Being a lawyer is what I do and have been doing for the last 28 years. My formative years were spent in what was then considered a large firm in Alberta. Then 25 years ago, at a legal conference, I met the man who would become my partner in law and in life. Taking a major plunge, we decided to start our own firm.
Determined to limit partnership challenges, we chose not to take on other lawyers.
Until then, I took for granted the resources of a large firm. I had acquired experience in a narrow area of law, that of MURB litigation, a tax shelter from the 1970s. This left me knowing “very much about very little.”
Our new firm was a general practice firm, with my husband responsible for the barrister’s work, and I assisting him, as well as taking the solicitor’s work. Consequently, I found myself “knowing very little about very much.”
The challenges of establishing my own firm meant I dabbled in areas like accounting, technology, human resources, and public relations, for which I had limited expertise and limited resources to hire experts. I somehow managed to survive and thrive.
Over the coming months, I hope to share my coping strategies for running a small firm practice, starting with those related to taking a holiday.
Running a practice with my husband meant that taking holidays together resulted in no one minding the shop, something all sole practitioners can relate to.
The practice of law, in the private sector, is a demanding and taxing occupation. Doing so without the security of partners is even more so. Not having the opportunity to step back and recharge can be hazardous to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, that is exactly what we did the first few years, only once taking a two-week holiday for our honeymoon.
Looking back, I was not at my most efficient in those early years. For example, I remember getting up at the crack of dawn to drive 300 kilometres to an examination for discovery, only to repeat the process in the reverse direction at the end of the day, in rush hour traffic again, completely exhausted. I paid the price in productivity for days to come. I also began to dread the next obligation requiring me to leave my office.
Eventually, I realized that it need not be this way. On the contrary, commitments out of town were opportunities for a mini holiday. My staff had instructions to book any such mediation or examination on a Friday or Monday. The advent of new technology facilitated working at a distance as well as making travel arrangements.
Consequently, my husband and I started accompanying each other on our out-of-town assignments making them small and enjoyable getaways. Nowadays, with tools like the Airbnb web site (allowing you to rent anything from a room to a castle from its owner), travel accommodation is certainly within anyone’s reach.
An emergency request to fill in as a guide on a French wine tour made me realize firsthand the importance of taking a longer break. We all know we need to rest; the challenge is to find a way to do so while accommodating the practice.
While short breaks have some value, nothing provides an opportunity to properly rest and recharge as long breaks do. The first wine guide request led to another, and another, all of which were eagerly accepted. To my surprise, I started to notice a productivity improvement, despite increased absences from my office. The trick was to prepare the practice for my absence.
The following is a list of the strategies I have developed to “survive” my holidays.
1. Procrastination not allowed
One needs to leave a clear desk before going away to survive the return to work, as invariably new work will accumulate during one’s leave. Besides, paper left on one’s desk has a tendency to multiply in one’s absence.
2. Prepare your clients ahead of time
Warning clients of our unavailability is easier than ever. In addition to advance posting in your office of your upcoming holidays, e-mail signatures are another tool to warn clients, as are inserted notices in snail mail. These are also good strategies for office closures during regular holiday periods.
3. Train your staff to sort your mail
Having your mail chronologically piled is not as helpful as having it sorted using the four category rule: Urgent & Important, Urgent & Not Important, Not Urgent & Important, and lastly Not Urgent & Not Important (which ends up being a pile you can ignore all together if you are pressed for time). Also, all communications on the same file should be grouped together (while seemingly evident, staff disciples of the chronological stacking method may not appreciate this).
4. Give yourself breathing room
Having no client or court appearances on your first day back facilitates your return to work. It also reduces the “dreading to go back” factor that can creep up at the end of the holiday. This also gives you some leeway in case of unexpected travel delays.
Giving yourself an extra day in your vacation responder to reply to e-mails, may also alleviate the stress of the “first day back.”
5. Handling of e-mails
Of course it is easier to click on the delete button instead of going through the unsubscribe process. However, in the long run, unsubscribing does cut down on e-mails received. When a holiday is in sight, I become more diligent in eliminating unwanted traffic. Similarly, marking spam for what it is helps reduce the clutter as your e-mail software should eliminate future similar e-mails.
It is true that every time we answer an e-mail immediately upon receipt, we train the sender to expect immediate reply. While it may not be possible to completely disengage from one’s electronic devices, you may want to set a limit while you are away. For example, answer e-mails only once a day.
6. Use the tools you have
Just like we only use a small portion of our brain, many of us do not maximize the tools at hand. For example, Gmail will allow you to configure your inbox so promotions e-mails and social e-mails are kept in separate tabs, thereby decluttering your inbox.
7. Timing of holidays
Depending on one’s practice, there are times that are more conducive to taking holidays. Blocking time ahead is also useful in managing your staff and clients’ expectations. A midweek to midweek holiday may also work better for you. Be sure to reserve time at the beginning of the year, whether it be days or weeks, throughout the year. While you may end up using some of that time for emergencies, some of those days should end up being your own.
The important thing, above all, is to enjoy and make the most of your break no matter how short or long it is.
Pascale Daigneault is a former president of the Ontario Bar Association and a partner at Fleck Law, a small firm near Sarnia, Ont. She will be tackling issues facing small and sole firms in her monthly colum.