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How to take a holiday as a boutique firm owner: Part 2

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 legal founders weigh in.

user iconLauren Croft 09 February 2023 SME Law
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As a number of firm leaders have already emphasised, taking a holiday can be especially hard to do for sole practitioners or founders and directors of smaller firms, particularly while a firm is still in its infancy.

Despite not having taken a proper holiday in three years, Quantum Law Group managing partner Zile Yu said that regular breaks are important — as is having systems in place to allow it.

“Even if you are not ordinarily in a position to take a holiday, there are other methods of alleviating pressure and load. Systems, tools and technology are such examples. Regular evaluation and adjustment of systems and processes help to ensure efficiency and scalability, while investing in tools and technology helps to streamline operations,” he said.


“Another example is to foster a culture of trust and accountability within the team. At the end of the day, if your firm is operating in an efficient and smooth manner, the easier it will become to find the means to take some time off.

“While I personally may not be the best example for this, I believe all lawyers should consider scheduling regular breaks or vacations to prioritise self-care and mitigate burnout given the high pressure of our industry. It may also be worthwhile to seek advice and support from mentors, peers, business coaches, or other law firm owners to help stay on track.”

This is something that needs to happen from the outset of starting a firm, Hazelbrook Legal chief executive Annabel Griffin emphasised.

“You need to be developing the team and support networks around you, bringing leaders through and building in clear processes and procedures. It’s also important to make it part of the culture, so it’s not reliant on any one individual, and so that team members are willing to step up and support one another,” she said.   

“In the early years, when you’re small, it’s obviously very difficult to take a break as you’re everything to everyone. For me, I’ve had some very difficult experiences in the early years, including when I found myself in the emergency room of the Queenstown hospital, with my three-year-old daughter being treated for severe asthma (my husband was also with her) and I was negotiating with the nurse to use their computer in order to run payroll (as I was still doing this myself!).”

For SMEs and boutiques, outlined Travis Schultz & Partners managing partner Travis Schultz, taking time away from the office can also be a good time for some risk analysis and assessments.

“I have found that the best way to plan for owners taking leave is to prepare a list of the key functions they perform, as well as a list of the key commercial and regulatory ‘non-negotiables’ that will necessarily arise — and make sure that each item has a tick next to it, before leave is taken,” he said.

“It is clearly very difficult for micro firms, but in those with a bit of a team behind them, I see the benefit in having a ‘swing’ actor who can act as an understudy for each crucial role. That includes the directors. Having a backup is beneficial not just when leave is taken but in the event of an emergency. It’s a normal part of contingency planning, but it also provides a level of comfort when holiday absences are on the cards.”

Balance Family Law director and co-founder Perpetua Kish echoed a similar sentiment — and said that “everything works better with a good plan”, especially when taking time off as a sole founder or managing partner.

“A good plan begins with good communication and forewarning the team, clients, and colleagues of intended periods of leave, well in advance. And people are busy! So, we must remind them. I know not everyone likes sending or receiving the out-of-office assistant, but think of it this way: if you send an email but hear nothing, it can cause unnecessary anxiety, frustration, or even fear. An out-of-office message can address this to a degree. I also use it to forewarn of impending leave and various other things that might prevent me from responding as swiftly as I usually do,” she explained.

“Just before going on leave, and in the immediate days upon returning from leave, try to keep a clear diary. Book in ‘light work’ or if you’re able, even keep the diary free so you have time to sort through your full inbox.

“Also, explore using consultants. We have been using consultant lawyers and support staff since our second year of operation. While our consultants regularly work with us, there are locum lawyers who can step in as a ‘one off’ to cover while on holidays or more extended periods of leave.”

Amanda Little & Associates director Amanda Little has also used locum lawyers in the past, which helped her look after her firm while she was on leave and allowed her to properly disconnect from work.

“I now have a ‘family’ of trusted people around me, who will step in to provide me with respite when I require, but prior to this, I established a relationship with an excellent locum who assisted me with my practice in periods of leave (from having children to overseas holidays),” she explained.

“If you are a small firm, then I highly recommend a locum, as they will continue to run your firm smoothly and ensure profitability. I would also work towards building a firm with trusted senior employees who can step up for a period of time to allow a break without the need for a locum.”

While there is always likely to be some impact when a firm leader is away, those in smaller firms can minimise this impact by having trusted team members as well as planning around trips.

“Take appropriate equipment with you — a headset with you if you plan on diving into any work (although hopefully, you won’t need to), prepare for a handover well in advance and do this over a few weeks as you approach your break, including bringing them in on correspondence and meetings, so everyone is prepared,” Ms Griffin added.

“If you are a sole partner or principal, make sure you have a clear BCP plan in place and someone knows where to find it — this should include everything from your banking to your insurance details.

Additionally, communicating holiday plans with clients and setting clear boundaries and expectations before taking time off can make for a smoother transition, added Mr Yu.

“When you have supported and built a strong and capable team, they are able to confidently manage the operations of the firm when an owner is taking time off. The more that you trust your team, the more you can allow yourself to take time off from the firm with peace of mind.

“As for the owner themselves, it may be necessary that they must still remain available for emergencies and critical business and client needs. This may mean anything from simply monitoring the status of the matter to providing approvals or being a point of contact,” he said.

“Automating routine tasks is a great way to open up capacity across all team members, so as to allow room for team members to adequately handle the business of the firm in the owner’s absence. In the same vein, ensuring that systems and processes are uniformly implemented provides for smoother operations all around.”

This is especially important within the legal profession, Ms Little added.

“As lawyers, we are geared to push boundaries, ourselves and expect great things. This, unfortunately, can lead to burnout. We need to shift the culture of practice and encourage not only a healthy work/life balance, but accept that to do our best, we must give ourselves time to rest and recharge,” she added.

“Innovation and growth come from enthusiasm, passion, and energy, and without rest, this is not possible.”