Washington Lawyer
Cover Story

 

Time Out, Time Off: Lawyers on Sabbatical
By Joan Indiana Rigdon
Photographs by Howard Ehrenfeld

August 2005

 For Arnold & Porter managing partner Jim Sandman, the decision came suddenly, while he was driving home one Friday night, 16 years ago.

He was a partner in the firm’s Denver office. His son was four weeks old. In eight more weeks his wife’s maternity leave would end. He was on the hunt for child care.

One highly recommended day care center had severely disappointed; its infant room consisted of one long row of identical cribs, which parents were not allowed to decorate or personalize in any way. No stuffed animals, no blankets, no pictures of mom and dad.

“I was appalled,” says Sandman. “I could not imagine leaving my son there and having him wake up from a nap and not see any reminder of his mom and dad. And I remember thinking, ‘This must be what communism is like.’ ”

On that drive home, “a light went on,” says Sandman. “I thought, ‘I do have an alternative. I could stay home.’ ”

Sandman’s alternative was a sabbatical. He had been a partner for almost six years, and was eligible for six months’ leave at half pay. So he began his sabbatical when his wife’s leave ended. He spent the time struggling through napless days and two-hour bottle feedings. Once a week he took his wife’s place in a mothers’ group. He was the only man; sometimes the group’s talk turned to how absent some of the other fathers were.

Sandman says the sabbatical laid a solid relationship with his son. “It was the best six months of my life,” he recalls. “It was very different from what I expected, but it was unbelievable.”

Firm Policies

 The term sabbatical comes from Mosaic law, which decrees that every seventh, or sabbatical, year Israelites should let their land lie fallow, forgive debts, and free slaves. In modern history sabbaticals have become an expected perk in the academic world. But over the last few decades some law firms have institutionalized the sabbatical, too.

They vary greatly in nature. Arnold & Porter LLP offers six to nine months off at half pay. Partners there have used their sabbaticals to do everything from teaching law to scuba diving. Perkins Coie LLP offers three months off at full pay every seven years. Before it merged with Hale and Dorr, Wilmer Cutler Pickering offered three-month sabbaticals at full pay after seven years with the firm; Hale and Dorr offered six-month sabbaticals after 15 years, with a possible reduction in pay, depending on the length of the sabbatical. The merged firm offers sabbaticals of three months after seven years, with no reduction in pay.

A few firms have mandatory sabbaticals. Shearman & Sterling LLP of New York, for instance, requires associates “in good standing” to take a sabbatical during their fifth or sixth year. But the nature of the sabbaticals is limited: associates may either take one month off for training or to work for a nonprofit or do a three-month rotation in another office, including offices abroad.

Few Takers

Very few lawyers who are eligible for longer sabbaticals take them. Many simply cannot fathom life without work.

“It’s actually a surprisingly difficult step to cut yourself off from work, because most people who do what we do are very motivated about their jobs,” says David Gersch, an Arnold & Porter partner who recently took a six-month sabbatical. “You organize your life around your work, and in addition to everything else, it provides a social structure as well.”
 

Then there are financial considerations. In a tough year no one wants to lose contact with one’s clients for a few months, for fear of never getting them back. It has happened.

Even in good times many lawyers don’t want to give the impression that they don’t like the work, or can’t handle it. “If they take off time, they may be judged by their colleagues as needing time off,” says Lori Simon Gordon, who wrote Rest Assured: The Sabbatical Solution for Lawyers, published in 2002 by the American Bar Association. Gordon is loss prevention counsel for ALAS, Inc. of Chicago.

Some lawyers actually think their firms can’t endure without them. “There’s always the fantasy that you’re critical to whatever’s going on. You have got to give that up, the cherished notion that without you the entire edifice will crumble,” says Gersch. “I think that’s the fantasy we all have, that we are the indispensable ones.”

Benefit to Firms

 For firms, sabbaticals offer a way to attract new recruits and refresh the old ones.

“The practice of law in any manifestation is a stressful profession,” says Sandman. “[The sabbatical] allows people to recharge their batteries and maintain their enthusiasm and engagement at a higher level and longer than they might otherwise.”

