When attorneys work for larger law firms, they are usually given a set number of days each year that they can take off for vacation. Even if larger law firms do not have an explicit policy about vacationing, no one typically bats an eye if someone takes off a few times a year for vacation, and other attorneys and staff can handle tasks for the vacationing employee. However, solo practitioners and small-firm lawyers can have a much more difficult time taking vacation, and lawyers should keep this situation in mind when they consider solo or small-firm practice.
When I worked at larger law firms, I really valued vacation time. Since I was paying off student loans during this time and did not have much spare money, I usually did “stay”cations, during which I took time off and just stayed home. Some years, I took off nearly two weeks and just stayed home, and the experience was amazing. Other lawyers could handle my depositions, court appearances, and other administrative tasks so that clients were properly taken care of while I was away.
However, solos and small-firm lawyers can have difficulty taking vacation because there is no one else to handle tasks. Sometimes, attorneys can get away with handling critical tasks while they are on vacation, but it might be difficult to print, scan, and file documents or handle other matters on behalf of clients. Moreover, depending on where you go, it might be difficult to get reliable phone or internet service.
About a month or so after I started my own law firm, I took a road trip with my brother. At the time, I was pretty slow with work, so I thought I would have an easy time getting out for a few days and enjoying the newfound freedom of self-employment. However, all throughout the trip, I got calls constantly from existing clients and prospective clients looking for legal advice. When dealing with prospective clients, time is usually of the essence since it is often important to sign clients before they head to other lawyers. I was able to handle all of the work tasks while on vacation, but the experience definitely showed me that self-employed lawyers have challenges when trying to take vacation.
Another issue with solos and small-firm lawyers taking vacation is that this could impact the amount of money these attorneys generate. When attorneys work at larger firms, they are typically paid a salary or a large amount of their income is otherwise set on an annual basis. However, many solos and small-firm lawyers are paid on an eat-what-you-kill basis: they only get paid if they generate income for a firm.
If lawyers are on vacation rather than billing time for a firm, attorneys can have issues generating enough income to pay for firm overhead and living expenses. Of course, in the short term this is usually not a problem since attorneys can account for this shortfall and make preparations accordingly. However, lawyers at larger firms should consider themselves lucky that they get a set amount of vacation days a year and do not need to care too much about taking vacation versus contributing to a bottom line.
Moreover, solos and small-firm lawyers may be less inclined to take vacation since there is not much of a culture of vacationing at smaller firms and when people work for themselves. Of course, some larger firms do not promote vacationing among attorneys and staff since these shops want to bill as many hours as possible. However, some firms actively encourage people to go on vacation. Some managers know that it is good for employees to recharge their batteries and encourage people to go on vacation and do not guilt employees for taking vacation. Indeed, I have anecdotally heard that some employers have mandatory vacation policies by which employees are actually required to take some amount of vacation so employees can be more productive when they return to offices.
However, solos and small-firm lawyers do not have encouragement about taking vacation, and they may feel guilty about taking time off from work. This is because attorneys often rely on each other more at smaller law firms, and taking vacation might be burdensome for the attorneys who remain at the firm. Moreover, solo practitioners might hesitate to take vacation out of fear that they may miss out on business opportunities that can impact their bottom line.
In any event, being a solo or small-firm lawyer has a lot of perks, and such attorneys often have more flexibility in how they approach work and less bosses to whom they need to report. However, it can actually be more difficult for solos and small-firm lawyers to take vacation, and lawyers should take this into consideration when assessing if small-firm life is right for them.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.