Unlimited Vacation Policies Can Be Bad For Associates

Before starting my own practice earlier this year, I worked at a number of law firms. Although each of those shops offered various job perks, all of them allowed attorneys to take time off for vacations. Each of the firms where I worked had a different vacation policy, and a few had unlimited vacation policies.

Under that kind of vacation policy, firms basically tell associates that they can take off as much time as they want so long as they meet their billable hour requirements and satisfy client expectations. At first blush, this might seem like a great perk, since this policy can afford associates greater flexibility and more vacation time than in other shops. However, law firms often have selfish reasons for instituting unlimited vacation policies.

One reason why firms might not want to give associates a set number of vacation days is because they do not want to pay attorneys for unused vacation time when they leave their jobs. Many firms, as well as companies in other industries, offer employees a set amount of vacation time, usually two to four weeks. Some firms even allow associates to roll over a certain number of unused vacation days from year to year. At a number of law firms (and companies in other industries), when an associate leaves, the attorney will be paid for any unused vacation time.

I worked at one firm that had such a policy, and paying associates for any unused vacation time gave attorneys a number of options. Associates could use their vacation days to take time off, or if they were like me, and did not prefer to go on vacations, they could pocket more money when they departed the firm. That system provides financial benefits to associates and, to the benefit of firms, may prevent attorneys from taking time off frivolously.

However, if firms do not designate a set number of vacation days to which each employee is entitled, they can completely sidestep the issue of paying for unused vacation time. As a result, firms can save a substantial amount of money by having an unlimited vacation policy. Accordingly, firms should not be given credit for having an unlimited vacation policy, since firms can realize significant financial benefits from such a policy.

In addition, having an unlimited vacation policy makes it difficult for associates to understand how much time they can take off in a given year, which may force attorneys to go on vacation less frequently. For instance, I once worked at a firm that did not pay attorneys for unused vacation time but guaranteed each attorney a set number of vacation days each year. Since the number of vacation days was established, people were encouraged to take time off to avoid missing out on this perk.

One time, I took off for nearly three weeks at the end of one year, since I had the vacation time, and I would lose the vacation days if I didn’t use them. I selected the last several weeks of the year to take off (since litigation is usually pretty slow around this time), and it felt great not being bothered and having so much time to myself. It goes without saying that attorneys at this firm had a better work-life balance than at other shops, mainly because the guidelines about vacation time were clear and respected.

However, if firms do not specify how much vacation time each attorney can take, it might be more difficult to assess how much vacation time is reasonable and what expectations are around the office. Ambiguous expectations may not only impact associates but also affect management. Indeed, partners I worked with at firms that had unlimited vacation policies did not respect vacation days as much as partners at firms that had set policies.

For instance, I had a friend — who worked with me at a firm which had an unlimited vacation policy — who needed to take two weeks or so off from work to go on a honeymoon. A two-week vacation is not a big deal at many firms, especially when a number of shops offer four weeks of paid vacation each year. However, a partner criticized the associate for taking so much time off and sternly reminded the attorney to make up for lost billable hours upon returning to the office. If this firm had a fixed vacation policy, the partner possibly would have respected the associate’s vacation time more and not given the attorney such a hard time for taking time off. When firms blur expectations about vacations and don’t establish clear rights when it comes to taking time off, it is much easier for managers to be harsh to attorneys for taking vacations.

In the end, some shops advertise unlimited vacation policies as a great perk, and it might be easy for associates to think that there are only benefits to such a policy. However, firms often institute such policies for selfish reasons, since firms can realize financial benefits from such policies, and not designating a set number of vacation days can make it difficult for associates to take time off.


Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at jordan@rothmanlawyer.com.

 

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