Forcing myself to re-think the traditional law firm model 12 years ago when starting Sapientia Law Group, I pondered what changes to the traditional law firm model could impact attorney performance, professional satisfaction, and thereby client satisfaction. I looked not to other law firms, but to innovative businesses to answer that question.
During that process, the power of sabbaticals came to mind. If rejuvenation of one’s body, mind, and spirit yielded happier and more productive team members, why wouldn’t law firms provide this opportunity? Going a step further, if owners or partners of a mid-sized law firm were required – mandated even – to take sabbaticals at certain points in their career, wouldn’t those experiences also test and ensure the sustainability of a firm without key contributors? This thinking led to Sapientia Law Group’s adoption of a mandatory sabbatical provision in its ownership agreement.
Although COVID-19 delayed the original timing of my sabbatical, I took a 10-week sabbatical between July and September last summer. It was nothing short of incredible. I traveled with my husband and almost-adult children to Italy and Greece for three weeks. I played tennis weekly. I went for a walk every day. I read books. To the great humor of my family, I scrapbooked our travels. I took mini-trips to catch up with friends and family. I cooked new foods. I got a few (but not many) house projects done. I slept normal, good-for-me hours of sleep. And despite my family’s certainty that it would not be possible for me not to work during my sabbatical, I did not work at all.
The sabbatical experience was different than a vacation. When I returned from travels, I did so without any anxiety about work waiting for me on my return; I could revel in the joy of knowing nothing was waiting for me or had to be done. The sabbatical was not like maternity leaves I had taken earlier in my career, because I was not caring for a newborn, but caring for myself. And the sabbatical experience cannot fairly be likened to retirement, because I didn’t have the sense that I had made a major life change.
Rather, the sabbatical was simply a pause—the cool down and deep breaths after a tiring race. I had time to think, self-reflect, and prioritize. For 10 weeks, I was truly stress-free—a seemingly impossible state of being in our profession.
Without a doubt, the sabbatical experience was possible because my colleagues and team picked up my caseload, took on various firm management responsibilities, and were strongly committed to “shielding me” from work issues or questions. In the process, they gained insights and knowledge about the business, they exercised leadership roles, and they leaned into their strengths. Our mutual appreciation for each other’s roles grew. The team could envision what a future sabbatical for them might look like. And together, we confirmed our organizational sustainability.
As the discourse about attorney well-being continues among our bench and bar, I encourage legal employers and those committed to solutions for burnout, work addiction, and chronic stress to consider the benefits of creating well-being leaves like sabbaticals.
Academia leveraged this concept many years ago. Progressive companies have increasingly recognized the value of sabbaticals and incorporated them into their business models. In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that approximately 11% of employers had policies for unpaid sabbaticals and 5% reportedly offered paid sabbaticals to employees. For example, according to BuildRemote, the following companies boast paid sabbatical options for employees: Bank of America (four weeks paid after 15 years), Charles Schwab (28 days paid every five years of service), Clif Bar (six to eight weeks after every seven years of service), Microsoft (eight weeks paid after 10 years), Nike (five weeks paid after 10 years), The Cheesecake Factory (three weeks paid on each five year anniversary), and Zillow (three weeks paid and three weeks unpaid after six years).
It is time for the legal profession to do the same.