“There’s a tendency in the legal industry to feel like you’re replaceable.”
For burned out lawyers, taking a longer break from work offers opportunity for personal and professional rejuvenation.
Commercial lawyer Corinne Whelan has twice done something in her short career that many practitioners never manage in an entire working lifetime: take a sabbatical. The first, a six-month break from work, was borne out of necessity after her mother died.
“I kept going for a year before I had a moment where I realised I needed to take time to look after myself and my family,” says Whelan, who is now practice leader at Legal Vision in her seventh year in the profession.
“I needed to deal with my emotions and have some time to rest, look after my mental health and deal with some stuff that was going on with my dad.”
Fast forward several years and Whelan has just returned from her second sabbatical, which was, thankfully, inspired by a happier set of circumstances. “I went to Indonesia for two months,” she says, explaining that the firm’s working holiday policy allowed her to choose how to use the time.
“I took two weeks off and travelled with a group of friends and my husband. Afterwards, we stayed at a resort in Bali that had a co-working space and library where I worked and ran my team remotely.”
Sabbaticals are nothing new, with deep religious and academic roots. But in the post-pandemic age of burnout, hybrid work and reassessment of the interplay between career and life, sabbaticals are becoming increasingly more common. Whether it’s to travel, study, enjoy new experiences or simply rest, many Australians are taking time out from work.
For lawyers, sabbaticals are no longer the preserve of senior partners who take a couple of months off after years of hard slog. Despite some reticence, there is increasing flexibility in the how, why and when of contemporary career breaks. And when it’s time to return to work, the benefits of time to rest and recharge can benefit both lawyer and firm.
Taking a break from the day-to-day
A sabbatical – also dubbed a career break or adult gap year – is typically understood as an extended period of leave from your regular job. Since McDonalds became the first US-based company to offer sabbaticals in 1977, the concept has expanded to cover an estimated 20 per cent of organisations across the country.
In Australia, sabbaticals may coincide with formal long service leave entitlements. But arrangements are more likely to be informal and unpaid, especially in law, explains Laura Lal, private practice recruitment director at legal industry specialist Montgomery Advisory.
“It can be anywhere from one or two months to one year – typically, it’s a few months. It has to work with the firm and the team,” says Lal, who recently returned to work following a nine-week sabbatical travelling and visiting family overseas.
After the rigours of the pandemic, sabbaticals are becoming a more accepted part of modern work culture; an antidote to the overwork lawyers have experienced during the last few years and an opportunity to rest and recharge.
Notably, early career lawyers as well as longer serving partners and senior practitioners are drawn to extended periods away from work. The 2023 State of the Future of Work report found 50 per cent of workers aged 25 to 55 report burnout, and rates among lawyers may be as high as two in three.
“We’ve spoken to quite a few people who have taken sabbaticals,” Lal says. “It’s somewhat common and popular, especially post-pandemic following the feelings of burnout and general desire to travel many people have experienced.”
Taking a sabbatical can also provide opportunities for professional development and career revitalisation.
“If someone is practising in a different jurisdiction overseas, that is something they can bring back to the firm. Further study is something else that you can use to promote your expertise in a particular area,” says Dr Kay Wilson, a postdoctoral research fellow at Melbourne Law School and co-convener of the Disability Law Network at the University of Melbourne.
“Firms are being bit more supportive of the idea that people might go off and do other things and come back, and that’s a good thing.”
Preserving your mental health is really important… It’s important for you personally, especially so you don’t burn out over time, as well as your productivity in the workplace.
Transforming your approach to work
With trends like quiet quitting and the great resignation taking hold, along with general work-related malaise, sabbaticals are emerging as a powerful panacea.
A recent study by research organisation The Sabbabical Project that interviewed people working across diverse sectors, including consulting and finance, found sabbaticals lead to largely positive and transformative changes in work and life. In particular, time away from the day-to-day grind can restore enthusiasm for work and foster better work-life integration.
“Preserving your mental health is really important,” Wilson says. “It’s important for you personally, especially so you don’t burn out over time, as well as your productivity in the workplace.”
Dimity Brown, an executive coach to lawyers and a practising lawyer, says sabbaticals can help to reverse the effects of chronic stress and enhance professional output. She cites the Yerkes-Dodson law, which posits that an optimal level of stress results in optimal performance – while too much stress can hamper performance.
