Q. As we head to the beach for a two-week vacation, my wife and kids want me to leave my cell phone behind so I won't be distracted with client calls. Is this a good idea?
A. Taking a well-deserved respite from law practice is a very good idea. The time away will let you decompress, avoid job burnout, and reconnect with the family that you may have neglected during that hectic divorce trial. And, if you don't want to trigger a divorce of your own, you shouldn't plan to take your work with you.
Yet, even if you flee the jurisdiction, a lawyer in paradise remains subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct. While we aren't required to be on call 24/7/365, we are required to "promptly comply with reasonable requests for information." Most clients can live without us for a couple of weeks, but unless we want to come home to a grievance, a little bit of planning can go a long way to helping your clients relax during your time away.
➤ Set Boundaries — let your clients know when you will be on vacation with limited or unreliable access to email and other means of communication. If they don't already have your cell phone number, this would not be a good time to give it to them unless there really is an urgent matter that you must address during your time away.
➤ Designate an Attorney to Contact in Your Absence — like medical doctors, we can't always control when a crisis may require more immediate attention. If you practice in a firm with other lawyers, it will be relatively easy to prepare them on any pressing matters and let them determine the need for your personal attention. If you're a sole practitioner, a well-trained office assistant may be able to screen the calls to do the same.
➤ Record Vacation Voice Mail Greetings — before you leave, record a voice mail to inform clients that you are out of the office and on vacation. The greeting should let clients know when you will be returning to the office and reassure them that you will return their call promptly thereafter. Your message should leave instructions on whom the client should contact in case of a true emergency. This will help clients with a time line for your return, while setting appropriate boundaries and expectations.
➤ Set Your Out-of-Office Email Message — like your voice mail, those who email you should receive an automatic reply with the same information and instructions. Many lawyers state that they are "out of the office," but refrain from stating that they will be "on vacation" because it somehow detracts from their aura of dedication to client service. This is nonsense. Let your clients, opposing counsel and others know that you are human and need your time away.
In this day and age, it's easy to take the office with you wherever you go. That may make it easy to respond to client emergencies, but it makes it harder to recharge your batteries and resist the temptation to check your cell phone and email throughout your trip.
Do I practice what I preach? In younger years, I always took my work with me. Today, I enjoy my time away with minimal interruption. However, when I have a suitable connection, I do check my email twice a day to ensure that I can respond to clients who, for whatever reason, simply cannot wait for my return. Given the nature of my practice, I often encounter lawyers in crisis for whom two weeks away is an eternity. Limiting my calls, I can usually take a moment or two to offer some reassurance that let's us both relax until my return.
One could say that legal ethics never takes a holiday. But to serve our clients well in the long run, lawyers must do so the right way.