How Implementing a Sabbatical Program benefits the employee and the firm

| | Source: Legal Management magazine by Paula Tsurutani

After a tough day at the office, who hasn’t dreamed of packing up, walking out the door and not coming back? But unlike the fed up JetBlue flight attendant who, several years ago, made his dramatic, career-ending exit on the evacuation slide, would you expect to get paid? Or expect the firm to welcome you back with open arms after you’ve chilled out — off the grid — for weeks? Surprisingly, a number of law firms have formal sabbatical programs that do just that.

WHO’S DOING IT?

Hutchinson Black and Cook, a 20-lawyer firm in Boulder, Colorado, has had a sabbatical program since the 1970s. The benefit is open to both members and staff, notes Tom Blot, the firm’s administrator. Partners are eligible for a full-year sabbatical, at full pay, after 10 years of employment, and then another 12-month sabbatical every seventh year thereafter. Staff (paralegals, legal secretaries and support staff) can enjoy a six-month sabbatical at half-pay (or a three-month sabbatical at full pay) once they’ve worked at the firm for eight years and can take another every sixth year thereafter. It is probably one of the most generous sabbatical benefits among law firms. Partners even get a stipend. In addition, partners are “off the overhead obligation — they have no financial obligation for their year of sabbatical.”

Blot points out that there is a financial cost to the firm in having a sabbatical program, but the advantages outweigh any downside. “In the 40 years since the inception of the program, there have been no complaints from clients,” said Blot. Plus, it’s been a great retention tool, especially for staff. “Our staff tends to stay. Once they’ve reached the eight year milestone, they’re locked in.”

For a smaller-sized firm, it’s important to limit the number of attorneys and staff who are on sabbatical — for managing expenses and workload. But it’s important to recognize the client service opportunities that sabbaticals present. Blot emphasizes: “The reality is that sabbaticals are a fantastic chance to introduce clients to other attorneys in the firm.” The recuperative benefits are noticeable too, he notes. “I’ve witnessed this time and time again: attorneys come back and they just look younger — physically. It takes years off their aging.”

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS?

Now that you’re inspired, take a step back. Firms considering sabbatical programs need to examine their rationale. The recuperative powers of a sabbatical are obvious. Getting away provides a space to reflect, gain new clarity about work and priorities, and engage in ways that can improve and enhance problem-solving.

It’s also an investment to ensure careers of longevity. “You want staying power from your top performers,” said Barbara L. Pagano, Co-Founder of yourSABBATICAL, a firm that helps businesses implement sabbatical programs. A sabbatical also offers a platform for other positives beyond a time- out. Pagano emphasizes, “A big mistake is to develop a sabbatical program with no goals. Ask yourself: What do you want to accomplish by having a sabbatical program? Do you want it to support leadership development? Talent recruitment? To support a community effort? It can be anything you want it to be.” A sabbatical can be a buzz-worthy benefit that can strengthen client relationships, create excitement in the community, attract new people (clients and employees) and help nurture talent. “If you disengage from the firm, then others can rise to the occasion, presenting leadership development opportunities,” Pagano said. “Rather than creating a hole — a sabbatical can actually strengthen the client relationship because the client will be dealing with the firm (not an individual).”

BUILDING THE FIRM’S CULTURE

Foster Pepper PLLC, a 120-lawyer firm with offices in Seattle and Spokane, Washington, started its sabbatical program for members in the 1980s, and rolled out a staff sabbatical program in 1995. According to Bethany Browne, the firm’s Manager, Attorney Recruitment & Professional Development, the sabbatical program was designed to give members “time away from the pressures of the practice of law and to avoid or reduce the possibility of burnout… The benefits of this program, both for the individual lawyer and the partnership as a whole, outweigh any negative economic aspects.”

