“There Are No Days Off … Only Days You Aren’t Billing”
“There are no days off. There are only days you aren’t billing.”
I can’t recall now who to ascribe this statement to, but I read it on Twitter a while ago. It immediately rang true. While the hours are often long for lawyers, the trouble is that even when you’re not working, it can be hard to turn things off. That’s a hard mindset to escape. An equally difficult and potentially destructive mindset is this: When you’re not working, shouldn’t you be?!
It’s the reason partners send out emails on holidays saying, “I know the staff has the day off, but where are all the lawyers?” If the email had been typed out by a younger generation of lawyer, it might have ended with, “Kidding, not kidding.” Instead, the notion can be inferred.
For my first three years of practice, I didn’t do any extracurricular writing. I wanted to. I’ve always enjoyed researching and writing. I had topics in mind I wanted to write about. In fact, I first started researching my eventual article “Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statutes” in 2012. I didn’t finish writing it and have it published until 2015. The reason for the extended hiatus from writing? I had a hard time justifying doing the work of thinking and writing when it wasn’t being billed to clients. But I wasn’t considering the cost.
The Cost of Not Taking Days Off
The costs of not taking time off work are high. According to a Business Insider article from 2015, 42% of Americans reported not taking a single paid day off work. On average this results in people doing about $750 worth of “free” labor for their employer because of the paid time off benefits that are available. But even more than the personal consequences, there are huge effects on the economy as a result of unused paid time off. Oxford Economics found, following its 2014 study, that if Americans used all of their paid time-off benefits, the result would be an additional $67 billion in travel spending, which indirectly translates into an additional 1.2 million U.S. jobs and the creation of an additional $52 billion in income earned.
Studies have also shown that Americans are taking fewer vacation days now than any time in the last forty years. Not taking time off results in decreased productivity. In interviews performed by the U.S. Travel Association, people responded that they were afraid to take time off because they may be marked as a slacker or uncommitted to work and may be more likely to be laid off.
And those studies are all from “normal” workplace environments, which I dare say a law firm is not. I conducted informal polls on Twitter and LawyerSmack that looked like this:
- Does your firm have a set number of vacation days attorneys are allowed?
- Attorneys are discouraged from taking days off (14%)
- Attorneys do not have a set number of days off (52%)
- 7-14 days/yr (17%)
- 14-28 days/yr (17%)
Please don’t miss this: 14% of responding lawyers said they worked at places that discouraged them from taking time off. Consider these varying experiences from some of the folks on LawyerSmack:
“My boss takes a ton of vacation but is not a fan of us taking any really. He lets us but also grumbles. When I got back from my honeymoon, he told me, “You’re going to be so busy over the next few days catching up, you’ll realize the vacation wasn’t worth it. Which of course wasn’t even remotely true.”
“I (currently) get four weeks, plus I can theoretically get more if I work “excessive” hours, but it’s about 1 hour leave per 3.5 hours work over our base. We’re encouraged to take our leave, but I always end up with about an extra week each year, which so far I’ve used to extend the time I’ve taken after each of our kids were born.”
“I give myself a week off whenever I feel overwhelmed. ;)”
Personally, I’ve heard partners say to associates: “I don’t understand y’all taking an entire week off work. That’s not the way I was brought up.” Of course, the direct (and intended) result of this is associates taking fewer days off work and feeling guilty about the limited time they do take off work. And mind you, most of us are able to work remotely, so time away from the office and on vacation rarely means that we are entirely disconnected from work anyway.
The costs in productivity aren’t attributable only to the time away from work (or not) but also to the number of hours spent at work. After a certain point, the amount of time spent at work has an inverse relationship to productivity. The Economist has reported when people work 50 hours per week or more — not uncommon for many attorneys — productivity output rises at a decreasing rate and output per hour begins to fall off. By the same study, the hours worked beyond 56 hours per work are almost entirely unproductive, resulting in a great deal of waste. Unfortunately, this study does not consider the service sector, which includes us.
But the natural corollary is this: if you’re billing clients for 70 hours per week, then you are billing them for about 14 hours of unproductive waste. Therein lies the problem with the billable hour. There is little motivation to work less when there is work to be done, regardless of the efficiency rate at which the work is performed.
The Benefits of Taking Time Off Work
According to a CNN article, researches have found that workers are 80% more productive after returning from vacation and had reaction times that were increased by 40%. Workers who use vacation days are statistically more likely to get raises and bonuses. In interviewing people for his book How to Succeed in Business Without Working So Damn Hard, Robert Kriegel discovered the best ideas most people ever had came to them when they were away from work. I could go on for a while listing out the benefits of taking days off. There are lots of data on the subject, but instead, I’ll end on an anecdote.
Over Thanksgiving, I did something I’d not done in more than five years of practice. The six months have been the busiest of my career. So for four days, I didn’t bill any time. Not a single 0.1. I finished some projects around the house. I wrote several blog posts. I put effort into some other projects. But I didn’t log in to work at all. It was incredibly gratifying. If you haven’t taken any time off work lately, consider it.
Photo by Serguei Mourachov.