Taking a vacation as a BigLaw associate can be stressful. Clients are demanding, more-senior lawyers are demanding, and the workload is demanding—so how can you possibly step away? The thought of vacation can be especially hard as a junior associate, when you might feel like you haven’t “earned” the time yet and you lack control of your schedule. But you don’t need to prove yourself to take a vacation, and vacation is not a sign of weakness. If you have earned vacation time, you should use it—even if that’s a simple staycation during these pandemic times. Not only is a break from work good for your mental health, it’s good for your work product. Time away is crucial for productivity and career longevity.
That said, you do need to be thoughtful about your vacation plans, especially when you work at a BigLaw firm. This isn’t the type of job where you can decide on a whim to take off tomorrow for a two-week safari. Vacations take planning and communication, especially when you’re at the associate level. Here are steps you can take to ensure that your well-earned vacation goes smoothly for you and your colleagues.
Select a reasonable time.
Vacation can seem like an elusive goal given the non-stop nature of BigLaw. How can you predict a good time to step away? What new issues will come up? What will clients want? What deadlines will change? While you will never know for sure what is going to pop up weeks or months from now, the least you can do is avoid taking vacation when you know there is a conflict. As an obvious example: If you’re a litigation associate working on a case scheduled for trial, don’t plan vacation for the weeks leading up to or during trial. (It will not only anger your co-workers, but you might have to end up having to cancel vacation anyway if you’re a crucial part of the team.) If you’re not sure when there will be a good time to take a vacation, ask the more-senior associates on your teams. They can help you estimate an optimal time when your absence won’t cause too much chaos. While it’s true you can’t predict everything that will come up, you can at least demonstrate to your teammates that you are being thoughtful about the time you plan to step away.
Give ample notice.
Once you’ve selected your vacation dates, share them with all relevant people as soon as possible. Send an email bcc’ing everyone who will be impacted by your absence, let them know you’ll be out, and ask them what you can do ahead of time to ensure a smooth time away. Recipients will include partners, more-senior associates, and same-level associates you work with, as well as members of support staff you interact with regularly. At some firms, it may be normal practice to send a calendar invite so that your absence is automatically populated on colleagues’ calendars. Be sure to follow up multiple times—don’t just sent one initial email and think that people will remember your vacation time.
You should also let people know you are willing to put in extra time to get work done ahead of your vacation time or train anyone who might be necessary to fill in for you. Even if you’re not explicitly asked, you should try to have a person who can hold down the fort for you while you’re out of the office. This might be a different person for each matter you’re working on, or it could be one designated colleague, depending on your situation. Be sure to ask permission before you share that someone will be filling in for you, and be sure to account for any training or files that person will need from you before leaving.
Set reasonable expectations.
We all want to go on vacation and completely check out. But it’s possible that as a BigLaw associate, you might be expected to check in periodically or send an email here and there. Make sure that expectations are clear before you head off for vacation. If there are days where you’ll be entirely out of pocket, make that clear to your team. On the flip side, don’t be surprised if you are asked to check your email once a day or periodically throughout your vacation. Make sure that your colleagues have your personal contact information so they can get in touch with you quickly—this will alleviate some of the burden of having to check email constantly. Just how much you can check out will depend on your firm, caseload, and colleagues, so make sure you’re aware of and follow through on what is expected of you.
Know your firm’s vacation policies.
Every firm has different rules about vacation time and how to use it. Make sure you’re aware of those policies—some of them could even work to your advantage. For example, some firms don’t require you to use a vacation day if you bill even 0.1 hour—so make sure you’re accurately timekeeping during vacation (even though, yes, it will be tempting to loosen up on tracking while you’re trying to relax!). You should also be familiar with your firm’s policies about reimbursement for costs that might come up if you do need to attend to work while you’re traveling. For example, does your firm reimburse the cost of WiFi if you work on a plane? Understanding what you can and cannot expense is helpful to know in advance in case something pops up while you’re away.
Set up and test an out-of-office email.
Before you head off, make sure you set up an out-of-office email for the entirety of your vacation time. Some email programs are not intuitive when it comes to setting up auto responses, so make sure you know how to set yours up before those final minutes when you’re trying to get out the door. Take care to ensure the email is typo free and works properly. You should send yourself a test email from a personal account to make sure the response is working properly. (This might seem excessive, but it would be really embarrassing to come back to work and discover you were sending partners a typo-ridden email the whole time you were gone.) And finally, if you’re referencing another person as an alternative contact in your auto response, make sure you’ve asked them for permission first.
If you’ve taken care of as much as possible before you leave for vacation, you’ll hopefully be able to enjoy your time off. A little planning ahead of time will pay off when it comes to maximizing your vacation!
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