Sabbaticals: Taking + Offering Them – The Market View

Does the law firm or company you work for offer sabbaticals, and if so, under what conditions? More broadly, do you think they’re ‘a good idea’? Artificial Lawyer asked a range of people across the market for their views. Here is what they said.

First, some context. The word ‘sabbatical’ can trace its roots back to the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah, i.e. after six years of farming a field you should give it a rest. Today, it refers to an extended period, from about six months to a year, where you take time off from the day job and do something else.

That’s the simple bit, after this it gets complicated. What are you meant to do during this time? Travel to somewhere exotic? Finally get some sleep? Or do some totally different type of work, such as write a book, learn a new language, or conduct research in a field far outside of what your employer may want you to do?

Will the sabbatical be paid by your employer, or will you have to fund it? How do you qualify for one? And when you come back, what then? Plus, as Noah Waisberg notes below, where do you draw the line between taking some time off work to get a breather and going off on sabbatical where you really leave the business world behind completely for a while?

Then there are the deeper questions: how does this help the person doing this other than by recovering from years of hard work? How does this help the business that supports such programmes? Is this primarily about personal development?

And last thing, can all businesses do this? A small start-up whose CTO wanted a year off would face some serious challenges, not just in affording it, but in the disruption it would cause. Clearly, you usually need to have some scale to be able to do this.

That said, one could argue that taking extended time off from a day job is as close to a human right as parental leave, given the powerful benefits it brings to a person. Moreover, refreshed, recharged staff, with new ideas and perspectives could be tremendously valuable to a business. So, this is not just about ‘having some time off to rest’, or even about avoiding burn out – a sabbatical could increase value creation in your business.

Others may say that if you want a year off, then just quit and then maybe if there is an opening you can reapply for your job. And as Mary O’Carroll noted, when she worked at Google some people would take a sabbatical and then resign upon returning. While some law firms that push their associates to hit 2,500-plus billable hours a year and are unsure why weekends exist, may scratch their heads at even the thought of taking such a massive break from work.

As you can see, there’s a lot here to explore and it goes right to the core of what work is all about and what values we want to live by, personally and as an organisation. Below are several views on the subject from across the market, divided between: Yes; No; and No, But….

Yes

Lucy Shurwood, Partner, Pinsent Masons

‘Yes, we do offer sabbaticals to partners who meet eligibility criteria (generally based on length of time they have been a partner). For other staff, we offer a career break policy allowing a break of up to 12 months after 1 year’s continuous service.

I haven’t yet qualified for my sabbatical(!) so haven’t experienced it, but many of my fellow partners have, including our Senior Partner and Managing Partner, and various Group Heads, which I think is helpful in setting the example that it doesn’t matter how “important” you are, you can and should take a sabbatical.

The rationale for sabbaticals is to allow partners an extended period of time to pause and reflect and return to the business reinvigorated. It also offers the opportunity to do things that wouldn’t be possible during a holiday, for example some of our partners have taken cycling trips in Africa with their children, road trips across the Southern US and extended trips in Europe. We also have lawyers who have taken career breaks to teach in refugee camps or make longer trips to improve their language skills.

I think sabbaticals and career breaks generally are a “good thing” (provided we can manage the needs of our clients alongside them, ie. we don’t have an entire team off at the same time), allowing colleagues to pursue other interests that contribute to their wider development. I also think it’s good discipline for us as a business to learn how to manage without people, and prevents us from running the business so “hot” that we can’t manage absences effectively.’

Mary Alice Vuicic, chief people officer, Thomson Reuters.

Thomson Reuters has always been a leader in work-life balance, and we are committed to strengthening our leadership position in flexibility and well-being. As part of our Flex My Way supportive workplace policy, we recently launched a sabbatical program that offers our colleagues with over 3 years’ service the opportunity to take up to six months of unpaid leave every five years. They are encouraged to use this time to get out and do what they love or just take some time to reset, recharge and refocus. At most companies, people quit to take long periods of time off. At Thomson Reuters, we want to support the well-being and career growth of our people by offering them the opportunity  to take this important time away and still retain their jobs.

We know from speaking to our people that they are looking beyond compensation and seeking employers who provide flexibility, prioritize well-being and mental health, and deliver growth and development opportunities. Our sabbatical benefit allows our team members to do just that – reignite their passions outside of work so that they can come to Thomson Reuters as their best, most authentic selves. We’re a brand with people at its heart, and our sabbatical program allows us to give our people the one thing money cannot buy: time. That’s got to be a good thing.

Roisin Noonan, COO, The Law Boutique

– Does your organisation offer sabbaticals to staff, and if so under what conditions? 

Yes we do. The wellbeing and happiness of our team is our number one priority and study after study has shown how essential time off is to driving positive health and productivity outcomes.

As of this year, we’ve introduced a paid-for round the world trip plus one month sabbatical for all TLB team members who stay with us for five years. Beyond that, we offer 33 days of annual leave per year, with bank holidays on top. This is well above average as it’s incredibly important to us that our team feel well rested outside of waiting for a sabbatical.

– Generally, do you think that sabbaticals are ‘a good thing’?

Without a doubt, yes. Life is too short to spend all of it working and we all deserve some time to rest, relax and get out into the world!

Nick Watson, MD, RubyDatum

Ruby Datum is a fairly nomadic company, and we strive for a healthy work/life balance for the whole team. If a sabbatical is what they require, then a sabbatical is what they shall have! There are no conditions. I trust all my team to make respectful judgements.

– Generally, do you think that sabbaticals are ‘a good thing’?

