To Look or Not to Look
With summer holiday season upon us, it makes sense to talk about work-life balance in the context of vacation.
Recently I have had a number of conversations with junior counsel around whether they should check emails, or even dive more substantively into files, while on vacation. This is a topic that lends itself to more than one perspective, so I have asked some of my senior LiL colleagues to weigh in. Before I turn it over to them, I will give you my perspective with a touch of history.
One of my mentors is now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia (the BCSC). When his kids were young, he took every August off and did not have any contact with work. It was almost impossible, if not impossible to reach him, but it worked. It worked for him, and it worked for his clients. I was often tasked with stick handling his files while he was away, and it was never too difficult to troubleshoot as his files were always in impeccable shape. This experience as a junior was impactful and is truly a good way to refresh – if your mind works that way. He never worried about what he left behind or what was in front of him. He had confidence that he could easily step back in where he left off. This capacity to shut off is admirable, and I know other lawyers who successfully take this same approach.
Me, I cannot do it. I cannot go more than a few days without checking emails despite the vacation alert on my email. I generally try not to do any specific file work, unless trials are looming, but if I don’t look at my emails the anxiety builds, and I cannot overcome the feeling of how overwhelmed I will be coming back to a day or two of just sorting through email. So, my approach is different from what I learned from the Chief Justice as a young lawyer.
I love getting up early on vacation. It is my favourite time of day, and after some physical exercise (yes -I exercise every day on vacation), I sit down to look at emails. It takes me 30 or so minutes, and I generally redirect questions to associates that I work with or my assistant. I try, and I think I am almost always successful, not to engage with clients directly or, again, work on files. This approach works for me because it lowers my level of anxiety and reassures me nothing is being lost in the deep abyss of an inbox, and I think it also gives clients comfort their file is not being ignored. I can then go on with my vacation day where I focus on my family. I rarely worry about work when I approach my vacation in this way, and it is ultimately a win for my family because they have my whole attention for the majority of my vacation.
This method works for me, but I understand it may not work for everyone, so I have asked Cynthia and Una to weigh in on their approaches to vacation and work.
As I have told my firm colleagues many times before, in my view, it is essential that lawyers of all levels take vacation on a regular basis. With everyone working more from home, that means ensuring that even a staycation provides a real mental break from work, with a level of connectivity that makes sense to you.
I have a similar vacation style as Kim (although I occasionally swap out my morning workout for an extended cup of tea, sitting in complete silence before my family wakes). Emails get checked every morning but I also usually check at the end of business before dinner. I typically tell my clients well in advance that I will be away. I find that they are very respectful of that time and do not reach out while I am away. This means that, if I get a client email that doesn’t start with “You don’t need to look at this until you are back”, I will respond and engage. Otherwise, I will be thinking all day of the client problem that precipitated their email, and not be able to relax.
I find that keeping on top of my emails is essential for my pre and post-vacation experience. I don’t want to start my vacation absolutely exhausted from working round the clock leading up to vacation, and I don’t want to spend my last two days of vacation, worrying about what is awaiting me on my return. Being able to redirect the emails to my team, and deal directly with any urgent client matters means that I enjoy the whole vacation with minimal disruption to my vacation day.
I want to be clear that I admire those that can completely unplug. A lawyer I know well recently took vacation removed their email from their phone and even deleted social media apps by which they keep up to date with the broader profession. If that works for you, I completely support it. I just cannot do it myself.
I find it quite interesting that I handle work emails while on vacation in almost exactly the same way as my colleagues, Kim and Cynthia. I am junior to both women, and we have similar, but not identical, practices.
When I was a very junior lawyer, I felt it was important for me to be both up to speed on a file and reachable while away, because I wanted to show senior partners how reliable and committed I was. I wanted to be at the ready to help, should the senior lawyer I was working with suddenly need to contact me about a file while I was on vacation. Of course, this was entirely unnecessary. Not once did any senior lawyer call on me to do anything while I was on vacation.
I maintained my holiday email checking habit as I became more senior. I still cannot not read my emails while on holidays. This, despite the fact that my files always involve more than one lawyer and there is always someone very capable back at the office monitoring each file.
