lot of different paths in life.”