Sabbaticals also help to institutionalize clients who may have previously been attached to one particular partner.

It takes careful planning to ensure that a lawyer’s sabbatical does not hurt a client relationship. “Many partners have relationships with clients, even if they have tried to institutionalize them, that are of a personal nature,” says Sandman. “You just need to be very careful that no client is adversely affected by a partner’s decision to take a sabbatical. If the partner has done the planning right, that won’t happen.”

Flexibility

 The first step to taking a sabbatical is realizing that you’re not indispensable. For instance, litigators often claim they can’t get away.

Gersch doesn’t buy it. “It’s idiosyncratical. I’m a litigator. Cases end,” he says. “If you’re a regular lawyer, your practice is more likely to deal with 10 clients in a day, each of whom has a 15-minute to one-hour matter. If you’re a litigator, you are more likely to have a smaller number of matters. You work more intensively. And when they’re over, they’re over.”
 

Of course, it helps if you work in a firm whose partners have a tradition of covering for one another during sabbatical. That tradition is strongest at the few firms in the nation that require sabbaticals of their partners. At firms where everyone takes a sabbatical, “the view of the partners, when someone is on sabbatical, about whether they’re going to pitch in and cover for their colleagues is different, because they know their time is going to come,” says Gordon.

The hardest part of planning a sabbatical is figuring how much time to take and when to go.

Gordon thinks it is unrealistic in today’s legal environment for most lawyers to plan to be away for six months or longer. “My sense is that three or four months is the max that most people can be away and still successfully transition back,” she says. Of course, she adds, “It depends on the relationship with clients.” And litigators who are between cases may be able to stay away longer.

 When William Lake, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, took his first sabbatical, the firm offered six months off at full pay. (That was reduced to three months at full pay in 2001.) Lake says he didn’t have a hard time going back to work. “You can debate both sides of that,” he says of the three-month policy. But the partners decided on less time “just on the theory that three months was long enough to get cobwebs out of your head, but not so long that you had trouble integrating back into the practice.”

Most firms require at least several months’ notice before a sabbatical can be taken. During that time partners are expected to arrange for other partners to take over their workloads.

It helps to be flexible. “You have to tell your clients that if they need you to come back, you’ll come back,” says Gersch. Then again, he could do that; he spent the bulk of his sabbatical at home. “I wasn’t going anyplace,” he says.

Gersch recalls that after his sabbatical started there was a problem with ongoing litigation for a major client. Gersch and one of his colleagues met with the client once or twice to strategize. “I came in and we discussed how it would be dealt with and the fact that I wasn’t going to be around in the short term. I wouldn’t call that heavy lifting. I didn’t write a brief or argue a motion,” he says.

Many firms expect partners to be somewhat available during sabbatical. Perkins Coie’s policy, for instance, specifically says the firm will pay daily parking fees to sabbatical takers who must return to the office for occasional work.

Family Too

 In addition to considering the needs of clients, lawyers have to consider their families. Since most lawyers must have five or more years’ tenure as partner before they can take a sabbatical, they are probably at least 40 by the time they are eligible. By then they are probably married. And in Washington, D.C., odds are they are married to other lawyers or policymakers with their own rigorous schedules. That was the case with most of the lawyers interviewed for this article. For these couples, a good time for one spouse to take a sabbatical is a bad time for the other.

Sandman experienced this problem. In 1988, when he was planning his sabbatical, his wife, Beth Mullin, was working as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency. At first, they planned to take the time together. They were going to rent a recreational vehicle and drive around the country. 

Then bad news for the sabbatical, but good news for Sandman and Mullin: she learned she was pregnant, and then she got promoted.

They decided to postpone the sabbatical indefinitely, until Sandman’s fateful drive home from work, when he realized he could take the time alone. He asked how she would feel if he used the sabbatical by himself, to care for their son. “She thought that would be a wonderful use of my sabbatical,” says Sandman.

Sometimes the only way to get married lawyers on sabbatical together is for one to take unpaid leave. That is how Bill Lake and his wife managed to spend his first sabbatical together, in 1984. (He has taken two.) His wife took unpaid leave so the whole family could live in Italy for six months.

