Five Steps to Unplug From Life and Work for a Week

It is no secret that lawyers do not take enough vacation. This is all the more true for solos, who are entirely responsible for the functioning of their firms. The need to take a break, though, cannot be understated. Lawyers who fail to take time away from work are more likely to end up committing ethical violations. Yet with how important we all know it is take breaks, why do we not actually do it?

Often, the goal is to physically leave the office while maintaining productivity, mostly through the use of technology. What if you decided to do it differently? What if you actually unplugged, leaving the office both physically and electronically?

I recently did just that for a full seven days, and it was the best thing I could do for myself, my practice, and my clients. So here are my top five tips for how to make it happen for you.

1. Find a Backup

You have probably heard this advice before. Every solo should have a backup attorney. It reduces your malpractice exposure, and may even reduce your malpractice insurance rates. But what more personally gratifying incentive could there be for finding a backup attorney than going on vacation?

What does it mean to be a backup attorney? That depends on your practice. In some firms, there is no avoiding that a client or court will need something while you are away. In those instances, a backup attorney is likely to be someone with whom you work in close physical proximity and who shares your practice area. You probably need to go over all of your cases before you go, and the backup will need to know what to do for each of your clients. They’ll likely need access to your files, too. This person will be substituting for you quite fully.

In other practices, you may be able to have a backup who gets called only in an absolute emergency by a client who needs you during vacation. This person would need to be informed on the general status of your cases but would be less likely to have actually to act on your behalf. If they do, their action would be more of a band-aid to keep the client from bleeding out while you are away. They should be familiar with your practice area but may not work in it.

For me, most of my cases were at a point where they would be able to wait a week for me to be back. I had a backup paralegal who knows my work and knew the general status of my cases. My answering service and my email auto-response let clients in emergency situations know how to get in touch with my paralegal. In my recent week away, I had one such case. My paralegal was able to take action to keep the matter from becoming more urgent until I got back. That was sufficient.

A backup will never be the same as if you were there, but it can be close enough for you to get your break. In taking the leap, you do have to accept that work will pile up because your backup is not a replacement for you but they will keep the office from burning down.

2. Use Technology

Out-of-office replies and outgoing voice mail greetings are critical to keeping clients and others who contact you happy and informed while you are away. Set your emails and phone messages so that people contacting you understand when to expect to hear back from you and what they can do (contact the backup) if they cannot wait.

3. Give Advance Notice

For anyone you are dealing with on a regular basis, provide the courtesy of advance warning that you will be away. This would include clients with active files and opposing counsel. If you are a litigator with active court cases, use your state’s procedure to give official notice to the court and opposing counsel of your unavailability. Such notices are intended to prevent opposing counsel from serving you with process that requires a timely response while you are away. It should also keep courts from scheduling court dates during your absence. (Check your local rules for specifics.)

4. Plan Ahead

This requires a lot of work before your absence, but do all that you can to get your work to a point where it can afford to sit for the period of your absence. Get briefs done and out for review to clients; get articles written and scheduled for publication; get discovery responses ready to send out upon your return. Move everything along to the point it can afford to wait.

5. Follow Through When You Get Back

This last piece is not the prep, but the re-entry. If you have a terrible experience when you return from unplugging, you probably won’t do it again. The way to guard against that is to make sure that when you come back from vacation, you follow through on your promises made in your out-of-office replies, your outgoing voice mail greeting, and your prior communications with clients and opposing counsel. If you promised return calls, make them; return emails, send them; that you will send something out when you get back, do it. By keeping your promises, you can demonstrate why it should not be such taboo to unplug, and instead show how well it can work.

The way I went about this to both fulfill my promises and maintain my sanity was that I triaged all of my emails on the return leg of my travel (when I was semi-plugged back in). I responded to anyone with a critical issue that was waiting for a response at the earliest possible moment; I marked as second priority anyone with a pertinent issue needing a relatively quick response, and everything else waited until I was done with those. The first level got responses that Sunday afternoon as I rode home; the second level heard from me on Monday, even if I couldn’t fully answer them, but I could at least tell them I was back and working on their question. Three weeks later, I have not lost a client or had anyone pitch a fit that I was away.

In the end, unplugging is good for you, your practice, and your clients, but getting away requires getting over your fear of it and executing a few carefully planned steps. Get away and enjoy. The work will be here when your well-rested self returns.

Megan Zavieh
Megan Zavieh is a state bar defense attorney and general ethics counselor admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey. She is the current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Solo and Small Firm Section of the State Bar of California and focuses her practice on assisting California lawyers. She is also a mother to four insanely fun and independent children ages 2 to 10, a mud-loving Spartan racer, and a runner. She passionately believes that her colleagues should not face disciplinary action alone, so she devotes her non-billable hours to developing new tools for self-represented lawyers to defend themselves before the state bar.

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