A Lawyer Away, but Not Gone
California Lawyer

A Lawyer Away, but Not Gone

by Frederick Hertz

December 2012

Frederick Hertz

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My Summer Sabbatical April 2010

Ten years ago, I vowed to take a one-year sabbatical in 2012 to mark my 60th birthday and 30th anniversary of practicing law. Even if I weren't rich or old enough to retire, I thought it would be time for a break. But as the years went by, the practical aspects of implementing my plan became complicated. By 2008 I realized that I would need to shift my practice, curtailing litigation and adversarial representation in nonmarital break-ups and shifting to a transactional and mediation focus, which would be less disrupted by a prolonged absence.

I also timed my office lease to terminate with the start of my sabbatical and reduced expenses to compensate for the income loss. My biggest challenge was facing my fear that while I was gone, clients would go elsewhere, colleagues would rely on other referrals, and the legal "parking space" I had cultivated over three decades would be taken by other lawyers. I would be forced to spend the rest of my career "driving around the block," re-establishing the niche I'd recklessly abandoned.

To relieve my anxieties, I refined my plan, putting in place the basic framework more than a year in advance. My goal was to go abroad and have an opportunity for reflection, renewal, and recreation. I decided to spend six months in Israel, followed by a family-roots trip to the Baltic region. These two journeys would let me learn more about my heritage, explore deep social and political issues, and spend time with family.

Having a professional anchor for the Israel segment would be key. I sent an email to an Israeli law professor who had written widely on the subject of same-sex couples. This led to a teaching opportunity: If I was willing to work for minimal pay, I was welcome to teach a seminar on gay couples law, in English. Once I accepted, my timetable was set. (By then I had determined that I could afford to take off no more than nine months.)

I notified my clients and arranged for house sitters. I also maintained my office mailing address and a voicemail account, and hired a colleague's paralegal to respond to phone inquiries, open mail, and stay in touch - reassuring clients and colleagues that I wasn't really gone, just away.

Before my February departure I sent my files and equipment to storage, gave away my outdated office furniture, and said my good-byes. But I didn't abandon my practice entirely. Several client matters had not been completed, so I made arrangements to finalize agreements and draft documents. Though I'd still have to work during my sabbatical, colleagues would be hearing from me and I'd have some unexpected (and welcome) revenue to cover living and travel expenses.

Finally abroad, I happily settled into my large (albeit expensive) apartment in Tel Aviv, enjoying the luxury of waking up each morning without a to-do list. I loved living ten time zones ahead of California, which meant never having to read client emails before 6 p.m.

In my class at Haim Striks College of Law and in a series of lectures I gave across Israel, I was able to dive into the complexities of that country's complex legal framework for same-sex couples, meet with professors and lawyers, and explain U.S. law to Israeli students. This still left me plenty of time to walk along the beach, travel throughout the region, and engage in endless political debates. My trip to Latvia was equally transforming, deepening my understanding of where my family came from and why my great-great grandparents abandoned their home in Tukums in 1883 for the unknown world of America.

And much to my amazement, when I got back in September neither my career nor my household had crashed or burned! Colleagues were ready to send me referrals; I found new office space within days; and old and new clients started hiring me even before my sabbatical was over. True, I have less money in the bank now - but in its place I have many meaningful memories, new friends, deeper insights, and perhaps most essential, a sense of perspective that will sustain me for years to come.

Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in the Bay Area, is author of Counseling Unmarried Partners: A Guide to Effective Legal Representation (ABA Publishing).

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