Planning for a Leave of Absence
Life happens. Just because you’re building a business doesn’t mean that your personal life will necessarily take the back burner. The time may come when you will need to take some time off for maternity/paternity leave, to care for a sick or aged family member, or just for an extended vacation. The thought of leaving the ship unmanned may sound very scary, but by planning ahead a little, you can prepare yourself and your clients for your leave of absence.
Client Duties. Even when you’re needed somewhere else, you still have a duty to provide competent and thorough representation to your clients. This means that you’ll have to prepare a contingency plan for your absence. If you’re in a small firm with other attorneys, spread your client load out among your colleagues, if they are willing to help you out. You’ll need to inform the client that you have an upcoming leave of absence approaching and reassure them that someone will be taking care of their case while you’re out of the office. You’ll also need to get the attorney or attorneys who will be taking over for you up to speed on where each case sits, what may need to be done while you’re gone, and what can wait until you come back.
If you’re a solo practitioner, this becomes quite a bit more difficult. If you know you’ll need a leave well in advance, such as for maternity or paternity leave, consider accepting fewer cases approaching the time that you plan to be absent. With your clients’ permission, reach out to connections in your practice area to see if they would be willing to appear in court for you to get a continuance, or to step in for you otherwise if necessary. If this is not an option, embrace the reality that you cannot really turn your back on your clients and your obligations. Set up a custom voicemail and email response to inform your clients that you are away from the office, but will be periodically checking messages. Commit to addressing urgent concerns within 48 hours and handling routine matters upon your return. This will reassure your clients that, despite your temporary absence, their case is still on track.
Another consideration is any obligation that you may have to provide notice to the courts in your jurisdiction that you will be unavailable until a date certain.
Pay. If you work for yourself, it’s unlikely that you have the benefit of paid vacation days. You’ll also probably not be eligible for time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, or eligible for short-term disability benefit, unless you bought in to a plan before your medical condition arose. Consider if you’ll be paid while you’re out of the office and how exactly that will work, such as whether you’ll set aside money leading up to your absence or whether you will not take pay and rely on your personal savings.
Mail, etc. Life doesn’t stop just because you’re out of the office. And obviously when you get back to “real life” you’ll want to return to business as usual, which means taking on new cases, sending out marketing materials, and the like. If you’ve already got someone in your office who attends to these types of tasks, rely on them to keep the train running while you’re gone. If not, then you’ll need to find someone to fill this void. Perhaps a temp or student employee can help you by checking your mail, scanning in documents, and performing simple data entry.
While your business is important, it’s also important to take time off when you need it. Planning ahead can help you take a leave of absence without worrying about your business or your clients. Admittedly, it’s not always possible to plan these things out far in advance, so if you suddenly find yourself needing to step away from the office you know the types of tasks that you will need to delegate or address in order to focus your attention on your personal life.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success.