Tuesday, April 3, 2012

the illusion of four weeks (with tips!)

A conversation I had with a first year associate at my new firm reminded me of one of my least favorite aspects of Biglaw.  At the conclusion of our conference call, a fourth year, the first year, and I started chatting about associate life.  The first year, who has been at the firm about three months, I think (read: longer than me) finally asked, a bit nervously, "Can I ask you guys something?"  I was excited.  An opportunity for mentoring!  I love mentoring!

"Of course!" we both answered enthusiastically.  The fourth year must love mentoring too.

"Well, my hours are kind of low.  But.... I don't know.  I wanted to take this vacation in July.  Do you think I'm allowed?"  Oh boy.  I bet she thought this was an easy question. 

Officially, associates at my firm are entitled to four weeks of vacation per year.  This is the case at most Biglaw firms -- it's totally market.  So it seems like the answer to this poor first year's question would be a "Yes" as long as she hasn't somehow managed to already take one month off when she's only been here for three. 


This is not all there is to the story though.  Traditional Biglaw lore requires associates to ignore the four weeks of vacation they give you, and "just make sure you hit your hours."  If you hit your hours, you can take as much time off as you want.  This is what Kathy told me when I was a first year, and it's what her mentor told her.  In fact, this policy was made official at my last firm.  They literally took away our four weeks of vacation, and told us to "just hit our hours."  That is fine, during the boom years when everyone was hitting their hours, and, in fact, had to fight tooth and nail to get a scrap of time to themselves.  But these are not, in fact, the boom years.  The first year is not going to hit her hours.  A lot of people are not going to hit their hours. 

So you see, you're afraid that taking vacation when you're slow gives the impression that you don't want the work, or something.  You think that, during your review, people look at your file and tsk, "Well, she only had 1600 hours, but she took four weeks of vacation.  Didn't it seem like she was always out?  Maybe if she had been around, that could have been more like 1800 hours."  More that that, assuming that you like your job and want to stay there, there is always the concern that a huge matter that you could get staffed on will come up while you're out, and you'll miss it.  And then you'll only have 1200 hours, and all the other people your year will have 2000, and you'll get fired.  Or at least, seriously frowned at.

Even though it's not the case, the assumption, I suppose, is that you would have hit your hours had you not taken the vacation.

On top of this, the 2000 hour billing requirement is based on 40 hours of billings per week with two weeks of vacation a year.  Except for the fact that there are usually around ten holidays a year, where the office is actually closed (New Year's day, MLK day, sometimes President's day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, two days for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, plus some other random ones that I am always pleased by, like Flag Day or something).  So, for those of you doing the math at home, even if you're billing 40 hours a week, if you take these holidays off, then you actually have ZERO days of vacation.

Well, ultimately, we told the first year to take the time off.  But then, the matter of how to ask for the time off arises.  You have 12 bosses, not one.  There is no official policy (or the official policy is rendered irrelevant by hordes of people telling you to "just make your hours") and you don't want to foster the perception that you're "always out."  What's a junior associate to do?  It's a nerve-wracking balance of Outlook away-messages only when actually on an airplane, e-mailing only the people you are actually working for to tell them you'll be out, and collusion with your secretary.  Drafting the actual email telling people you'll be out is walking a knife-edge between informing them politely that they are to leave you alone, while simultaneously seeming excited to sit in your hotel room working while your friends drink daiquiris around the pool. 
And so, as promised, some vacation-requesting tips I have learned in all my many years of associate-ship:
  • You don't need to end the email with "Please let me know if you anticipate any issues."  You do not actually want them telling you there are issues; you want to go on vacation.  Don't worry, I have never actually met a boss who was shy about letting an employee know if there are issues with the timing of a vacation.
  • Do not send a vacation email so far in advance that you will have to send a reminder.  Then it seems like two vacations.  But do let people know far enough out that they won't be irritated with you.  I like to tell people verbally a month or so in advance (they always forget), then send a "Please be reminded" note a week ahead. 
  • I like to say I will be "out of the office" rather than "on vacation."  In my opinion, "out of the office" suggests you could still work, without you actually offering to still work.  "On vacation" sounds like you are out partying -- which, even if you are, you don't necessarily want to convey that.  And no matter how you phrase it, if they want you to work, you'll work, and if they don't, you won't.  So you might as well seem available.
  • If you are flat-out inaccessible, for the love of god, say so.  Add the word "camping" or "without computer access" or "with limited blackberry service" or something so you don't have to sit on pins and needles wondering if someone is going to ask you to do electronic doc review from the woods of northern Michigan or drive for hours trying to find an air card for your laptop.
  • On that note, if you are going to rent some house for your vacation (or go to some nice rustic bed and breakfast or something), make sure you check about internet and phone service before you get there.  I have had horrible experiences where I get to the vacation place and there is no wi-fi, or there is no landline and no cell service, or no blackberry service -- even though it seems like I'm in a relatively civilized place.  THIS SUCKS.  It results in hours upon hours spent in a Starbucks an hour away and/or the aforementioned drive in search of an air card.
  • If the timing of your vacation is tied to some major life event, you should say that.  Then they know you aren't just off lying around on the beach reading novels like a normal person on vacation -- you are obligated to take the time off.  Good reasons are:  weddings (especially your own), bar/bat mitzvahs, births, milestone birthdays of your parents, and other once-in-a-lifetimes. 
Believe it or not, this is far from everything I have to say on the ulcer-inducing process of taking a vacation from Biglaw, but I'm going to leave it at that, since this is actually a blog post, not a 200 page book.* 

Oh, how I long for my days of relative simplicity, working at the fine jewelry counter at the mall, where I got only two weeks of vacation, but accessed them by emailing one person a month in advance and officially requesting the time, no matter how busy or slow my store was, and then just ignoring work for the entire time I was out.

*  Because I can't resist saying one more thing.  I do realize the inherent contradiction in what I've written.  If you're slow, why are you having to work on vacation?  I do not know the answer to that. I suspect it has something to do with tight turn-around times on legal work.  It does always seem to happen, though.  To be honest, it's usually not that bad, just one or two days where you get up earlier than everyone else and work a few hours, then join in the fun, or you have a conference call here or there.  But still, it is stressful not knowing what, if anything, is going to come up.

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