Quality Time

 Almost all the lawyers interviewed were tempted to spend the whole time abroad. But few did, either because their spouses couldn’t get enough time off or because they didn’t think it was manageable with young children. So most of them ended up staying home, pursuing hobbies and spending more time with their children.

That is what Gersch did. His wife, Cathy Hoffman, a part-time partner at Arnold & Porter, was eligible for a sabbatical at the same time he was. But the couple decided that instead of taking one together, they would each go on sabbatical when one of their sons was ready to enter kindergarten. Gersch went first, taking six months off starting in July 2003, when his sons were five and two. He picked up his older son every day after kindergarten, and sprung the younger one from day care every Friday, so they could spend the day together. Other than that, he was free.

Gersch spent the first few weeks getting organized. Then he began packing his schedule with events: a week-long cooking “boot camp,” guitar lessons, sailing lessons, and a solo sailing vacation on Lake Champlain. He also made frequent trips to New York to help his mother, who was ill.

During the warmer months he often jogged in the mornings or biked in the afternoons. Wednesdays he volunteered at his older son’s school in the computer lab; Fridays he took a class with his younger son at the zoo, followed by a stop at the playground and, inevitably, lunch at his son’s favorite restaurant, Chicken Out.

For his next sabbatical, Gersch would prefer to get away, maybe drive around the country. But his stay at home did not disappoint. Among other things, he taught his older son to ride a bike. “I thought it was really special to be around while Ben was going to kindergarten. That was priceless,” he says. “And keeping Max home a day a week, that was also priceless.”

Darryl Jackson, another partner at Arnold & Porter, is also married to a lawyer who could not get away. His wife is Amy Jackson, a partner at Trout Cacheris PLLC. Although she had some flexibility at the firm, she was relatively new and could not leave for an extended period of time. So Jackson spent most of his nine-month sabbatical at home, with his sons, who were aged 10 and 12 at the time.

The planning was spare. Jackson knew he wanted to spend one month of the sabbatical on a family tour of several national parks, including Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Zion. His wife was able to join the family for that trip.

Other than that, Jackson tried to do what his sons wanted. The younger son wanted to go to London, so they spent a week together there, touring Big Ben, the Greenwich Royal Observatory, and Westminster Abbey.

His younger son had studied Lewis and Clark the year before; Jackson took him to Clarksville, Indiana, for the bicentennial celebration of the expedition. His older son likes aviation; Jackson took him to several air museums. He also made it to Gettysburg twice, once with each son, and to Philadelphia to see the Constitution.

When Jackson wasn’t doing something with his sons, “I would scour the newspapers for all the presentations and lectures that you always see but you can’t quite find time for,” he says. Among other things, he heard a rabbi give a lecture on good and evil. He also had dinner with his family every night for nine months.

The sabbatical solidified his relationship with his sons, while they were still young enough to want to spend time with him, as opposed to friends or girlfriends. “Relationships are based on spending time with people and getting to know them better, and that’s what this allowed me to do. There was definitely a broadening and a deepening of the relationship,” he says.

Jackson is glad the sabbatical lasted nine months, because it took him a few months to get into the groove of staying home. At three months, “I would have hated to think that it was half over,” he says.

 Mary Rose Hughes, a partner at Perkins Coie, spent almost her entire three-month sabbatical just getting into the swing of her new schedule. It was 1995. Her first idea was to go with her husband and four children, aged 8 to 14, to Bavaria, where they could all study German, her husband’s native language. But her three youngest sons didn’t want to leave their lives in suburbia. “They just wanted me to stay home and be a suburban mom,” says Hughes. “They just wanted me to drive carpool and be there with the folding chairs and the cooler for the soccer game. And I thought, you know what, I think that would be great.”

Except for maternity leave, Hughes had worked straight through the births of all four children. Part of her had always wondered if she should have stayed home.