“We lawyers need stress and challenge to stay engaged and perform well because we’re very ambitious and we love to learn new things. But if our stress levels get so high, or they’re maintained for so long, that our internal resources are used up, our performance goes down,” she says.
Taking a break allows time to refresh and return the sweet spot for achieving optimal output. “Olympians don’t train at 100 per cent for 15 years expecting to be ready for a gold-medal performance – they build in rest breaks to allow their performance to get to where they want to be at the right time,” Brown says.
“We lawyers don’t think of ourselves like that. We often think of ourselves as robots who can continue in a high-stress environment forever, and then all of a sudden, we realise we’re in burnout.
“If we think of ourselves more as corporate athletes who need to build in time to regenerate, your career and your performance is going to be sustainable for the long term.”
The more people who approach their firm, and the more success stories there are, the more lawyers will feel comfortable to ask for a sabbatical.
A reward for a select few
There are clear benefits for firms of cultivating engaged, mentally healthy teams – improved productivity and better retention, in particular – but not everyone has their request for a sabbatical approved.
“It often comes down to whether the firm, for want of a better phrase, rates that lawyer,” Lal says. “If it’s someone who’s a high-performing lawyer and integral to the team, then they are more likely to be accommodating about the sabbatical, rather than if it’s someone who hasn’t been performing as well.”
Whelan says she was able to take her first sabbatical in part because she was a “hard worker”, and that taking a substantial amount of time off work “can be used against you”.
“I was lucky that the firms I worked at in both instances have been relatively flexible and understanding of my circumstances, but I have a lot of friends in the industry that I don’t know would feel the same level of support or confidence in asking for this,” Whelan says.
“There’s a tendency in the legal industry to feel like you’re replaceable.”
Wilson agrees that sabbaticals can feel like an intimidating prospect for many lawyers. “The rewards tend to go to those people who are there doing the work, day in and day out. From that perspective, if you’re not there, things can happen.”
As for taking a sabbatical in between jobs, which Lal says is common among lawyers, there’s lingering evidence that recruiters may view extended time off with some reluctance.
A 2022 LinkedIn survey of nearly 23,000 workers and 7,000 hiring managers found that even with sabbaticals becoming more popular, some employers are still hesitant to pursue those who have taken a break, with one in five hiring managers saying they outright reject such candidates.
But when your expertise is in demand, Lal says, a sabbatical on your CV is likely to be overlooked. “If you are a high-performing lawyer with good grades and you have taken a few months to a year off and you have been practicing in an area that is typically highly sought after, coming back into the market after taking some time off, for whatever reason, generally won’t be too much of an issue,” she says.
“A law firm will view that as you’ve got a great experience, you wanted to take that time off for whatever reason, but they really need good people like you.”
We have a very long life to live and no one’s going to be with you on your deathbed saying that you were an amazing billing machine. It’s important to be a whole person, and not just to focus on work.
Planning ahead for your sabbatical
For lawyers returning to the same firm or looking to negotiate a sabbatical with a current employer, Lal recommends preparing well in advance.
“Raise it with your partner or HR department, and work with them to pick a suitable time for yourself and the firm,” she says. “The more people who approach their firm, and the more success stories there are, the more lawyers will feel comfortable to ask for a sabbatical.”
Whelan says it’s important to provide strategies for dealing with your workload in your absence. “For my first sabbatical, I had to find someone to fill my role, train them up to do my job and give them a handover. It was a similar situation when I was in Indonesia recently with prepping my team in terms of how they could contact me, my working hours and how I would be working,” she says.
To reduce worry – yours or your firm’s – that you’ll miss key changes in the law or other industry happenings, Brown suggests keeping in touch while you’re away and being ready for a catch-up period on your return. “Be mentally ready for that push to have to do that,” she says.
Maintaining your networks is also crucial. “Try to keep connections with people in the industry while you’re away, especially if you’re worried about not knowing anyone in the industry or not being able to find a job in the future. This will make life much easier when you return to work,” Brown says.
Ultimately, she says, think about the prospect of taking a sabbatical within the context of your life as a whole – not just your career.
“We have a very long life to live and no one’s going to be with you on your deathbed saying that you were an amazing billing machine,” Brown says. “It’s important to be a whole person, and not just to focus on work.”