Understanding that “the high-stress nature of working in a law firm is shared by staff as well as attorneys,” Foster Pepper’s staff sabbatical program allows staff members to regroup and rejuvenate without losing benefits or income and is one way to “encourage staff loyalty and reduce staff turnover.” When Partner Trip Mackintosh arrived from another large firm and learned of Holland & Hart’s sabbatical program, he couldn’t believe it. “My first reaction was: ‘Are you serious?'” Mackintosh reports that lawyers from other firms are filled with jealousy, “envy and hatred” when they learn about Holland & Hart’s sabbatical program. “It really enhances your loyalty to the firm. You can’t put a price tag on it. You are supposed to take your sabbatical. It’s an eyebrow raiser if you don’t. And when you do, you appreciate the uniqueness of it. Our firm realizes that there is more to life than work. We want our ‘warriors’ to be as well prepared as possible. The perspective that comes from a sabbatical helps do that.”

Tallahassee’s Hopping Green & Sams believes its sabbatical program characterizes the values of its firm culture. When one of the firm’s founders returned to the office after recuperating from a heart attack, he had a changed view about work. It sparked the start of the sabbatical program, which now is an established tradition that provides up to three months paid leave and three months unpaid leave. Partner Angela Morrison spent her six-month sabbatical traveling abroad, volunteering at her kids’ school, “reading a ton of books” and reconnecting with friends.

Key to the success of the sabbatical program is the firm’s approach to compensation and client service. “Our compensation model is a driver,” Morrison said. “Our firm fosters a team attitude among all attorneys. You have to have a lot of trust.” Hopping Green works hard to expose clients to other attorneys. “Our approach may not work at other firms. Here, clients are all firm clients — they don’t belong to individual attorneys.” Thanks to their firm culture and healthy work-life balance, Morrison notes that retention levels are high — no partners have left to compete at other firms.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Attorneys at Foster Pepper who have been approved for a sabbatical are “strongly encouraged” to plan in advance and alert clients early on to avoid surprises or disruption in service. The firm’s Executive Committee requires a description from the attorney that outlines how administrative and client matters will be handled during the sabbatical, including the names of designated attorneys who will be responsible for client billing and collection responsibilities. In addition, an attorney going on sabbatical must submit, for approval by the Executive Committee, a plan that discusses how the attorney will re- establish client relations and workload upon return from sabbatical.

Notifying clients about an imminent sabbatical presents a unique opportunity. Sending a heads-up memo or email to clients is a chance for further relationship building. It spotlights the firm’s progressive work- life attitude. And, it paves the way to introduce new attorneys to a client, which can open the door to cross-marketing and lead to constructive discussions about client service. It also can positively introduce younger associates to long-time clients (“You’ll be in good hands with my colleagues, John and Jane… “), which can lead to improved succession planning or initiate conversations about work and pending projects.

RE-ENTRY AND RE-TELLING

Some lawyers return to the office with a full plate of work waiting for them. Others may need to spend extra non-billable time touching base with clients, which can be an excellent marketing and business development opportunity. Clients often are very interested in learning about sabbatical experiences. Pagano also is a strong advocate for incorporating the sabbatical experiences in a formal way. “When people come back from sabbaticals, make their stories part of your program. You need to share your story and experiences,” she advises. “They can describe how you changed, and how you benefited. You can do a lunch and learn, for example. These stories can be inspirational.”

BUILDING A LEGACY

During his sabbaticals, Mackintosh has traveled around the world with his family. They spent a month in Vietnam, traveled to Cambodia, India, Tunisia, Namibia and France — among other places. Mackintosh has taught French in a small school in Africa. His daughter has taught English to young children. These have been life-changing experiences, he said, blessing the family with friends around the world, as well as giving his children a rare and rewarding grassroots kind of education. In Namibia, the family adopted an 11-year old. His children, having grown up seeing so much of the world and so many different cultures, now wonder: “What’s next?”

In addition to the personal rewards gained from sabbatical experiences, Mackintosh also notes other positive and lasting benefits that have accrued to the law firm. Lawyers from Holland & Hart have developed pro bono efforts in the United States and abroad during their sabbaticals, including a children’s art and motion therapy program in Cape Town in collaboration with the Red Cross and support to an orphanage in Uganda. “Sabbaticals have a much larger impact,” Mackintosh said. “The experiences during a sabbatical program will be felt by the next generation — their lives will be enriched. You want to create that legacy. If you go fast and hot, that legacy may not be there. Those positive effects should be considered when contemplating a sabbatical program.”

“Reprinted with permission from Legal Management magazine, Volume 31, Issue 5, published by the Association of Legal Administrators, www.alanet.org.”