Time to Embrace the Sabbatical?

Lawyers are incredibly busy. That’s an accepted fact. The busier they are, the more in demand their services. Busyness is, in a way, a badge of honour. Especially for senior personnel.

But what’s also becoming increasingly accepted is that lawyers of all levels of seniority may not necessarily always want to totally embody the image of constant busyness, and the stresses that come with it, anymore. 

This is not just an issue for juniors. Some members of law firm management in London and the Netherlands have seemingly said “enough is enough”, opting for something that a senior partner in the 1980s would probably have viewed as preposterous – a sabbatical. 

Their decisions have come not a moment too soon. For them, and for the industry as a whole.

Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson’s London managing partner Mark Mifsud is taking a six-month sabbatical

The timing may not be ideal for the office given it recently suffered several major departures. A person at the firm said Mifsud’s decision to take a sabbatical was made long before the exits, and in fact delayed his time away to steady the ship after the three partners quit for Ropes & Gray. 

Meanwhile the managing partner of top Netherlands law firm De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek Marnix Leijten has stepped down from his role, announcing the news in a remarkably candid LinkedIn post. 

Leijten wrote: “I need a break after many intense years of high engagement and will hand over my role to one of my partners who will continue putting positive high energy into our firm.”

He will return to the firm’s litigation and arbitration practice after a summer sabbatical, he added.

Both firms will need to find ways to handle the absence of their leaders. But that is not really the point. To lead effectively over the long term top lawyers need to also look out for their own mental health. 

It is not just themselves who might benefit either. Such news is likely to be viewed positively by junior lawyers assessing what they want their careers to look like, as the industry continues to take the mental health of its people more seriously in response to upticks in stress levels.

Earlier this month, a Women Influence and Power in Law conference in the U.K. heard from one legal career coach who said she was “devastated” by the recent surge in cases of burnout she had been helping her clients attempt to deal with. The issue continues to dog the sector.

Irokawa McGonical said the increase was due to the ever-constant pressure to succeed in the legal industry, but also partly due to isolated working conditions compounded by lockdown and working from home trends.

There does appear to be a flip side to this though. U.K. legal mental health charity LawCare CEO Elizabeth Rimmer, offered the view in this piece that: “The pandemic has provided an opportunity for many to reflect on their lives — where they want to live, where they want to work, how they find purpose, meaning and fulfillment.”

Increased isolation could have the double effect of requiring more people to take time off while also making them consider the idea like never before.

Perhaps Mifsud and Leijten have grasped that concept—and, if so, good on them for doing so. There is nothing like an endorsement for an initiative than seeing the top figures leading by example.

Three Hong Kong Strategies

Political dilemmas are not limited to Hong Kong or Greater China. Law firms in the U.S. have had to take stances in recent years on issues such as gun violence, abortion rights and Black Lives Matter protests that plague the country. The Ukraine War led to much criticism of how international law firms handled their Russian operations following the invasion. 

But Hong Kong is unique in the way it is constantly presenting firms with such direct challenges.

Mighty U.S. player Davis Polk & Wardwell experienced the latest challenge when it felt the wrath of social media criticism after Hong Kong partner and Asia head Martin Rogers said he would be speaking at a Department of Justice event about China’s controversial National Security Law. 

He swiftly u-turned, but the incident is a lasting reminder of what firms need to bear in mind. As my colleague Jessica Seah brilliantly examined in her Asia briefing this week, outfits in the city-state are having to traverse an ever more treacherous path when it comes to navigating politics.

For some, the issues are too much to continue contending with. Addleshaw Goddard bowed out of the jurisdiction this week, announcing its intention to shutter its office there

The base opened in 2012, as part of an aggressive international expansion push by then managing partner Paul Devitt. But in its statement announcing the change the firm said: “Having carefully considered our position in Hong Kong and the unique set of challenges we face there, we do not feel that renewing our lease, whilst continuing to hope for a dramatic change in outlook, is something we can economically justify.”

Ten years ago, many firms were pushing East. Now, they are having to contend with a very different landscape to the one they set up shop in. Singapore is currently the favoured spot for international law firm investment, while Shanghai continues to be buffered by hardcore lockdowns and China’s ties with Russia are watched ever more closely.

For its part, Addleshaws has nailed its colours to its Singapore base, calling it its “key presence” for Asia. The jurisdiction is flavour of the month – for now.

But perhaps there is a third option available to firms. Listed U.K. firm DWF plumped for a different way of navigating the choppy waters in Hong Kong this week, in what could be described as a tentative approach to the area.

No pull outs of offices or speaking engagements for the listed U.K. law firm, but no full-barrelled office launch either. The firm instead strengthened its ties to Hong Kong via an association with Hauzen, following its agreement with boutique litigation firm, Eldan Law in Singapore, earlier this year. Unlike Addleshaws, DWF seems to be banking on both areas as positive investment opportunities – with the caveat that, should insurmountable obstacles occur in the future, it might be easier to exit an association than it is to shut down your own operation.