Everyone needs a break now and then. But do attorneys actually get to take them? When you’re paid by the billable hour, taking a vacation is simply cutting into the time you have to bill for the year (so in some ways, all attorney vacations are unpaid). And with worldwide, 24-hour connectivity and demanding clients/partners, no vacation is truly safe from interruption (a honeymoon was the only vacation that garnered near 100% respect at one of my old firms). On top of that, many associates don’t feel comfortable using all the vacation days they are allotted (which is generally 20 days at BigLaw firms).
In our recent survey of law firm associates, we asked “Do you feel comfortable using all of your vacation days?” Only 74% of respondents said that they do feel comfortable. And this number varied widely by office location. In New York, 82% of associates are comfortable taking their vacation days—the highest of any large market—while in Cleveland that number is a miserable 56%. Other above-average cities include Los Angeles (76%) and Boston (76%), DC (74%), San Francisco (74%) are right at the national average, and Chicago (70%), Atlanta (69%), Houston (68%), and Philadelphia (60%) are well below average.
Associates taking our survey also had a lot to say about vacation time at their firms, both good:
- “People are really understanding of personal commitments and are generally very respectful of vacation.”
- “High-level partners encourage associates to use their vacation.”
- “When I take vacation, my team goes out of their way to ensure that I am able to enjoy it, encouraging me not to answer emails or join phone calls.”
- “I remember I had some work come down when I was on my first vacation in Maui. When the associate above me found out that I was out of town, she refused to let me take the work. Even though it was an additional four hours for her, she said that the most important thing to her was that I enjoy my time away from the office. It was the best vacation of my life.”
- “You're on call most of the time and may end up with last minute/unexpected assignments that transform your day form a normal 8-hour one to a 12+ hour one. Most people work at least a few hours every weekend, too. The tradeoff is that partners and associates do respect vacations, and strongly encourage people to take vacations, so long as you make your plans well in advance to make sure you're not assigned projects that are due when you're away.”
- “There is lip service paid to encouraging balance and time off, but the pressure around still being present even when on vacation outweighs that by far.”
- “I wish we had a set vacation policy, as it is hard to plan days off when you do not work with any specific partner and do not know who to tell you will be out of the office.”
- “We don't get 'vacation days,' but are free to take off as long as we're hitting our hours and managing our caseloads. With a heavy caseload, however, it can be very difficult to find a chunk of 'free time' to take off, and it seems to be a standard expectation that your laptop travels with you (and that you be available) wherever you go.”
- “Keep in mind that ‘unlimited’ vacation often means no vacation. If we actually had defined vacation days, we'd probably have a better chance of being able to go on vacation. You have to be really aggressive if you want to take a real vacation—start early, remind the partners constantly, and stand your ground.”
So how do you know before you sign on at a firm whether you’ll be in the 74% of associates who get to take their vacation, rather than in the over-worked 26%? Well first, perhaps look in a big market. New York, LA, San Francisco, and DC all fared better for vacation use than smaller markets like Atlanta and Philly. Also, read Vault’s associate profiles. The comments above were all pulled from Vault law firm profiles, where you’ll get the inside scoop of how associates feel about many aspects of their firms, including whether the firm respects time off and personal endeavors outside of the office. And finally, ask. You can safely ask junior associate about this either in an interview or as an email follow up. Junior associates will generally be pretty honest about how they feel about vacation time and it’s not likely to raise red flags.
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