How to take a vacation like a boss // Trial & Error

Despite what you might hear, it is possible to go on vacation without hurting your career

By Atrisha Lewis

On Friday June 27th, 2014


When I started as an associate, I’d just returned from a relaxing three-month backpacking trip across Europe and Asia. After a busy articling year, I needed to take time to travel so I could clear my mind before entering the next exciting chapter of my career.

Being an avid traveler, I couldn’t wait to plan my next adventure, but I wasn’t yet versed on vacation etiquette. So I asked lawyers across an array of practice groups and firms if there’s an ideal time or length for a vacation. Here, I’ve compiled some helpful best practices.

When to take a vacation

On this point, I heard a range of opinions. “I didn’t feel comfortable taking any vacation in my first year of practice,” one lawyer told me. Others said: “It’s taboo for juniors to take time off during March break or in August” and “you can only take one month off at time if it’s your honeymoon.”

Despite these comments, most lawyers I spoke to said life — not gossip — should dictate your vacation strategy. Be open and honest with everyone you work with. Doing so will allow you to find the best time to step away from the office for some much deserved R&R.

How to really enjoy your time off

With that reassuring tidbit, I planned my first vacation: to visit my sister in France during her spring break in April. While it’s often tough to step away from your workload, here are five tips I gleaned from my peers:

  • Announce it from the rooftop. With so much on the go, it’s difficult to track your colleagues’ schedules. I repeatedly reminded co-workers that I’d be out of the office and unavailable. The week before my vacation, I added a line to all emails I sent to say: “Please note, I will be on vacation out of the country from X date to Y date.”
  • Book buffer days. Even though I only left the country for eight days, I booked a buffer day on both ends of the trip that I could use to tie up any loose ends and deal with issues that erupted on my return. Only my assistant knew I was in the country during the buffer days, which allowed me to focus on what needed to get done before and after my trip.
  • One hour a day. While this tip is a matter of preference, I found it helpful to spend up to — and no more than — one hour a day to comb through my emails. This small step gave me peace-of-mind and made my return a lot less daunting.
  • Have a backup. During my vacation, I left a major file behind. So it helped to have another associate on the ground to assist with the file while I was away. My backup was a trusted colleague and she really allowed me to enjoy my vacation. Bonus points for a backup who scolds you for checking in while you’re away.
  • #urgent. Set up an email filter. I haven’t done this before, but I’ve seen it used by other lawyers. For instance, a litigation partner at my firm tells everyone he is working with to add “#urgent” to the subject line of any email that requires his immediate attention. Then, he uses an email filter to route those emails to his phone. This ensures he only reviews emails which are truly urgent.

Having returned from my vacation, I am convinced more than ever that they are vital to finding success in your career. Indeed, in her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points out that people who quit their jobs because they’re exhausted often have a significant number of unused vacation days. I know it might seem difficult in the short term, but going on vacation is necessary for long-term success. 

Atrisha Lewis is a first-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

Photo: Moyan Brenn