No Time To Die: Lawyers and Sick Time

Hey! I’m back! Sort of. To describe the current situation, let me put it like this: Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but I left a piece of my hip on the roadside, my cognizance of situations in a bottle of painkillers, and my snark and wit in a goddamn bedside commode chair. So bear with me today as I shift uncomfortably from side to side and start talking about a recent realization that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the business of being legal: Namely, even when you’re ill, injured, or dying there’s no such thing as a day off in the life of a lawyer.

And that, folks, can really suck. Because, in the past, I’ve written about how the work-life balance for attorneys is a thing that we talk about, normally somewhere around the time we discuss our belief in fairies and how the government is turning the frogs gay. This is the sort of thing that people search through law libraries for, hoping to take a blurry photograph of the attorney that somehow found a way to preserve his sanity and health while being reasonably successful at his job. Frankly, as my good friend Jeremy Richter pointed out yesterday, we simply are not a profession that rewards people for deciding they want to take a vacation, spend time with family, unwind with a movie, or enjoy the holidays without worrying about what others may think.

And we are definitely not a profession that believes in the concept of being sick or injured and needing to recuperate.

Let me be clear: this doesn’t apply to a lot of attorneys that have an ounce of sanity in their minds, but that’s not very many of us. If someone in another profession gets sick or injured and they’re ordered to take some time off to make sure they aren’t going to fall apart faster than a drunk 15 year old’s cover story, they just do it. They curl up on the couch with a ton of juice, some soup, blankets, and the finest in mid-day game shows and get their asses feeling better, because what good is an employee to anyone if they’re so sick or just decrepit that they can’t even form a coherent sentence? They’re worthless.

Unless, you know, you happen to be a lawyer.

Then your ass needs to be billing time to justify your mere existence on the planet, sick and injured or not.

This is just you being bitter.

It’s definitely not. I was ordered to a month of bed rest immediately following my accident. Then I was informed that there’s a wonderful clause in my contract that states if I’m out of the office for more than a week, the office has the right to pay me pro rata for the number of hours I’ve actually billed during my time out. Vacation and sick time in my office is sort of “Yeah, it exists, but it’s a little like that sasquatch rubbish. You hear about other people experiencing it, but you never will.” Remember back in August when I took my first vacation in 8 goddamn years? Well, I paid for that when I got back.

So while I was out, my pay was reduced to approximately less than a third of what I normally make. Quite frankly, when you do litigation work that requires you to actually think it doesn’t help anyone if you’re trying to do it while jacked up on so many painkillers that the little yodeling dude on the Price is Right is telling you that everything’s gonna be just wonderful buddy. I was a goddamn liability while on the higher level painkillers, and I knew it. It would have been way too easy to mess up in my cases where I can heave in the most billables, so I got continuances and extensions from people so I could return to the cases with a clear head after a bit of healing. That was the responsible thing to do whilst I looked for the best thermometer UK to monitor my health so that I could return to work knowing that I was 100%.

The problem with this is I was, at the same time, being made extremely aware that the office was sending me the piddling rubbish that only let me get a couple hours of work a day done while I was laid up. Seriously, guys, the day after the accident I got a call from the office saying they were reassigning a number of my cases from me. Losing your caseload is a great thing to happen right before you go into surgery because let me tell you that happens primarily: when a lawyer is about to get canned.

Dudes, the billable controls the world, and the billable doesn’t care if you’re vomiting, going to the toilet uncontrollably, have ebola, have cancer, or have had your bones removed by a group of shady third world doctors for some black market aphrodisiac like “Pickled Lawyer Femurs.” That’s probably a real thing. Folks will try anything for an erection. They may even decide to look at how online pharmacies like Blink Health can help them to reach this certain “goal”, as they have access to medications like Sildenafil which has been known to help with erectile dysfunction. Well, at least it’s good to know that there are options out there that can be considered if needs be. But the point is, if you aren’t billing time out you’re particularly worthless, and while this dissuades lawyers from mentally taking care of themselves with time off it also prevents lawyers from physically taking care of themselves by recuperating from injuries and illnesses.

The best way to heal is to follow the advice of a doctor and rest, guys. And you can’t do that if you’re propped up in bed, puking in a bucket, popping over the counter aspirin when you should be taking pain pills, and pounding away on a laptop to get stuff done. Us legal beagles live in a culture that doesn’t reward this unhealthy behavior because it’s expected. Instead, we punish the healthy behaviors because they get in the way of the almighty billable.

