Barbara Warner shares her experience with successfully taking a six-month leave from practice to travel the world with her family.
“A round-the-world trip – isn't that for retirement?” asked an acquaintance, when I told them I was taking a break from my practice to travel for five months with my partner and our two children. I replied that we wanted to go while we were young enough to keep up with the twins, aged 10 at the time.
But, there was more to the decision, and certainly more to the actual trip than just booking flights that circumvented the globe. It was easy for us to make the decision of whether to go in the first place: we had originally talked about doing a similar trip over a decade earlier, between my bar exams in Ottawa, and settling in Toronto. At that time, we were going to sell our townhouse anyway, why not take a few months for the move and see the world?
So we started to think about the concept of this hypothetical trip. I had a “working holiday” in mind, where one or both of us would get jobs in a foreign country, and have a home base to use as a jumping off point for travel on weekends or holidays. My partner, Julian, had something else in mind – a true break from work, just travelling, even if it meant a significantly shorter time abroad. Julian wasn't keen at all on working, struggling with language issues and culture shock while putting in a 9-5 day. After spending most of my life in a classroom, (my articling year excepted), I was more than willing to work and put down roots somewhere new for a while.
Ironically, Julian was the one who had both the ability to get work abroad in English; he worked in IT and had a European passport. I couldn't do much with a Canadian law degree outside of England or other Commonwealth countries; I'd need to work my contacts hard and get lucky to land a research position or a job teaching English. We started planning a shorter time away, travelling independently to see the world. These plans never saw the light of day: Toronto real estate prices ultimately dictated that our travel money was best spent on a down payment on a home instead.
But the seed was planted; we just needed to find a different time to take our “big trip”.
Timing it right
For us, the right timing was based on our ability to save the funds and our children's ages. We decided that we'd need at least 2-3 years to save the money, since at any one time only one of us was employed full time, and the other was either a full time stay-at-home parent or juggling primary parenting and part time in the non-profit sector. I mention this to illustrate that a trip around the world does not need to wait for someone to win the lottery, retire or inherit from a rich relative. (But it would help.)
We wanted our children to be old enough to be somewhat independent on a daily basis but young enough that we weren't interfering with high school courses or teenaged ideas of fun. Ten years old, grade 5, ended up being the perfect age for us. We got permission from the Ministry of Education, via the school principal, to home school our children for the remainder of the school year. They would start grade 6 at the same school with all their same friends when we got back.
We set up a series of spreadsheets to track savings, cost projections and a detailed budget with itemized anticipated expenses (transportation, accommodation, food, attractions and tours, souvenirs).
Preparing the practice
In early 2010, when we began planning, I was in between in-house jobs. By fall, I was running a sole practice. In 2012, I researched what I needed to do to protect my clients and myself during my sabbatical: wrap up as many files as I could, transfer remaining files to other lawyers for “babysitting”, advise opposing counsel and third parties as necessary of the new lawyer on the file, designate a lawyer to deal with the Law Society on my behalf and advise the Law Society in writing before leaving the country.
Support programs such as the OBA’s Mentorship Program and Law Practice Management Section are great resources for lawyers looking to connect with peer mentors and those with experience managing such practical issues as transferring files and engaging other lawyers on a temporary basis.
In February 2012, I also took on what was meant to be a short-term contract with a local legal aid clinic. By early 2013, I was advising new clients of my planned absence and where necessary, introducing them to new counsel. I also advised the new Board of Directors at the clinic that I could not work past March 2013.
If I'd had a job with a firm or legal department, I would have asked for an unpaid leave of absence, combined with accrued paid vacation where possible. If that job had been with one of many public sector employers in Ontario, I would have been eligible to do a “four over five”, working the first four years, taking the fifth year off but having pay spread across all five years.
Julian was a co-founder of the non-profit where he worked. About two and a half years in advance of our trip, he advised his peers at the management level that he would be asking for an unpaid leave for four months or so. In the end, he took six months off – five months for the actual travel, one month to get the household and its occupants back in shape before returning to work.
Setting the itinerary
By late January 2013, we had a round-the-world flight worked out, booking a consolidator fare ticket which would take us from Toronto into Newark, New Jersey, out of New York City (JFK), and onto Cusco, Peru; Igazu Falls, Rio de Janero and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Johanesburg, South Africa; Istanbul, Turkey; Delhi, India; Kathmandu, Nepal; Bankok, Thailand; Singapore, Singapore; Sydney, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Vancouver, BC before returning home. We visited many more locations by train and local transportation.
In all, we spent 22 weeks visiting 16 countries and took 28 flights. We explored "Middle Earth" in New Zealand; took a bikeride through Angkor City; rode elephants in Agra and saw penguins in Cape Town. Shared experiences and memories we will treasure for a lifetime.
To top it all off, we came home to clients who had been well taken care of in our absence, and colleagues who were eager to hear about our great adventure.
In the planning stages, during “The Big Trip,” and since, I've encountered lawyers who are intrigued by the concept of a self-created sabbatical. Most are excited by the prospect, but dismiss the idea for themselves out of hand. They assume they can't afford it financially, professionally or personally. I remind them that professionals, like lawyers, are actually in ideal circumstances to create a break for themselves and use the time to travel the world, write the great Canadian novel, become a painter – whatever makes them happy and fulfilled.
I challenge them to think of a sabbatical like any other complex task, and to employ the project management skills they have. The few risks can be managed or mitigated with some foresight and proactive steps and the payoff is well worth it.
Learn more about “The Big Trip” at www.yourturn.ca/thebigtrip/
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