It’s a Law Firm, Not a Love Song: It Can Carry on Without You (For a Week or Two)

“(T)o build my career is to make myself indispensable, demonstrating indispensability means burying myself in the work, and the upshot of successfully demonstrating my indispensability is the need to continue working tirelessly.”

That’s journalist Ryan Avent talking about why he’s reluctant to do something that would help his personal life even though it would have a minimal effect on his professional one.

His circular argument will sound very familiar to lawyers. In a business where success is measured by the billable hour, busy-ness is the key to upward mobility. No one wants to miss a step on the career path by failing to be indispensable.

It’s one thing to want to be seen as SuperLawyer, however, and quite another to believe that the firm can’t do without you for even a short period of time.

Results of a 2014 survey suggest 43 per cent of Canadians leave vacation time on the table every year and for 75 per cent of them, work is the main reason – either they felt they had too much of it, or last-minute problems came up that needed to be taken care of.

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Personal Management Practice Management Guideline notes that “having a sense of omnipotence or indispensability, making it difficult to cut back on workload or responsibilities,” is a symptom of dysfunction – that your perspective is skewed.

Those guidelines also note that taking regular vacations is an important part of personal management.

You probably hear it a lot, “I need a vacation.” You have likely said it yourself, usually with a wry chuckle or a heavy sigh to indicate the impossibility of it ever happening, or at least happening any time soon. Sometimes people start in on the “I need a vacation” theme the minute they get back from a holiday. It’s supposed to be a joke, but sometimes it’s the simple truth, and that’s not funny.

It is also true, however, that no one is indispensable. There are ways to mitigate the pressures of your workload to allow an absence of a week or two. Ramon Greenwood, writing for the Ivy Exec blog, offers up these tips:

  1. Plan your vacation well in advance, and as the date approaches start to execute the plan: do work in advance; advise colleagues of what should happen while you’re away; delegate tasks to be done in your absence.
  2. Name one person who can reach you if necessary.
  3. Do not check in with the office. And don’t panic if they don’t contact you. It doesn’t mean you’re not necessary, it means they’re capable too – and your plan is working.
  4. Be prepared to double your efforts when you get back.

While you’re off, do whatever it takes to recharge your batteries, whatever it makes you happy to do, whether that’s travelling, going camping, sitting on a beach reading, seeing friends – the point is to de-stress and think about something other than work.

Of course, the best-laid plans “gang aft agley,” as Robbie Burns says, and sometimes it’s simply not possible to unplug completely, particularly for those in sole or small firms. One sole practitioner manages to take a vacation by checking in for 45 minutes each morning and evening while he’s away from the office. “To somebody who doesn’t go through the grind, [checking in several times a day] doesn’t sound like a vacation. But compared to a normal eight-hour day at the office and two hours at home, having to work one hour a day is definitely a vacation.”

Kim Covert

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