The Stages Of a Lawyer’s Vacation

Is there any day more relaxing than the Wednesday of vacation week? What if every day of vacation could be like that?

By Marc E. Gustafson

As we enter the post-Fourth of July dog days of summer, many of us are either just returning from vacation, leaving soon for a vacation or daydreaming about an upcoming vacation.  After recently returning from an annual “vacation” at the beach with my family and some friends (and I say “vacation” because we have 4- and 6-year-old boys), I spent some time thinking about the various stages of my time away.

Stage 1: Preparing to Leave Work Behind

The first stage begins even before vacation starts.  Undoubtedly, there is the mad rush of deadlines, scrambling to get projects to the stage where they can safely lie dormant for at least a week and trying to avoid calls/emails/incoming work that could completely upend your vacation plans.

If you can safely navigate away from the office without any major events, you can start to relax.  Well, maybe start to start to relax.  As most vacations begin on a Saturday or Sunday, there’s the rush of travel involving luggage, cars, airplanes, shuttles, boats and maybe all the above.

Stage 2: Trying My Best to Disengage

Then there’s Monday.  The day when it seems the rest of the World has woken up and decided to immediately start sending emails.  Monday and Tuesday, if you’re anything like me, are usually spent trying to break away from the seemingly impossible to break connection with the working world brought on by cellular phones, laptops, Wi-Fi and (let’s be honest) our own sense of self-importance.

Stage 3: Vacation Mode “ON”

By Wednesday, you can actually relax.  For me, Wednesday is probably the peak of my relaxed state. And if I’m lucky, that may just stretch into Thursday.  It’s that sweet spot when I’m pleasant to be around.  Where I am full of energy and ready to take on just about anything the boys have to throw at me.

Stage 4: “The End”

By Friday, just about the time I can’t build another sandcastle, my wife has spotted what she thinks is the fifth shark circling our boys in the knee-deep surf and the relaxed bedtime has turned our children into something just short of gremlins, it’s time to start thinking about, planning for and likely even dreading the upcoming work week.

Saturday is a travel day and Sunday may even be the best day of the vacation, realizing there is nothing you can do to stop the hands of time and the impending doom of Monday morning.

Stage 5: Getting Back in the Game

Then there’s the Monday hangover, which is made worse by that feeling of not being able to catch up with the overhang of emails, despite your best efforts to delete as many as possible on your iPhone but somehow still returning to 185 that need your immediate attention.

Much of this is in jest, but I am sure that many of you can relate to at least some portion of this timeline of consternation.  Just typing this makes me wonder if it’s even worth it.  Of course, it is. But surely we can all do a better job of actually trying to relax and recover during our vacations.

Strategies for Maximizing Your Vacation

The following are just a few of the strategies I have tried to employ.  Some come from personal reflection, others come from a sense of self-preservation and yet others result of unveiled threats from my wife.

I used to joke that when I was working in Big Law that I would prop my carry-on against my door to signal to partners that I was headed out of town in hopes they would not drop that Friday afternoon research project on my desk.  Okay, I half-joked about this, and that’s partly because it never worked.

I do think, however, that there is value in letting others – colleagues, opposing counsel, judges – know that you are headed out of town.  Securing leave with the court is one way of doing this.  And while I’ve considered a pre-out-of-office message, I do think that including your intention to be away in emails can help to start to create some space for you to relax both before and during your vacation.

When it comes to out-of-office messages, I have started being jokingly frank with email senders.  My last message said, “Thanks for your email. I am at the beach with our boys (they’ll be trying to avoid the sharks, and I’ll be trying to avoid work).”  I have found that people appreciate this, can relate to my dilemma and will respect my time away.

For the unavoidable crisis, I have found there is no replacement for truly understanding and compassionate co-workers.  But for this to work, it must be a two-way street.  Now, when colleagues talk about vacations or let me know they will be gone for a week as they walk out the door, I try to make a sincere offer to help in any way I can.  Let’s be serious: as unique as we believe our own legal skills may be, the reality is that being in a firm of like-minded and similarly adept attorneys means that clients can be reassured, fires can be put out and the legal machine will continue to function despite our absence from the office.

Now, straying into the metaphysical for just a bit, I think some real value can be derived from taking some intentional time at the very start of your vacation to try to center yourself.  My wife and I have tried to do this, not through hot yoga or a couples’ massage but simply by slowing down enough to have our first meal on vacation at our home base, whether that’s our rental or the hotel restaurant. But it also means some downtime. Time to just do nothing.

Jane would also tell you that it’s best for us all if I exercise on our vacation.  For me, that can be a mountain bike or a run.  As our boys have gotten old enough that we can comfortably leave them with someone else, we’ve started taking hikes together. If we ski, we try to take a day where we start late, enjoy a glass of champagne over brunch and finish early.

It never fails that my peak consumption of caffeine seems to come right before vacation as I’m searching for every bit of energy to power through everything that needs to be done to get out the office door.  I’ve taken the past few vacations as an opportunity to detox, to go caffeine free.  For you (and for me), this could mean eating better or consuming less alcohol. But in our increasingly stressful lives, it seems like giving our bodies a rest means more than just sleeping in (oh, do I dream of the days where there is no 5 a.m. wake-up by a two-legged friend).

Finally, I think our profession needs to take on a different view of vacations. Not as a time away, or few billable hours worked, but as a time for ourselves and our families.  There should be no guilt about being away.  In fact, I believe we are better lawyers and better people when we take time for ourselves.  But we all need the time away.  Afterall, all of those jokes about lawyers and sharks would lose their punch lines if we all stopped going to the beach.

Marc Gustafson is a partner at Bell Davis Pitt in Charlotte. His practice focuses on complex commercial and employment litigation. Marc is also a certified mediator.