You’re one guy, and your boss may just be a fool.

Cool, but consider the solo who depends on being able to bill time to make their nut and not only keep the office open and the staff paid, but also to keep a roof over his head. Man, that’s a guy with the pressure to never get sick or injured, because unlike a small-firm guy like me, who can at least get some money in, for the solo something that keeps him out of the office and the courtroom for a month or more would spell the end of his business…and possibly bankruptcy.

Think I’m being dramatic? Let’s look to the guy I know the best, my father. Dad had a hip replacement a few years back. Well, more accurately, a double hip replacement. Because he couldn’t afford to shut down the office when it was just one hip that needed to be replaced, so he put it off so long they had to replace both. Within a week of this, he was going into the office to work, because he had employees to pay. The end result was dad’s surgeon coming to the office and forcibly telling him to stop working or get used to a walker, because the damage he’d do is irreversible.

Growing up, when Dad was a solo guy, I remember many mornings where Dad would dress for court while puking all over the place, drive to the courthouse stopping periodically to puke on the side of the road, and attend a hearing. Because that’s what’s expected and that’s what he needed to do to keep the business running. Dad’s heart attack took place in court. The judge had to direct him to go seek treatment. Dad was “waiting for the pain to pass” so he could get on with the case.

…This is the traditional lawyer view. “You work, no matter what.”

Isn’t this where you normally have a solution?

Yeah, but…there isn’t one guys. I mean, there really isn’t one.

Because this isn’t just about a toxic culture surrounding illness and the law. I wish it was. However, there are some harsh realities about the practice of law that folks don’t grasp that well, especially when they’re first thinking of practicing.

We are not a profession that has the luxury of saying “I’ll do it tomorrow.” For a lot of lawyers out there, especially the small guys like me, 90% of our work is the legal representation of people who are facing huge problems. That means our clients, while sympathetic to our injuries and illnesses, still want us working on their case because to them it’s the biggest thing in the world. And lawyers take that seriously because we know our first obligation is to the client, not to ourselves or to our health, or to alleviating the discomfort.

I guess the solutions are simple enough though, but they’re all lawyer side solutions:

Have a contingency plan.

If you’re going to be out for a while, you need guys who can make appearances for you and take over time sensitive matters while you’re recuperating. Develop that network of lawyers. In fact, in many states you have an obligation to do this, providing for someone to take over your cases if something happens to you.

Have savings.

It’s a good idea to make sure you’re financially stable so you can afford to take the time off to heal from whatever’s ailing you. And if you don’t have savings sufficient to cover the time away? Invest in disability and injury insurance. They literally offer it specifically for lawyers. You should definitely do your research first though, as some disability income insurance quotes may be better than others. And as a lawyer, or working professional, it is important that you find the one that best suits your needs. Moreover, depending on where in the world you are based, the amount of WorkCover that you are able to claim can vary drastically. Consequently, researching Workcover payouts online can help you to appropriately plan your next steps from a legal perspective.

Gauge yourself AND YOUR ABILITY honestly.

If I’m home with the flu, I can work. If I’m home recovering from surgery, I likely can’t. You need to know your limits right off the bat and be willing to express that, trying to work in your current condition, you’re a liability to the firm and the client. It sounds good to say “Bob worked in the hospital after his heart surgery” right up until they find the 27 instances of malpractice Bob committed because the Morphine Fairy was probing Bob’s veins with its I.V.

Stop worrying about perceptions.

Here’s the real one though: a lot of our work is based on perceptions these days. Our worries are based on how our bosses, our clients, and other attorneys are going to perceive our being out. Do they think we’re not working hard, or that we’re sitting at home eating bon-bons while getting pedicures? I mean, my boss did…up until he came by the house ostensibly to “drop a file off” and witnessed the glory that is the goddamn commode chair I was sitting in daily because I could move to our bathroom on my own. If you’re in a place where a genuine illness or injury is grounds for the firm losing its mind that you’re not there while healing, you’re not in a good environment.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who told his doctor to leave him alone so he could get back in the office ASAP. Because Daddy needed to get paid and make sure he still had a job.

So…you know. Take from that what you will.

That it?

Yeah, that’s it. It’s more of a vent post than actual advice for law practice today, sorry. I haven’t had a pain pill today and my hip hurts. I’m a little angry right now.

Tomorrow I’ll have a guest post in regards to, like, intellectual property and things.