Taking a Summer Vacation Will Make You a Better Lawyer (Yes, Really)

If you were planning on working through the summer without taking a holiday, think again. Vacations aren’t just for fun, relaxation and time with the family, they can provide crucial recuperation for your mental muscle. When you don’t take vacation, you lose important recovery time, and over the long term your work (and you) may well suffer.

Here’s why: Our bodies work in rhythms. Our brain does too. Throughout the day we cycle through longer periods of energy exertion and shorter periods of recuperation. Our minds can maintain optimal focus for 60 to 90 minutes before needing a 10 minute break. After 16 hours or so of awake time our bodies need eight or more hours of sleep to operate at full capacity the next day. Similarly, periodic vacations are crucial for sustaining high performance.

Here’s the harsh truth. I speak with lawyers grappling with burnout every week. They are working long days and on weekends. They aren’t sleeping enough. They don’t take vacations. The result is they fall farther and farther behind in their work. They are exhausted. They need to work more hours to do less work. They are tired and unhappy.

Working harder and longer is not the answer.

Taking a vacation is the first step to getting back on track.

The high-performing lawyers I know take vacation. Most of the lawyers I know who are struggling with productivity challenges, work long hours and are missing their billable targets, don’t take vacation.

Which one are you?

If you are approaching burn out I strongly recommend (that’s a hands on shoulders pushing you to do it recommendation) that you take vacation.

How much?

Two weeks off is optimal. That said, after coaching many lawyers on this I realistically understand that many of you who haven’t taken more than a long weekend off in years are going to seriously resist this. So if all you can manage in this first instance is one full week that is acceptable. And make it a goal to take a ten day vacation later in the year.

Ideally you will be taking two good breaks a year with long weekends sprinkled in between.

Where do you suppose your Blackberry is during your holiday? No, not buzzing in your pocket or purse. In a drawer turned off. Most of the time. To accomplish this you need to plan ahead. Take the steps to arrange for others in the office to handle the incoming requests while you are away. Let your clients know you will be taking a vacation and advise them of the arrangements while you are gone. You might leave your secretary with clear instructions so that she can forward messages to the appropriate lawyers at the firm. Then, in order to avoid having a mountain of email upon your return you can retrieve the Blackberry once a day to review your messages and delegate. You might even go a few days without checking.

Sometimes of course even a vacation booked months ahead can be waylaid by a deluge of legal work in the weeks prior. In those cases just do your best. You may have to spend more time on your blackberry in the first days of holidays but the lawyers I have spoken with about this tell me that it is still possible to get Blackberry usage down to once or twice a day even under these circumstances.

Ideally a vacation is 100% time off, no checking in with work at all, and that is what many coaches will recommend. I appreciate though how challenging that can be for lawyers for a variety of reasons. The first step is to get a vacation. Then you can start to work at taking breaks with the Blackberry turned off.

Legal work is mental work. To be a productive lawyer you need to keep your brain operating at full power. The demands of law firms have driven many lawyers to treat themselves like machines. Many lawyers work long hours. Take no breaks. Work on weekends and most certainly take no holidays or only very short ones. That is a sure fire recipe for reducing your mental performance. To be your best build into your schedule time for recuperation: mini breaks during the day, good sleep at night, weekends off and a vacation twice a year.

Enjoy your holiday!

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