Before the sabbatical, Hughes and her husband were able to work long hours because her in-laws lived in and, along with a full-time au pair, cared for their children. Hughes timed her sabbatical to start soon after the in-laws moved out; she let the au pair go. Suddenly she was in charge of meals, homework, science projects, after-school activities, overdue library books, and, of course, the carpool. 

Mornings she fed four kids and drove them to two schools. Then she came home to the sight of socks on the floor and “the detritus from breakfast.” At first she hoped to prepare fresh, gourmet dinners. She would spend all morning slicing and dicing, dash to the store for “some stupid spice” she couldn’t find in the cabinet, and then present her meal—to disappointed younger boys, who wanted pizza or macaroni and cheese.

As for personal time, there wasn’t any. Hughes signed up for golf lessons, but those succumbed to her children’s schedules. Cooking, yoga, and tennis never got off the ground.

“It was overwhelming. I was just not used to the challenge of running a household. . . . There were some days when my husband would come home early and I just could not turn around and face him. I would be standing in tears at the sink.”

Over three months Hughes gave up on her gourmet dinners, abandoned her goal of cleaning her closets, and fell into the groove of suburban-style stay-at-home motherhood. By the time August rolled around, “I had it down pat,” she says. Unfortunately, it was also time for her to go back to work. She extended her leave by tacking on one month of paid vacation, much of which her family spent at the beach.

It was hard, but worth it. “The rewards are so phenomenal,” says Hughes. She remembers that her 11-year-old son chose to hatch chickens as his science project. “Just to be there when your kid is checking the eggs for cracks every two hours, and to be there when the egg starts to crack and see the joy on this child’s face, and the tears when one of the chickens dies, and to be there when the project wins the blue ribbon—it’s something you just can’t recreate.” 

Changing Plans

 Like Sandman’s sabbatical, which morphed from roaming the country in an RV to a stint as Mr. Mom, many sabbaticals don’t turn out nearly as planned. 

Sometimes that is a good thing. Lake, for one, says that his original idea for his first sabbatical was to teach law school. “I had actually gone quite a ways down the road to arrange to teach for a semester at Stanford,” he recalls. “And then one night there was sort of an ‘aha.’ I was sitting around the table with my family and I thought, ‘That’s an awful lot like practicing law.’ ” Which was precisely what Lake wanted to avoid. “So we got out the map and decided to spend the year in Italy.” 

Soon after, they looked at what Lake calls a “big fancy catalog” of vacation houses for rent, and settled on a nice-looking brick farmhouse on a hill in an olive grove, in Pietrasanta, south of Florence. “We rented the farmhouse sight unseen,” based on one photo and a one-paragraph description, he says. “For all we knew, there could have been a railroad right behind it. But there wasn’t.”

Lake packed a duffel bag full of novels and literature he hadn’t gotten around to reading, including the Iliad. He and his family would spend mornings on the beach, and then he and his wife would leave the children behind with the babysitter and head to Florence for the afternoons and evenings, often with their teenage daughter in tow. “It was every bit as nice as it sounds,” he says. 

Lake is glad he didn’t teach. “For me, just a total change was wonderful. I didn’t even read legal novels. I just wanted to get the law totally out of my head. I loved it. . . . That’s just the kind of thing you should do on a sabbatical.”

Derailed

 Sometimes a well-planned sabbatical can be derailed by a spouse’s career, bad luck, or both. In these cases it takes a dedicated lawyer to salvage the vacation. That is what Amy Blumenberg faced in 1999, when she and her boyfriend were getting ready to take six months to a year off between jobs to cycle around the world. 

Blumenberg loved her job as an in-house attorney for Hitachi America, Ltd. in San Francisco. But she was determined to take several months off as a prelude to moving to Portland, Oregon, for a better quality of life, and starting a family. Her boyfriend of 15 years was a civil servant for the state of California.

The couple had planned to depart in February 2000. In November, while they were still pondering which route to take through South America, Blumenberg’s boyfriend received a major promotion; he was asked to serve as a political appointee. “It was just going to take his career to a whole different level,” says Blumenberg. “We decided together that he would do it.”