Having read Kim’s and Cynthia’s comments, and realizing that I do the same, I wonder: Do I also continue to do this because I like to be organized and keep my emails manageable on return? Or, am I worried that if I am not “on” all of the time, I will somehow manage to lose a client, a file, or a relationship? Maybe for me, this behavior is more driven by the belief that I do not yet deserve to and cannot completely shut off without consequence, and less by hyper-organization and type-A-ness, from which I also suffer.
There are other ways to manage email in flow while on holidays. My assistant would be more than happy to delete junk emails, file away the ones I do not need to worry about, and keep only the most up-to-date email chain for me to review when I return. Yet, I do not ask her to do this. Instead, I read all of my emails as they come in. I may be in a tiny town in Eastern Europe at a wedding, but I know the carpet cleaners are coming into the office on Saturday. The vast majority of the actual client/file related emails that come in while I am away are not urgent. The urgent ones are dealt with by my colleagues. I am not really helping anyone by nodding along, deleting, and filing away emails while on my vacation. While this does give me a strange sense of accomplishment and control, to be honest, I would like get to a point in my career where I have the confidence to shut off completely, knowing that all will be fine on my return.
So far, I have rationalized the vacation email checking by the fact that every now and then, an important email does come through when I am away, and I am glad I got to it myself and quickly. I had a potential client contact me recently while I was in Mexico on spring break. The email was not file related – it was to chat about how we could work together in the future. I responded letting the person know I was away with my family, but could find time to meet over zoom, though my attire might be a little casual. We had a laugh (over email). The actual business meeting happened when I returned home, and that exchange, while I was on vacation, was a good ice breaker. I am glad this new client did not get my out of office reply. So, for those of us still in the building stages of our practices, I think the habit is a good one. One day, however, I would like to reach a stage where I can comfortably leave all devices at home and board a plane.
So, there you have it – three perspectives on staying connected while trying to unplug. The critical takeaway though, is that that no matter what, each of us needs to take a break. Disconnecting from work, and your email, is essential to restore your spirits, recharge your batteries and gain perspective. You just need to find what works for you so that you can take a break without fretting about files and fearing the overflowing inbox. Talk to your mentors, to your colleagues and other professionals to find out what works for them. And know that you’ll probably need to try a few different approaches before settling on one that allows you to achieve that balance you’ll need to be at the beach, cottage, tour-bus, or ski hill with your whole self.
About the Authors
Kimberly J. Jakeman, QC is a partner at Harper Grey and – in case this is your first time here – also the co-founder of Life in Law. Not only is Kim a skilled mediator, she also maintains a busy dual practice focused mainly on litigation in the area of medical malpractice, and regulatory work involving professionals facing disciplinary proceedings before a variety of regulatory bodies. Kim is almost as passionate about biking, her new love of surfing, and working out as she is about supporting women in the legal profession. A master of her own balancing act, when Kim isn’t busy with work, she spends coveted time with her family and friends.
Cynthia B. Kuehl is a senior Partner with Lerners LLP. A seasoned litigator with a skill set honed from years of actual on-her-feet experience and a common sense approach to problem-solving, Cynthia practices in a wide range of areas, including commercial litigation and arbitration, appellate advocacy, public and administrative law, professional regulation and health law. She has appeared as lead counsel at trials, applications, arbitrations and on appeals, and has litigated before every level of court including the Supreme Court of Canada. In addition to her leadership roles at the firm, she has been and continues to be an active leader in the legal and larger community.
Una Radoja is a partner with Harper Grey and is recognized as a leader of the next generation of Canadian lawyers. Una generously gives of her time and expertise for the betterment of the legal profession and the broader community. Passionate about making an impact, Una has joined a number of boards including that of Fertile Future working with them so that cancer patients fighting for their lives don’t lose out on future parenthood. As Chair of Harper Grey’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee, Una spearheads efforts to identify, enhance and implement best practices in all areas of diversity. Una vigorously acts and advocates to expand possibilities for women in law through mentorship and as co-founder of “Life in Law”.