Tapping Out: The Value of a Summer Sabbatical

Imagine every day is Saturday. The week is over, the successes & failures of the week are yesterday, the prospect of another week - stress, demands, egos, self-importance - is days away. Do what you want, where and when you want. Sit back and watch the world go by, or maybe even choose to even be part of it? From June 1 to August 31, 2016, that's exactly what I did. And it was probably the best decision of my career.  I want to share how I did it so that, if inclined, you might try it, too.
As a busy criminal defense solo practitioner of 28+ years I decided to "tap out" for a sabbatical. No office, no court, no appointments; I would be available by email & phone only. All the travel that I had dreamed about but dismissed as "taking too much time" was suddenly possible. While my sabbatical included lots of world travel, fulfilling some of my lifelong dreams, I am convinced the mental health benefits of a staycation would be just as profound.

So, how does a fully-scheduled, solo-practitioner litigator get away? First and most importantly, you commit to yourself that you WILL do it, and then you plan months ahead. I asked a trusted colleague to cover emergencies and new cases. We worked out a revenue share based upon the service and advice that was necessary for him to provide. I was also fortunate to have experienced and trusted support staff to cover the daily housekeeping of scheduling matters and supporting lawyers who were covering me.

Sometimes I had to simply say to opposing counsel and court personnel "I am not available then."  Sometimes I asked opposing counsel to accommodate my schedule, explaining that I was planning to take a sabbatical and asking that cases might be continued until I return. I was humbled and grateful to experience little resistance.  I saw the decency of colleagues writ large; people who want the same things as I do: things like some time to decompress and expand their horizons. A few may have even wished to take a sabbatical themselves, and I hope a few seeds were planted along this journey. 

I had to accept that expenses would continue and revenue would be down.  I was fortunate to have enough operating capital and personal savings to be able to not only continue to run my practice but also to travel while away. I think that it all comes back to making the decision, with no excuses.   To paraphrase a great movie where Kevin Costner said, “Build it and they will come,” I say, “Make the decision, and you will figure out the details.” 

I first went to Dublin for the centennial celebration of my ancestors of 1916. I rose and grabbed a pint while watching folk musicians in pubs. I rode the Spanish Camino Santiago by horseback, riding through ancient Galician villages, overnighting in centuries-old monasteries, to arrive one morning in the Plaza of the Cathedral Santiago surrounded by reverent pilgrims who had walked from all over to the resting place of Christ's Apostle James. I spent two weeks in Peru at my church’s mission visiting the homes of materially impoverished but spiritually wealthy people to immerse myself in their life, taking in their grace, gratitude and joie de vivre. I traveled to Buenos Aires to see the elegance of its people and architecture and to study its rollicking history. I was able to spend time when family showed up from afar. I read books.  I stayed up and slept in. Because of all my air travel, in two months, I went from "Nobody" status to “Golden Child” with American Airlines. Most importantly, I had pursued a dream and returned mentally and emotionally refreshed.

Coming back in September was eye-opening. I saw my court, colleagues and practice in a new way. Being away made the norms that we live under in the daily grind of our profession that much more palpable when I returned. With fresh eyes I saw clearly the burden that we impose upon ourselves with self-importance. I saw the pain of the environment that we work in: people and their toxic problems that have so metastasized that they must bring themselves to a courtroom. I also realized the legal world did fine without me, and I did fine without it.  I could get right back into things when it was time.  I came back recharged, with a diminished burden of self-importance that we wear as our mantle. I took more calculated risks in trying new strategies at trial or plea discussions, enjoyed the practice more, felt looser and enjoyed making more free time.

The most valuable experience was a week in Santa Barbara where I started my process of life coach training. As lawyers, we spend careers in the people-business: their problems, illnesses, addictions, egos. I asked myself, how can I use this unprecedented experience to open doors with others to find work/life balance? How can I help others build the path to try out a similar journey?

Taking the gamble of a three-month sabbatical was the wisest career decision that I have made in 30 years.  “Tapping out" for three months at this point added years to my professional life, wherever it may take me.  I often hear others say "I wish I could do that but there's no way because (fill-in-the-blank)."  My answer to that self-imposed, self-fulfilling absolutism is a question: if a sick family member needed devoted time, would you make it happen? If we can make it happen for another’s illness, why can’t we do it for our own health?

“Whoa! I can’t handle that just yet!” some might say.  Fair enough.  There is much to be said for a mini-sabbatical.  A young practitioner may not want to get away just as their career is blossoming. A work-horse practitioner may want to "try it on for size" before making the plunge into a full blown sabbatical.  Looking back, my own three month sabbatical was rooted in my decision ten years ago to take off a few hours here and there.  Those few hours morphed into half-days and eventually full days.  A mini-sabbatical may look different, maybe a long weekend away or even just an afternoon out. Your client can live without you for a few hours or a few days. Check in with yourself if your devotion may really just be your own sense of self-importance or your fear that they really may not need you. That trial that settled or appointment that cancelled? That's the universe making room in your schedule for you to get away. Take it. And turn off the screens!

Our Bar allows us three weeks of secured leave per year where our time off is sacrosanct. I hope that our Bar considers a corollary to allow three months of secured sabbatical time for every 10 years of practice. Imagine the Bar that we could have if, just as we were hitting peak stress we step away, regroup, get in touch with our deepest selves and remind ourselves of what is important. How much better could we serve clients and courts by having lawyers who are refreshed three weeks every year and three months every decade? How much addiction, stress, illness, unprofessionalism and malpractice could be avoided? The question is not can we afford to take time off but can we afford NOT to take it?

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