As we emerge from the holiday season and a (hopefully) restful period of time spent with family and friends, lawyers are reminded of the positive impact of time spent away from the office. Numerous articles, both in the legal industry and scientific community, have been published extolling the virtues of vacations as well as the positive impact vacations have on mental health issues.
Vacations benefit not just individual attorneys, but also law practices generally. This is because firms that facilitate time away from the office demonstrate that they value their attorneys’ professional contributions and personal well-being.
Still, the same firms may not always address vacation as an aspect of the firm’s risk mitigation plan and of a larger effort to ensure the wellbeing and satisfaction of its attorneys. Instead, if vacation is left to individual attorneys to address, some attorneys may simply never take real, disconnected time off. Alternatively, those who can get away may not be aware of the important risk management steps impacted by a vacation.
While the unique needs of each attorney and law practice will vary, there are some common steps that firms and attorneys can take to minimize vacation-related risks.
Give Colleagues Notice
Vacations often impact staff and other professionals in the law practice. For example, an extended absence will likely limit when other individuals might be able to take vacation or planned leave. Advising everyone well in advance of the vacation allows team members to plan their own work and personal schedules accordingly.
Prepare in Advance
Procrastination poses serious risks: the attorney’s ability to address deadlines, reschedule closings or hearings, or otherwise address calendared events decreases significantly or gets completely lost. For example, courts are unlikely to hold deadlines in abeyance if a long-planned vacation is only disclosed at the last minute. However, when provided sufficient notice, many courts (and even opposing counsel) may be amenable to rescheduling dates, when possible, to avoid conflict with a vacation.
For many, effective planning for vacation typically involves four steps.
First, identify scheduling conflicts. If deadlines or other events are scheduled during the planned vacation, address each conflict by obtaining an extension, rescheduling, or having it covered by another attorney. This will eliminate all ambiguity and ensure that everything is being handled.
Second, notify all interested parties. Having everyone on the same page avoids surprise and significantly decreases the likelihood of an emergency during the vacation. To that end, consider whether courts, clients, and other parties should be notified of the planned vacation.
Typically, courts grant requested leaves of absence when made in good faith. Clients understand that attorneys are people who take vacations, too. And even opposing counsel may recognize that they may someday be in a position to request a similar accommodation. Courts are becoming more impatient and critical of opposing counsel who use a lawyer’s vacation schedule as an opportunity to issue eleventh-hour filings or other inconveniences.
The earlier the notice, the more effective it will be.
Third, leverage technology to reduce risks. Email and voicemail are the two most effective tools to set expectations and manage risks. For email, the “Out-of-Office Assistant” will provide an automatic response to every email when an attorney is out of the office. The automatic reply may include the dates when the attorney will be out of the office, how often (if at all) the attorney will check messages while out of the office, and the contact information for immediate assistance. For voicemail, the greeting can be changed to include the same information.
Even with these systems in place, attorneys’ active matters do not stop when vacations start. Thus, some attorneys may choose to have someone monitor their practice while on vacation. This may include opening and reading mail, listening to voicemail messages daily, or responding to clients, courts, and opposing counsel who may call (even after being informed of the vacation).
Fourth, clarify availability during the vacation. It is important for all interested parties and the law practice in particular to clearly understand what capacity the vacationing attorney will have to communicate during the vacation. The most important thing is to make sure that everyone on the team is on the same page.
Follow the Plan
Before departing the office, the vacationing attorney may be tempted to change or alter the plan. For some attorneys, completely disconnecting from the law practice is either difficult or simply not preferred. Those attorneys may wish to set up a set time, place and procedure for someone in the office to reach the vacationing attorney to provide an update or to confirm that everything is under control.
Of course, expecting the unexpected is always important. Having a contingency plan, such as calling an emergency telephone number, is helpful to managing unexpected crises effectively.
Be Mindful of the Risks of Working Remotely
When implementing a firm-wide vacation policy, law practices might address the inherent risks of working remotely, assuming the vacationing attorney plans to do so. At a minimum, the majority of firms recommend securing smartphones and other devices with passwords. In addition, firms may wish to confirm the ability to wipe the device clean remotely, if it is lost or stolen, or to advise attorneys of the risks of unsecured wireless connections.
In an era where attorneys are almost always available by phone and email, time away from the office can help to ensure attorneys’ personal health as well as the law practices’ longevity. By taking some simple steps before unplugging, attorneys and their firms can reduce any risks associated with time out of the office.
Shari L. Klevens is a partner at Dentons and serves on the firm’s US Board of Directors. She represents and advises lawyers and insurers on complex claims and is co-chair of Dentons’ global insurance sector team. Alanna Clair is a senior managing associate at Dentons and focuses on professional liability defense. Shari and Alanna are co-authors of “The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance.”