Many law firms and organizations now offer sabbatical programs as a workplace benefit. As long as employees meet defined criteria and plan carefully, they’re able to take a few months off without much risk.
But given that I’m self-employed and that I work alone most of the time, I didn’t think that a sabbatical was really an option for me. A carefully cultivated – or lucky – opportunity could come knocking at any moment. What if I wasn’t around to answer the door? When you’re self-employed, you need to save money for the vacation and make up the lost production time.
Last year, however, presented a chance to spend almost four months away from the office. On the personal front, my husband retired from practicing law and wanted to travel. We also planned a renovation that required temporarily moving out (and giving up my home office). On the work front, I felt like I had hit my professional stride with the right mix of clients and projects. The timing seemed right.
Being a project management aficionado, I made a checklist to ensure I was taking the right steps.
Planning: 4 months prior to departure
A few reality checks were necessary before getting carried away
- Financial feasibility: Conversations with my financial planner and accountant confirmed that a sabbatical was a viable option.
- Sustainability: I had a lot of conversations with clients. And I was lucky. They encouraged the opportunity, helping to monitor ongoing projects and waiting for me to return before starting new projects. I also arranged a break from volunteer activities, such as blogging for Slaw.ca.
- Task management. I automated as many administrative tasks and made my office system – files, research resources and subscriptions – as paperless as possible. To be honest, the frustration of changing work habits wasn’t pleasant, but I hoped it would be worthwhile.
Doing: four months away from work
Two months in Hawaii. Ten days back in Vancouver. Five weeks in Africa. Ten days back in Canada, followed by another ten days in Hawaii. Managing a home renovation throughout. I thrive on routine and predictability, so while this was a once-in-a-lifetime, one-percenter adventure, it was also a test of my nerve.
- Wi-fi was available everywhere I went, from the middle of the Serengeti to a Rwandan mountaintop. I monitored communications regularly, but kept it light.
- The only goal I had was to have fun. Some people take sabbaticals for a specific purpose: research, volunteerism, learning a new language. I didn’t. Any conclusions drawn or observations made along the way would be a bonus.
Recovering: one month getting back up to speed.
I thought it would take much longer to get back into work after I returned, but I was wrong.
- I sent personal notes and made calls to clients and colleagues upon my return
- The projects that we put on hold before the sabbatical are up and running
- I’ve kept some of the automated tasks and systems put in place before the sabbatical. They were a step in the right direction anyway.
Although I returned to work with lots of energy, the biggest benefit of taking four months off was a change in perspective.
I feel like my mindset is less myopic now. Instead of relentlessly focusing on processes and tasks, I had four months to let ideas percolate, look at issues through a different lens, meet new people and be open to new experiences.
I have no regrets about the sabbatical, either personally or professionally. If you’re interested in planning a long break, here are a few resources I found helpful:
- The career value of a “pointless vacation”, from Fast Company
- When you work for yourself, can you afford to take time off? From Fortune.com
Some legal associations and law societies also have guides on how private bar lawyers can plan a long-term break while minimizing regulatory risk.