Often, when talking with lawyers about retirement, I’ve encouraged them to take a two-week “staycation.” Avoid the office and work for two weeks, but not while lounging on a Caribbean beach. Instead, stay home, deal with the mundane, and experience days with no plans or commitments.
Then I took a sabbatical and I have new advice to offer: Try easing into retirement with a sabbatical.
While many university systems offer sabbaticals, they are less prevalent in corporate America and, except for a few Biglaw firms, almost nonexistent in law.
Here are five reasons a sabbatical can help you assess retirement and begin to consider life after law.
In 2019, my company implemented a sabbatical policy with each eligible employee allowed four to five weeks paid sabbatical time, every seven years. An important component of the policy is that one week of sabbatical leave must be devoted to professional development or service to the community.
My sabbatical began in late September and lasted five weeks. I spent three days in leadership training and two days volunteering in my community. The big finale was a trip to Italy. My husband and I traveled to Florence and Tuscany for 11 days, which included a weeklong cooking school in Tuscany. It was our first trip to Italy, and the perfect sabbatical trip. It was far enough away that I felt comfortable telling people I was unavailable, and the nature of the trip was both educational and restorative.
The Case for a Sabbatical
1. Managing the Work
Preparing to be out of the office for a vacation or conference requires plenty of planning. Preparing to be out for an extended period of weeks or months requires planning on steroids. However, during my sabbatical, everyone in my circle went out of their way to assist. My work colleagues Sharon and Mark lightened my load as well. Sharon assisted by monitoring my phone calls, email, snail-mail, and calendar requests. Mark agreed to handle calls from clients and potential clients. Knowing I had support in the office made it much easier to be away. Having the assistance also made re-entry easier knowing I wasn’t going to find a client who felt forgotten. Preparing for your sabbatical is a great exercise for planning for your transition into retirement.
2. Succession Planning
An unexpected benefit may be that the interim leaders who step in while you are on sabbatical might identify your successor. If you are a solo practitioner, you might need to designate an “assisting attorney” to handle emergency matters for clients. Talking with another solo or a firm about helping in this capacity may lead to conversations about long-term solutions.
3. Business Innovation
In a study of nonprofit sabbatical programs, researchers found that the time away allowed leaders to generate new ideas for innovating in their organization. “Wait,” you say, “why do I care about innovation if I’m considering retirement?” If you plan to transfer ownership to a next-generation leader, you want the organization in tiptop shape. And innovating at this stage of your career could be the creative spark that gives you more passion for your remaining years in practice.
4. Leadership Training
You can also use your sabbatical as a time of leadership development for up-and-coming firm leaders. You might see interim leaders continuing in the responsibilities they added during the time you were away. This process will begin a transfer of knowledge and management skills that will ease your retirement as interim leaders test-drive leadership roles.
One purpose of taking sabbatical is to be relieved of regular duties in order to focus on things outside the normal routine. In the academic world, a sabbatical from teaching might find a professor traveling for research or completing a large writing project. In your circumstance, the aim would instead be to focus on planning for your future outside of the law.
Your goal in sabbatical will be to imagine if this designated period of time can turn into your future. Can you see yourself outside of the law office and without the constant client needs? For me, using my phone as a camera rather than a constant tether to work felt freeing. I anticipate you will experience some of the same pleasure.
Consider Your Own Sabbatical
Too often in law, we live unbalanced lives. We give more attention to our professional pursuits and serving client needs than to taking care of ourselves. While a sabbatical should be beneficial in the short term, a sabbatical may also be a great way to assess your readiness for retirement. Try it for yourself.
Related reading …
“Prepare Yourself for a Happy Retirement” by Ida Abbott
“Five Reasons Lawyers Avoid Retirement” by Camille Stell
“Your Boomer Retirement Problem Won’t Just Fade Away” by Ida Abbott
“Saving for Retirement While Running Your Practice” by Ryan McPherson
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