Lawyer burnout, particularly at corporate law firms, is all too real. In a high-stress industry with a rabid competition that requires from you a fighter spirit every single day even when you don’t feel like it, some attorneys feel so beaten down that they need time off to recharge and do some soul-searching.
After a career break, some attorneys leave and never look back, while others find themselves back again with a renewed sense of purpose. But taking a break from practicing law is often frowned upon.
Why Taking a Long Break Can Be Risky
More often than not, law practice is a dog-eat-dog world, so taking too much time off from work is not taken lightly by most law firms unless someone very close died (like your child or spouse), someone was born (and you are the mother), or you developed a life-threatening condition.
Attorneys need to constantly work to maintain a certain lifestyle, keep their families fed, get the kids into college, pay mortgages, and keep networking with powerful and wealthy people that can bring them more work and more money. What is more, some lawyers still struggle with student loans, while others have no other money-making skills that could help them put bread on the table if they quit.
Moreover, if you are, let’s say, a budding Columbus truck accident attorney trying to build a reputation, taking too much time off could seriously throw your career off track, so you might need to consider another practice area or law firm when you get back. Also, staying away too long from law practice can dull your professional skills which may require fresh training, an investment not many employers are willing to make.
Taking time off just to recharge could also send the wrong message. In this profession, people leave only when they are fired, develop mental health issues that no longer allow them to cope with extreme stress, or no longer see the practice of law as their number one priority. The latter can be a real career-busting move.
In such context, choosing unemployment voluntarily as a lawyer for a significant length of time is dismissed as crazy talk in most law firms. And it often is.
According to one of America’s best legal recruiters, Harrison Barnes, taking a career break is never a good idea, especially at large firms, because big law firms want fully committed people and an attorney taking a break even for a few months will be perceived as a “slacker.” “Stay busy, work hard, and be committed,” is Barnes’ advice to all lawyers who want a legal career.
When is the Right Time to Take a Break?
If you are stuck in a rut and every day seems like Groundhog Day, and you don’t have student/auto loans or mortgages to pay, and you can afford it, it may be time to take a break. Also, if your career causes you constant health issues or nervous breakdowns, a career break is long overdue.
While in some professions, people are encouraged to take sabbaticals to gain fresh perspective, recharge, and be more likely to stick around, in legal practice, taking a career break is often perceived as career suicide.
People used to take the so-called “gap year” immediately after graduating from college, but nowadays more and more professionals in their 30s and 40s choose to take a career break. The change has much to do with the influx of millennial employees who are not that rigid when it comes to spending quality time on bettering themselves as baby boomers and Gen Xers.
Breaks from legal practice can be as short as one month (the so-called mini breaks) and as long as a couple of years. However, before taking a break discuss things thoroughly with your employer. A law firm can offer you flexible hours or trim your hours and workload instead.
But if you really need a break, outline the benefits for both you and your employer and offer an accurate length of time you are about to spend away from work. Also, negotiate the terms of your return; if you’ll need to work part-time or flexible hours at first, inform your employer about it. For a successful return, don’t leave room for any uncertainty.