The clock is ticking down to sweet holiday freedom. You can practically smell your family’s home-cooked feast from your office, and the thought of abandoning billable hours for a day is making you giddy.
And then it happens—the most dreaded pre-holiday sound. Your office phone rings. You’ve been assigned to an emergency matter and must drop everything to help, including your holiday plans.
As many lawyers know, holiday work isn’t just a plot line to escalate the drama in movies. When a client calls, lawyers answer, regardless of the date. But that doesn’t make it any easier to miss out on time with friends and family. Below are some tips on navigating this tough situation.
Don’t Try to Rationalize It
If you’re experience is anything like mine, your non-lawyer family and friends just won’t understand how you could possibly have work on a holiday (or weekend or after 6 p.m.). It’s futile to try to explain “the why” to them, and your attempts will likely only be met with frustration and calls for you to quit or stand up to your boss. Instead, tell your loved ones that you are doing your best to complete the work so that you can be with them. And if you’re unable to make it, schedule another time to celebrate with them.
It’s hard not to complain—missing a holiday is a huge bummer. If you need to get out a few gripes, go for it, and then move on with the hopes that you can get your work done quickly and still make it for some of the festivities.
Weigh the Situation
Depending on your personality, you may be quick to accept or reject a holiday assignment. Before doing either, consider your history with the firm and your goals. If you’re somewhat of a newbie, still forging your path, and you’ve never been called upon in an emergency situation, saying “no” isn’t the best idea. It’s inevitable as a law firm associate that you’ll face an inconvenient assignment or two (or a hundred). If it’s your turn to take one for the team, it’s probably best to accept your fate. But if you are called on continuously while your peers aren’t, perhaps you could have a frank—but respectful—conversation with the assigning partner about other times that you’ve helped out and share your holiday plans with him or her. Of course, if you’re planning your exit soon and have no aspirations of partnership, you’re in a much better position to respectfully decline the work.
Call in a Favor
If the assignment is an isolated one that doesn’t require your specific expertise, and if this holiday is particularly important to you, consider calling in a favor. Perhaps you know that a fellow associate has zero holiday plans or doesn’t celebrate the holiday. With that associate’s permission, ask the assigning partner if the other associate could fill in for you and explain how important the holiday is to you. Make sure you thank that associate for helping, and pay it forward in the future. Also, it would behoove you to jump in the next time the assigning partner needs a volunteer to show that you’re a team player.
Take the Opportunity to Shine
If you get saddled with holiday work, use it to your advantage. The partners may be expecting resistance and probably feel terrible about keeping you from your friends and family. Make a bad situation better by having a positive attitude and doing your best work. The partners on the case will remember your attitude and the great work you produced despite the unfortunate circumstances.
Make the Best of It
You may not be able to spend your holiday exactly as you had hoped, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a total waste. If you’re stuck in the office—or worse, traveling—build your camaraderie with the others staffed on your case. Take a break and order in a special meal, share some holiday traditions, or just chit chat to cheer each other up. For many, co-workers are like an extended family. So if you must be stuck at the firm, at least you can enjoy each others’ company.
If you’re not locked in the office and are working remotely, enjoy the time that you do get with your friends and family. It may not be the exact day you had expected, but any time with them is better than nothing.
It probably goes without saying that you should focus and try to get your work done as quickly as possible. When I received an assignment on Christmas Eve as a junior associate, I put my head down and cranked it out with the goal of making it home in time for Christmas Eve dinner, and I succeeded. Resist the urge to sulk and complain about your misfortune—it’s a waste of time, and time is everything at this point. Figure out how to be as productive as possible with the goal of saving as much of your holiday as you can.
Being on call 24/7 as an associate is never easy. And while holiday work isn’t necessarily the norm, it can happen. Try to hold on to as much of that holiday spirit as you can, and do your best to stay positive and produce your best work in the most efficient way possible.
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