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How to get out of the office for a much-needed break

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//November 25, 2013//

How to get out of the office for a much-needed break

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//November 25, 2013//

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firstvacationsSome attorneys think they can’t afford to take vacations, but others argue they can’t afford not to.

“There’s always an excuse why you can’t do it,” said Nerino J. Petro Jr., an attorney and manager of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s law office management assistance program, Practice 411.

But family and personal time are important, he said, so lawyers need to “hang up the martyr syndrome and make time.”

“The world will not come to an end if you’re out of the office for a week,” Petro said, “but it does come down to planning.”

He acknowledged getting away can be especially challenging for solo attorneys “because you’re so focused on trying to keep money coming in the door you often believe and feel you can’t afford the time out of the office.”

Anthony Cotton, a criminal defense attorney with Kuchler & Cotton in Waukesha, said he can relate. After graduating law school in May 2005, Cotton spent about three years taking public defender and court appointed work.

“New attorneys survive on that,” Cotton said. “It’s $40 an hour, billing 40 hours a week. If you’re a solo practitioner and you make your living on public defender cases only — and there are a significant number of lawyers who fall into that category – your one-week vacation does cost you, because you just lost $1,600 worth of billable time.

“That’s your overhead, your WisLaw, your electric bill. And there’s no way to avoid that.”

But he still took time off, he said, “for my own sanity.”

It meant working weekends before he left. And even then, Cotton said, “I felt the financial hit a month or two after I took the vacation.”

These days, Cotton charges a flat fee for his services, which saves the pain of losing those billable hours, he said. He also has back up from his practice partner (and mother) Donna Jean Kuchler, as well as two associates, so clients aren’t lost if he’s not available to take a call or make an initial appearance.

How to get away

Struggling to get out of the office for a much-needed break? Here are some tips to help you get away:

If you live and die by the billable hour, consider setting money aside over time to cover your absence. Or, if you can manage it, work extra hours before you leave.

To avoid losing work while you are away, consider using an answering service or hire a temporary assistant. If you have staff members, let them work while you’re gone. They can help you stay caught up and screen calls.

If you’re a solo practitioner, develop a network of attorneys in similar situations. You can fill in for each other when you’re gone.

When planning your vacation, leave an extra day before and after you leave. Tell everyone else you’ll be out of the office. Use the time to wrap up loose ends before a trip and catch up on emails and voicemails once you get back.

Put it on your calendar. You schedule trials and depositions. Do the same thing for your vacation. Just tell the court you won’t be available, then don’t schedule anything during those dates.

If you’re worried about taking a week away, try a long weekend. If a long weekend worries you, start with a holiday. The court will be closed anyway. And the test run could help you mentally detach before you make a physical break from work.

But when you’re gone, be gone. Don’t take calls. Don’t check emails. Just enjoy your vacation.

Source: State Bar of Wisconsin Practice 411, law office management assistance program

Cotton also uses the increasingly popular “work from anywhere” method, made easier thanks to smartphones and international calling plans.

It’s a strategy Joshua D. Uller, a Milwaukee solo defense attorney, knows well.

“Even when I’m gone I’m reachable,” he said.

An attorney for eight years, Uller said he and his wife always have prioritized vacations, even when it cost him money at the office. On average, the California native said he gets away twice each year for one-week trips, often to visit family. He, his wife and their two young children also take long weekends.

“Because I work for myself, I’ve got flexibility to work when I want to work,” Uller said. “As long as it’s not a court appearance, it doesn’t matter whether I’m reviewing discovery during the week or on the weekends. Writing briefs can be done anytime from anywhere. I don’t really have to put in face time at the office.”

Still, the weeks leading up to a trip usually are pretty jammed, he said.

While he’s gone, Uller said he relies on a network of other solo practitioners to help with issues that just cannot wait, such as bond hearings. He handles other cases by informing the court that he won’t be available during certain dates. If a judge insists, Uller said he simply explains that he’s going to be out of state, and most judges understand.

But the process is not painless, he said.

“The work-life balance, it’s a tough job and, even for me, where I don’t have to meet X number of billable hours, it’s still stressful,” Uller said. “But it’s really important, at least from my perspective, to put a high priority on that work-life balance.”

Petro agreed.

“All the work in the world isn’t going to do you any good if you have a nervous breakdown or you’re dead,” he said. “We cannot stay on 24/7, 365 days a year, multiple years without something being negatively affected, whether it’s our health, whether it’s our well-being or whether it’s our ability to do something for our clients.”

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