But she didn’t want to give up her leave. So they rejiggered. Instead of spending the entire time together, they would cycle together for four weeks, and then Blumenberg would spend a few months cycling without him.

That was the first major change. The next one came shortly after Blumenberg’s boyfriend had headed back home. One night in La Paz, Bolivia, she was mugged. She regained consciousness on the street without her money or passport. She flew home, not knowing how or if she would proceed.

Back in San Francisco, she considered resuming her South America trip. “But at that point, I realized, I wasn’t enjoying the cycling alone,” says Blumenberg. Even without the attack, “it was just so much harder. I was lugging a lot of stuff. And for me to get to a strange bus station at two in the morning in a small town and have to deal with getting my bike and four panniers on, and be worried about my personal safety and figuring out the way to the hotel—it wasn’t the trip I had planned. I was dealing with logistics all the time and it wasn’t relaxing.”

Then came another snag. Blumenberg’s landlord set plans to sell the flat she and her boyfriend had rented for seven years. So instead of cycling, she spent the next month packing and finding a new place to live.

It would have been easy to give up at that point, but Blumenberg didn’t. “I salvaged the year off. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let this bad experience keep me from enjoying this time that I set aside,’ ” she says.

After moving her belongings to a friend’s house, Blumenberg flew to Europe. She spent the next several months cycling in Sweden and Denmark with her teenage nephew and in Denmark and Germany with two Mexican cyclists she had met over the Internet; and then staying with a college friend who lived in Dijon, France. From Dijon she took day trips and just relaxed. “I loved it. It was just so much better for me” than the first part of her solo sabbatical, she says. 

Reentry

 In addition to a challenging sabbatical, Blumenberg faced a challenging reentry. When she and her boyfriend were planning their trip in late 1999, there were plenty of jobs in Portland, where they planned to move after coming back. In fact, Blumenberg turned down a job as a corporate staff attorney in Portland before she left because she was intent on completing her trip first.

But when she returned in late 2000, things had soured. Instead of stepping into full-time work in Portland, Blumenberg found herself working part-time as of counsel for a previous employer in San Francisco. Her boyfriend couldn’t find a comparable job in Portland. Blumenberg moved to Portland ahead of him in August 2001. Since then they bought a house, married, and had a baby, just as they had planned. Blumenberg now does part-time legal work (working part-time after giving birth was also part of her plan). But her husband continues to work in Sacramento, flying there every Tuesday morning, and back home every Thursday night.

Without the sabbatical, Blumenberg and her husband would probably have both found jobs in Portland. But one or both of them might have been laid off during the downturn. At any rate, Blumenberg has no regrets about her time off.

Nor is she shy about explaining the hiatus on her résumé. “As far as people saying, ‘Oh, you took a year off,’ I say, ‘Yes, I did. I planned for it.’ I think a lot of people look at that, saying, gee, they wish they had done something like that.” Blumenberg hasn’t encountered anyone who thinks a year off a blot against her career. If she did, “that’s probably not someone I want to be working for anyway. We probably have different ideas about work–life balance,” she says.

 John Payton, the Wilmer Cutler partner who in 2003 won the Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, also took a sabbatical between jobs. His return was much easier, though, because he was able to negotiate his new job with his former employer before he left. Also, he didn’t return during an economic downturn. But psychologically, the transition back was difficult.

In 1991 Payton had left Wilmer Cutler to become corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. During his three-year tenure he oversaw 200 attorneys and dealt with numerous problems including the Mount Pleasant riots. By 1994 Payton was ready to return to private practice. “Being corporation counsel is a sensational job where you’re dealing with huge public policy issues all the time. It’s fantastic,” he says. “But you burn out.”

Payton negotiated a new job at Wilmer Cutler, but didn’t want to start right away. His wife, Gay McDougall, executive director of Global Rights, a human rights organization based in Washington, was named a member of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission. As such, she would help run South Africa’s first free elections. Payton went along and served as an election observer. He traveled all over the country, reviewing the election preparations. A few months after the elections, he returned home.