Yes, it’s always good to add a bit of change to your life so it doesn’t feel so repetitive.

Michael Grupp, CEO, BRYTER

– Does your organisation offer sabbaticals to staff, and if so under what conditions? 

Yes, but only on an individual basis and where the role allows for this. But we are a remote-first company, with people working from 22 different countries. This means that people are not tied to a specific location and some are moving around regularly, working from different locations. In this, we are often finding individual solutions for folks who want to pursue something specific. Of course, we also offer paid as well as unpaid parental leave.

– Generally, do you think that sabbaticals are ‘a good thing’?

Yes, just like other mental and physical well-being initiatives. But for some roles, e.g. for sales executives, this is not easy to implement. The relationships to prospects cannot easily get handed over to someone else. Even in Customer Success a pooling system for customers is not always possible. But we are proud and very grateful for the entire team – and if someone prefers to take some time off but wants to stay with us on the long run, that is always the solution I would prefer.

No

Undisclosed Big Law Firm – which basically said: ‘Nope. But it’s better we don’t talk about this subject in the press because people already think we don’t do well in this area!’

(Note, a few other law firms were asked about this but didn’t provide a response by time of publication. Draw from that what you will….)

Dan Wales, VP EMEA and Jodie Baker, Group CEO, Xakia Technologies

‘As Xakia is still a young company, we do not yet have a formal sabbatical program. However, we actively promote staff wellbeing, encouraging a healthy work-life balance and building a well-rounded team who explore all elements of the business and their own learning. On that basis, we will introduce a more formal program in time, and until then remain responsive to opportunities for our team as they present themselves.’

Mary O’Carroll, Chief Community Officer at Ironclad, and Former Google Director Legal Ops & CLOC President

‘We don’t offer sabbaticals, but we do offer unlimited paid time off (PTO), which is a standard for the tech industry.

‘When I first started at Google, there was a policy where they offered paid sabbatical leave after 10 years… or was it 5? In any case, they terminated that programme very quickly because they found that people would just use that and then quit the day they returned!’

No, But…

Noah Waisberg, CEO, Zuva (and formerly at Kira)

‘I’m a little on the fence with “sabbatical” vs “take a break between jobs” (if you can afford to). Plusses and minuses to either. Basically, if we had an employee we really liked say that they needed a break, we’d probably offer them a sabbatical.

We do not have a formal sabbatical programme, and I don’t think we did at Kira. That said, we sometimes accommodated very good employees who felt like they needed a break.

Personally, I think time away from work is exceptionally valuable. I took ~6 months off after leaving Weil, before starting Kira, and the mental space from work directly impacted my ability to get going on Kira (as opposed to the less-good legal tech ideas I was considering while still a lawyer and shortly thereafter). 

It is hard for startups to offer sabbaticals because there tends to not be much organizational robustness (until you get bigger), which means few people to cover for whoever is out on leave. Also, things can change quickly in a startup, and someone’s job may not be exactly the same when they return due to natural movement. That said, we make it work with parental leave (where new parents take up to a year away), medical leave (time away varies), and covering when people resign, and – so – could get a sabbatical program to work too.

Note that one trick with any longer leave is how to reintegrate the person once back.’

Tim Pullan, CEO, ThoughtRiver

‘We don’t currently have a structured sabbatical programme. However we are looking at this for the future as we think it’s a great idea – giving colleagues a chance to take 2-3 months out and switch off without feeling the need to rush away on holiday is a fabulous way of recognising long service.

Jim Wagner, serial legal tech entrepreneur and resident inside Lean Law Labs

‘Many legal tech companies do not have the funding to do this, so it’s not viable for them. The irony is that the people in the legal tech community that most need a sabbatical are the professionals in law firms, inhouse, or working in legal ops. They get endlessly bombarded with deadlines and have an overwhelming responsibility – they need a sabbatical programme and are in organisations that could offer them.’

Conclusion

It’s a broad spread of views, and it’s good to see Pinsent Masons, a large law firm, supporting sabbaticals. Meanwhile others were not comfortable even talking about the subject.

Among legal tech companies and ALSPs the views were also mixed, but the view of The Law Boutique that ‘the wellbeing and happiness of our team is our number one priority and study after study has shown how essential time off is to driving positive health and productivity outcomes’ was really refreshing and positive.

I can see the challenges of a small business funding long staff breaks due to economic constraints. However, larger companies likely can support this, and it’s great to see that Thomson Reuters, which has over 20,000 employees, provides sabbaticals.

My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that sabbaticals (whether funded or unfunded) are an essential part of a person’s development. Work is essential, but so too is having the space to think, explore and learn, well beyond our time within formal education.

If we want dynamic and happy staff then – if we have the economic capacity to do so – we should all be offering (and taking) sabbaticals.

What do you think?

By Richard Tromans, Founder, Artificial Lawyer, Oct 2022.

1 Comment

  1. Many years ago I was a young associate attorney traveling to visit a very high quality boutique law firm in Los Angeles which was co-counsel with my firm on a very large case. Their lead partner on the case informed me that their firm had a sabbatical policy: after 5 years, one month off with full pay for every year employed at the firm. I was curious and learned that lawyers on sabbatical did a variety of projects including write books, teach law, travel around the world, and work on a hit TV show as legal consultant. Thinking this would be a good thing for my law firm I asked a follow up question: what was the experience of the lawyers when they returned to the firm? Their was a brief pause then the partner responded: I don’t know, no one has ever returned to the firm from their sabbatical. Post note: that law firm didn’t remain in existence very long.

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