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Vacationing at Dewey's

Vivia Chen

January 7, 2011

Beach Dewey & LeBoeuf has introduced a new vacation policy, giving associates and counsel unspecified, possibly increased, paid vacation time. Sounds promising, right?

Here are the key points from Dewey's memo dated December 30, which the firm e-mailed to me Thursday:

Historically, senior counsel, counsel, and associates have accrued vacation days on a monthly basis for a total of up to 20 paid vacation days each year in addition to personal and sick days. In recognition of the flexibility required of you by our clients, we have revised our policy so that it better reflects the realities of life as a practicing lawyer.

Effective January 1, 2011, you will be entitled to take a reasonable amount of paid time off (i.e. vacation, personal, and sick days) over the course of the year, subject to client demands and your other professional obligations and responsibilities. While you will no longer accrue vacation days on a monthly basis, we would expect you to be able to take no less time off than you have been accustomed to.

And what is the rationale for the change? In an e-mail statement, Dewey explained: "We believe that the new policy reflects how our attorneys already manage their time and the realities of life as a practicing lawyer." (Am I missing something here, or does that sound like corporate gobbledy-gook?)

In any case, I'm intrigued by two key details in the memo: (1) Lawyers can take "no less time off than you have been accustomed to," and (2) they will no longer be able to accrue vacation pay. Am I too cynical in thinking that cost savings are at the heart of the policy?

Take the lawyer who's too busy to take the usual four weeks of vacation. Let's say the poor guy only squeezes in a week off at his in-law's house on the Jersey shore. In effect, that lawyer ends up enriching the firm at his own expense--to the tune of three weeks' worth of pay. As my 9-year-old would say, "Do the math."

Is it legal to take away money that's been earned? My employment lawyer buddy says he's "not sure how it would hold up if challenged," adding, "What associate wants to sue his employer?" Dewey's legal theory, he believes, is that there is no "entitlement" to unpaid vacation days because that "entitlement disappeared with the notion of unspecified vacation time."

Will more firms try to get out of paying lawyers for the vacations they've earned? Probably. Reader, do you know other firms that have adopted this kind of policy?  And Dewey associates--how do you feel about this new order?


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Photo: Melany Dieterle


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Getting enough vacation time is no longer a problem at Dewey.

Manatt implemented this policy back in the 80s after some associates went on vacation, then claimed to have "worked" because they checked voicemail or called their secretaries and billed less than an hour. Then, when they quit, they demanded to be paid out their accrued vacation time. In reality, you could take 3 weeks vacation IF you were able to bill 7.75 hours per day, 5 days a week for the rest of the year. But .... given that so many days were dead days, no one would be able to take the time off. It really created a lot of stress and no one ever felt like they could go on a vacation.

This is super-old news. A lot of firms, such as Paul Hastings, have had this policy in place for years. It looks good on paper but works, as is noted, predictably badly.

When I was at Biglaw in NY, and then NJ, no one ever took all of the vacation time. We also did not get paid for unused vacation time. The one time it became relevant was when I left each of the firms. At that time, I was paid for unused vacation. As the poster above stated, I believe that not paying departing attorneys for the unused vacation time is the motivation for the change.

This is simply a means for the firm to avoid paying accrued vacation time to departing attorneys, which is required under the law of certain states, including California.

The reality is that few associates take their entire vacation, particularly if they are actively in the partnership hunt. However, the new policy has shifted the emphasis: now, instead of waiving vacation time to which they are entitled (evidence of a "firm-first" attitude), associates most "take" vacation time to which they are not entitled -- evidence of a "me-first" attitude, and an admission that one is not as busy as one should be. At review time, the firm might look at an associate who had billed 2500 hours but taken a month of vacation and conclude that, if he/she were really dedicated, he/she could have billed 2700 hours.
I'm a little puzzled by the notion of accruing vacation pay: if associates are entitled to a month of vacation time and they don't use it, are they entitled to an extra month's pay? I don't think so.
Overall, however, I think your cynicism is justified. Associates have no choice but to accept such policies. Can you imagine an associate seeking to change fims offering as a reason that he wanted a firm with a more liberal vacation policy?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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