(Not) Working on Vacation

Girl in pool on phone

Personal Productivity for Lawyers

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Taking a vacation as a litigator (especially a solo litigator) can be difficult. Frankly, a vacation may not feel like much of a vacation.

In today’s technological wonderland it’s easy to work from anywhere. The bad thing is clients are increasingly expecting lawyers to work from anywhere.

In my opinion, the best solution is to compromise. Don’t ignore your practice while you are gone, but don’t immerse yourself either.

Business as Usual

For many attorneys, a vacation just means working from a different location. For example, if you run a solo practice, if you are a litigator, and/or if you have clients and cases the demand constant attention.

With a cloud service like Dropbox, you can access all of your files from anywhere. If you use a phone service like Google Voice, your business phone goes wherever you go. Although faxes are becoming extinct, an electronic fax service lets you send and receive faxes from anywhere.

In essence, the only thing you don’t have is access to your mail and a printer. If you work in federal court, however, everything is electronic and most attorneys that practice in federal court send everything (including letters) via e-mail or fax.

In other words: you can run your practice from faraway places. The kids can be at the beach, and you can file a motion to dismiss from the hotel. Of course, if you are working 24/7 during your vacation, that’s not much of a vacation. Fortunately, there is a compromise that should allow you to enjoy the majority of your vacation and stay on top of things at the office.

The Check In Method

This is my preferred method when I’m out of the office or on vacation. I’d love to tell you that I feel comfortable shutting off my phone and ignoring e-mail for a week. But my firm’s income is my household’s only source of income, so that’s just not happening.

What I typically do is turn my office phone to “do not disturb” in Google Voice. That means all calls go straight to voicemails (and the transcriptions are e-mailed to me immediately). If I’m gone for more than two days, I change my voicemail to say I’m out of the office and will have limited access to voicemail and e-mail until ________.

I don’t turn on an autoresponder for my e-mail, because I still check it a couple of times a day.

If it’s important, I can deal with it immediately. If not, I can ignore it until I get back, or at least until I am not sitting on the beach. After the kids go to bed (or are napping), I’ll turn on my computer and deal with my inbox.

Do I constantly think about work while on vacation? Yes. Would I think about it if I didn’t check my e-mail? Yes. To me, ignoring everything would be more stressful than checking in a few times a day.

Admittedly, I spend the two weeks prior to vacation dealing with everything possible and even telling opposing counsel I will be gone. That means that I rarely (if ever) have to deal with a massive issue while I am gone. By massive issue, I mean motion practice, hearings, etc.

For the most part, the check in method allows me to keep tabs on my practice and handle some client intake while I am gone. And when you run your own business, that is a good thing (in my humble opinion).

The Check Out Method

I look forward to the day/vacation where I can turn off everything and not worry about it. I can do that for a few days (like a weekend), but not during the business week.

I see a number of issues with completely checking out. One, even if you think you wrapped up everything before you left, you may have missed something. Maybe the court needs something. Maybe opposing counsel is taking advantage of your vacation and filing a motion. If you completely ignore everything, it could be a big problem. Of course, I suspect a court would be somewhat sympathetic to a solo practitioner taking a vacation. Somewhat, but not entirely.

Two, if you completely ignore your client intake for a week or more, I suspect those individuals will forever be potential clients, and never actual clients. Sure, some of them will wait for you. But in my practice, I am many times the legal equivalent of an ER doctor. My clients need legal assistance, and they need it quickly. If I cannot help them, they will find help elsewhere.

Three, I suspect that many people check out for part of their vacation, and then check in halfway through. Then they see an overflowing inbox, ten thousand things that need attention, and completely freak out. That’s why I prefer to keep tabs on things throughout the day—I’d rather spend an hour each day dealing with stuff as opposed to spending an entire day at the midpoint of my vacation.

I’m not the first lawyer to take family vacations—what works for you?

Originally published 2013-03-12. Republished 2016-09-02.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kisho_h/4278896830/)


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  • Randall,
    I agree with you. As the sole member of my law firm in a very similar position to you, if I were to completely turn off the phone and e-mail, I’d go nuts. Frankly, having short bursts of access keeps me sane on vacation and lets me relax. Knowing that I could check e-mail and voice mail if I wanted to keeps me from going nuts with the “what if” aspect of a litigation practice.

  • Simpleman

    “Although faxes are becoming extinct, an electronic fax service lets you send and receive faxes from anywhere”- let me add that while it’s only slightly surprising fax machines still exist (old habits die hard), it’s very surprising to me how many law firms, small to large, still use physical fax machines and do not use electronic fax services. The convenience and reliability of getting it by email instantly and being able to route it to the right person without delay is so great.

  • Paul Spitz

    I just returned from a 10 day vacation out of the country, where the time zone difference made it difficult to communicate in real-time. I didn’t want calls to just go to voicemail, so I used a virtual receptionist service while I was away. They answered all my calls and voicemail, and emailed me the details. They also informed callers that I was on vacation, and gave them my return date. For email, I used the vacation auto-responder. The only email messages I actually responded to were from prospective clients, letting them know I would contact them when I returned from vacation. I didn’t have any emergencies that required me to step away from vacationing.

    • Have you found that a larger-than-usual proportion of those potential clients went ahead and hired a different lawyer?

      • Paul Spitz

        Not really. I had a 4-page long callback list when I returned (prospects and existing clients), and very little of it turned into new work, but I don’t think a higher-than-normal % of prospects went elsewhere, as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for a prospect to send a message via my website or email, and then disappear when I respond.

        • Good. I think the fear of losing potential clients is one of the main reasons lawyers are reluctant to unplug while on vacation.

          • Paul Spitz

            It also depends on your area of practice. If there is an urgent need, like in criminal defense work, being available matters.

            • I suppose, but I am not willing to just give up and say unplugging for vacation is impossible if you are a criminal defense lawyer. If you have a well-defined intake process and an experienced lawyer willing to back you up, it still seems very possible to me.