His new job was nowhere near as exciting as what preceded it. “As far as the amount of public policy issues” facing a corporation counsel, “there’s nothing that compares in private practice,” he says. And “coming directly from the issues in South Africa, nothing is going to compare to that. The immediate job has got to be disappointing. You can’t do anything about that. That’s the nature of the job,” he says. “But after a while, you get into the rhythm.”

His new job did pick up. Six months after his return, Payton found himself busy on high-profile cases, including defending television network ABC from the defamation suit brought against it by Philip Morris. Then, in 1997, he began work on Gratz v. Bollinger.

No Return

 Though it is rare, some sabbatical takers don’t come back. That is the case with Mary Hartnett, who until recently was the executive director of the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program at Georgetown University Law Center. In 2002, when Hartnett was in her fourth year as executive director, her husband learned that he had an opportunity to work in the U.S. embassy in Latvia. The position would start in July 2003.

Hartnett was torn. “I loved my position. I wasn’t thinking it was time for a break. But I didn’t like the idea of being apart from him, either,” she says of her husband.

Although the fellowship program did not have a formal sabbatical program, Hartnett proposed a two-year, unpaid sabbatical, starting in January 2004. She had already lined up a candidate to replace her, a former program fellow who already knew the board. The board accepted.

Well in advance, Hartnett arranged a visiting professorship at the Riga Graduate School of Law. As she prepared to leave, she and a friend began mulling over a project: a biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It was something I really wanted to do. It was one of those chances of a lifetime. . . . It became a big part of how I was going to spend the next two years.”

Hartnett figured that she would teach part-time and finish the book by the time her sabbatical ended. But after her first full round of interviews with Justice Ginsburg last summer, she reconsidered. “I realized this was not a project that would be done in another year, or even two,” says Hartnett. “I think it’s going to be several years. I think even that’s ambitious, to be honest.”

Hartnett realized that if she waited until the end of her sabbatical to decide not to come back, the fellowship program would be run by a series of temporary directors. But if she left immediately, the program could get a new, permanent director right away. She decided to resign. “It was an extremely hard decision,” she says. She resigned in the fall of 2004, more than a year before her sabbatical was scheduled to end.

Lori Simon Gordon also didn’t come back. She was a partner at Latham & Watkins in Chicago when she began her seven-month sabbatical in 1995. She spent the time making jewelry and studying photography. As the end neared, she got permission to extend to one year. When that was up, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to return. She and the firm discussed ways to make reentry more appealing. “Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t right,” says Gordon. She resigned and spent almost another year off, traveling.

Gordon says even a two-year break has not hurt her résumé. Interviewers “thought it was extremely cool,” she says. She suggests that sabbatical takers ask prospective employers, “Wouldn’t you rather have someone who’s spirited and interesting and who craves life and can have a nice conversation,” rather than someone who has one or two more years doing what she has already done?

Second Sabbaticals

 Few lawyers have taken more than one sabbatical, but it does happen. Lake, for instance, took his second sabbatical in 1994, a decade after his first one. Only this time his wife, Morgan Hodgson, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, couldn’t get time off (she had already taken several leaves of absence over the years, and it was not a good time to take another). So Lake spent the three months at home with his daughter. He remembers feeling odd that he was the only male parent bringing his kid to swim practice. 

He had no trouble returning to work after three months. “Many legal matters have life that’s longer than three months, almost like one of these TV serials where you’ve missed 15 episodes but nothing’s really changed,” says Lake.

Lake used both sabbaticals as a chance to refine his practice area. On his return he had friendly conversations with the partners who covered for him. “If the partner handling it was happy,” and if the novelty had worn off, he says, “I was happy to have that continue.” 

All the lawyers interviewed for this article say their sabbaticals recharged them. But most lawyers never seriously consider sabbaticals because they seem risky and daunting. For the fearful, Payton has this advice: “I don’t know anyone who’s taken a sabbatical, or who’s taken a break like I did and done something quite different, who has any regrets at all. Not a single person. It’s always a hassle to work it out, the arrangements and all. But I don’t know a single person who has any regrets once they do.”

Joan Indiana Rigdon took two years off between jobs in the midnineties to bicycle around the world with her husband.

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