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How to take a holiday as a boutique firm owner: Part 1

Everyone needs a little break once in a while. But how can boutique firm owners prepare their firms to be able to survive without them? These practice owners weigh in.

user iconLauren Croft 02 February 2023 SME Law
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While starting a boutique law firm can be challenging in many ways, being able to take a step back — and take a proper, restful holiday — can be especially hard to do for sole practitioners or founders and directors of smaller firms.

However, having periods of rest and recuperation from legal practice is important for the success of the firm, as well as the wellness of the leaders within it. This is something that the founder of O*NO Legal in Canberra, Kristen Porter, said was getting her out of bed recently when she appeared on the Boutique Lawyer Show.

“I’ve got a seven-week Europe trip coming up later in the year, so getting the firm ready to have me away for seven weeks, that’s what’s getting me up at the moment. It’s going to be a hard slog between now and then to make sure it’s ready, as in: all our standard operating procedures are written, automations are done, all those sorts of things,” she said.


“Going to Europe, there’s going to be internet. I’ll have a laptop, but I want to be out of face-to-face client work by then. So that’s what’s exciting to me is building this practice, building up the lawyers that are coming up underneath and start really empowering them so I can then step more into a CEO role and be less on the tools.”

This type of teamwork is something director and co-founder of Balance Family Law Perpetua Kish is well aware of, having taken eight weeks off in 2022.

“I generally take [over four] weeks off over the summer and several days during each school holiday period. I also may take a longer holiday in the middle of the year to align with my husband’s leave. As a three-year-old business, this is only possible because we really do embrace teamwork in everything we do at my firm. I know I can leave things with my very capable team, and I look forward to opportunities to do the same for them when they’re on leave.

“This summer, I was delighted when my business partner finally took some well-deserved leave beyond our official shutdown period, and I was very happy to babysit his cases for him. It was actually a nice change from my usual caseload. When you truly work as a team, nobody should feel burdened or offended to pick up a few extra tasks. In our experience, they are happy and motivated to do so,” she said.

“Being able to confidently and comfortably take leave involves having a strong and trusting relationship with your team. Where you feel empowered to delegate, and the team are empowered to do the work independently and are able to astutely discern what they can manage without you, or if they should seek your counsel.”

However, Ms Kish’s experience is not universal. Quantum Law Group managing partner Zile Yu told Lawyers Weekly he hadn’t taken a vacation in three years — since the launch of his firm.

“The closest experience to this that I am able to share would be taking business trips regularly, given that our firm has clients all around the world. As an example of this, I travelled to New Zealand last year for eight days to set up our New Zealand office as part of our overall firm expansion. Coming up on the horizon soon is also a trip to Singapore to set up our office there this year,” he explained.  

“Regarding the New Zealand trip, planning and preparation for the firm started two months ahead of time. The first port of call was to delegate responsibilities accordingly to my team and assign each team member specific tasks to complete while I was away. Then, I automated matters progress reports to clients to ensure that they received updates even in the event that I was unavailable. I also arranged for a partner to provide back-up support for any urgent matters that may arise.”

Prior to this trip, Mr Yu communicated his travel plans with clients and “set clear expectations” for what his availability may look like with a few added days off.

“On a trip like this, when I am contacted by a client, I ensure that I am available 24/7. If I am unable to pick up the phone at the time of their call, I will call them back on the same day. Of course, the extent of an owner’s availability to clients will vary according to each one’s personal preference and context,” he said.

“The final step before embarking on the trip was to organise the workspace and have a team meeting to ensure a mutual understanding across the team, and generally that everything was in order. Any practical steps that have been implemented before the trip will only be effective if each team member is ready and on board.” 

This is something Amanda Little & Associates director Amanda Little also struggled with in the early years of establishing her firm — and said that her work/life balance suffered as a result.

“I would rarely take holidays, and this led to long hours and a general feeling of unfulfillment in my career as I was never able to relax, recharge and regroup. This also meant that the firm was stagnant for periods of time as I was stuck in a ‘working’ mentality as opposed to a growth and innovation mentality, which comes with being rested and enthusiastic about your career and business,” she said.

“Once I acknowledged that I needed this time to myself to be a better leader, innovator, and practitioner, I started the process of setting up boundaries and putting plans in place to allow myself to have a break on a regular basis.”

Additionally, the size of the firm, the level of staff experience, and the amount of time firm owners want to take off are all factors that play into how boutique owners need to prepare for a vacation.

“If you are a sole practitioner and are seeking a short period of time away, preparing the firm is as simple as having all work up to date, advising your clients and the other side that you are away for a set period of time and periodically either checking your emails to ensure there are no legal emergencies or alternatively asking a colleague (usually another sole practitioner) to ‘sit’ the firm whilst you take a break,” Ms Little added.

“Then, of course, you should return the favour for them as well!”

In terms of preparing to take time off, Travis Schultz & Partners managing partner Travis Schultz said that larger firms have a far easier feat than boutiques — but that taking time off is essential regardless.

“The sense of trepidation with which law firm owners approach taking time off for holidays will generally vary according to their scale and size. Larger firms, necessarily, have well-developed structures in place which provide a built-in redundancy for absences by directors — but for smaller firms, the idea of taking a break can be more frightening than the plot of a Stephen King novel,” he said.

“For owners of small to medium law firms, there is always going to be some cost involved in taking a break and being away from the office for a while — but I would argue that the cost associated with burnout is even greater, and that taking holidays is also a non-negotiable.”

Similarly, Ms Kish said that “time off is not a luxury, it’s a necessity” and is a mindset firm owners and founders need to adopt from day one, not only for their sake but for their employees’ sake, too.

“Good leaders create a culture of healthy and balanced ‘give and take’. Employees who are included, supported, challenged and celebrated grow in confidence, and they appreciate not only their leader’s right, but every teammate’s (including the firm owner’s) right to rest and have time off too. This manifests as a well-functioning team, both internally and in how the firm presents to clients and colleagues, even in the firm owner’s absence,” she explained.

“The prep work also is done with our clients. We have learnt to introduce our team-based approach to client services from the initial consultation, so they are used to working with more than one of us and they do not become dependent on one person. It’s good practice in boundary setting.”

Moreover, while many firm owners like to be in control — and may find it hard to fully switch off, Ms Kish emphasised that “holidays should be a non-negotiable”.

“For many firm owners, work forms a large part of their identity. It’s about more than money — it gives our lives meaning and purpose. We may feel guilty about taking leave or be unable to switch off. Sometimes, we can even feel selfish to be taking leave while the rest of the team works hard,” she said.

“Even if we take leave, we may not fully switch off, and find ourselves checking emails, taking calls from clients, and managing staff, and not really taking the mental break we had hoped for. [But] it’s during these periods of respite that we can truly stop and reflect about where we want to go and why.”