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The Yearlong Sidebar: Taking a Break from the Professional Hurricane

February 2010
A senior associate takes advantage of a unique firm program and reaps value for herself, future employers and clients, too.

On June 1, 2009, in the middle of the most tumultuous economic period I had experienced in my professional life, I did something very strange. I voluntarily left a very good job.

When my firm at the time, Skadden Arps, announced its “Sidebar Plus” program in the spring of 2009, I, like many others at the firm, was surprised and intrigued. For those not familiar with the contemporaneous press on the particulars of the “Sidebar Plus” policy, it was a unique offer at a time when many industries were weathering the economic storms with massive layoffs. The law firm industry was not immune to such layoffs, and indeed my firm had laid off numerous secretarial and administrative staff in the weeks and months leading up to the announcement of Sidebar Plus. So when the Sidebar Plus policy was first announced, it was, in a word, curious.

The offer was made to all associates, across the board—regardless of year, department, productivity or assignment—to apply for the privilege of taking a year off from the firm in return for one-third an annual salary plus some additional benefits, including payment of monthly law school loans and CLE fees.

There could be little question that the arrangement had a mutually beneficial ring to it. The new policy promised the opportunity for many to leave the firm for a year and pursue other endeavors, professional and personal, with some financial and job security. In turn, the policy was obviously a creative way for the firm to try to cut costs for a year, the same year that many hoped would be the last year of the ongoing recession.

There was, at the time, a lot of talk about the amazing opportunity and benefits this new policy presented to the firm’s young associates. Many were working on matters, deals and cases that necessarily slowed down due to the economic downturn. Morale was low, and associates with less than usual billables worried about layoffs, but this new policy went a long way to help alleviate those concerns and morale issues.

But I was not a young associate at the time Sidebar Plus was announced. Prior to the announcement of Sidebar Plus, I was a senior litigation associate giving little thought to leaving the firm, even for a sabbatical. It’s not that I was 100 percent certain I was on the appropriate or correct career path. I was simply too busy to leave. I was too busy to think about leaving. I was busy.

And not just at the office.

I was, at the time, the primary breadwinner, caregiver and cheerleader for my family of five, putting my husband through his surgical training and supporting our three young children whose astronomical and ever-mounting child-care bills both arose from, and necessitated, my long hours. I had negotiated a part-time schedule that offered some flexibility, flexibility that I truly valued, as I often needed to leave the office at dinnertime owing to the children’s schedules or finish briefs at 2 am owing to other responsibilities.

Yet every year when it came time to evaluate my professional goals and my future career path, I found myself unable to really divorce myself from pressing deadlines and looming piles of paperwork to ask myself what I wanted to do next. I was in a bit of a professional hurricane, a swirling storm of ambition and confusion. And although none of my colleagues greeted my decision to apply for the Sidebar Plus program by saying “what a great thing you are doing for the firm” or “what a great thing you are doing for your legal career,” in fact, it took Sidebar Plus to show me that a break from that professional hurricane was indeed beneficial both to my firm and to my own professional career.

Let me explain how that occurred.

Enthusiasm Refreshed

When my sabbatical commenced last summer, I was armed with a long list of things I wanted to accomplish in the upcoming year, including justifying my gym membership and writing a novel. I confess that the practice of law was not actually on that list.

I began my pet project on hiatus, an online column called “NY Working Moms Examiner” on examiner.com, focusing on issues interesting and relevant to working moms, including child-care and paid-leave issues, and even career reentry strategies. It was in fact because of my column that I was contacted by Carol Cohen, co-founder of a successful consulting company, iRelaunch. iRelaunch helps men and women interested in “relaunching” their careers after a hiatus at home. At Cohen’s invitation, I agreed to attend a daylong conference hosted by iRelaunch and I also conducted several interviews of Cohen for my column.

It was in interviewing Cohen and attendees at that conference this past fall that I came to understand the single most important character trait that separates those who leave the workforce for a period of time from those who don’t: enthusiasm. Would-be relaunchers are anxious and eager to get back to the workforce once they make that decision. As one iRelaunch conference attendee told me, "I had lunch with a former colleague recently and he told me, 'You know why you're going to be successful now? Because you want to work. We [those who have stayed in the industry continuously while you've been gone] are tired…."

It’s like that for me. I’m enthusiastic about eventually resuming practicing law because of the well-needed perspective I’ve obtained while I’ve been on hiatus. When I ultimately “relaunch” my career, it will be deliberate, conscious and productive, no longer a swirling hurricane. Put simply, what I now bring to the table means Sidebar Plus has been valuable to me, to my future employers and most certainly to my clients.

Rediscovering a Love for Lawyering

So how have I spent my year? Well, since I am, by trade, a professional researcher and writer, I have continued to research and write. In addition to my own column, I have written for other publications, including Padosa.com, a “green” Web site resource for small businesses.

But I have not stepped away from the law.

I have worked with a wonderful legal advocacy group based in New York City, called A Better Balance, a group pioneering efforts to improve laws and policies for working families, including in the areas of paid sick leave and workplace discrimination.

Also, because I found myself with a little extra time on my hands, I have been able to gladly provide pro bono assistance to friends and family in reviewing contracts, pleadings and other legal documents.

And without the burdens of a heavy caseload and pressing litigation deadlines, I have sought out CLE classes that are interesting and useful rather than simply enrolling in courses that will conveniently meet my annual requirements.

I have, in short, discovered again how much I love being a lawyer.

But I never once regretted my decision to leave the law, albeit temporarily. I once questioned Carol Cohen, someone I consider an expert on the art of relaunching a career, about specifically relaunching a legal career. Put simply, I know people often go back to work after taking a hiatus at home to care for their children, but, I asked Cohen, can you really go back to practicing law after taking time off?

She had two simple words for me: “Justice O’Connor.”

You see, it is not necessarily well known, but Sandra Day O’Connor took five years off to care for her family before she relaunched her career in 1965 by joining the Arizona Attorney General’s office. And the rest is, as they say, history.

The truth is many people have taken time away from their legal careers to pursue other endeavors, personal and professional. For me, the jury is still out on exactly when and how I will re-join my colleagues in the practice of law. But I know I will practice again. I miss it.

When I returned to Skadden following my maternity leave after having my first son six years ago, I was ambivalent about leaving my firstborn so soon. One of my best friends consoled me at the time with advice I have never forgotten: “Enjoy it. You’ll have the most wonderful opportunity to miss him. You never get that chance if you don’t leave.”

Funny, the same holds true for the practice of law.

You never get the chance to miss what you don’t leave. If only for a year.

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About the Author

Amy Impellizzeri is a lawyer, a writer and a mother of three. Currently on sabbatical from her Manhattan law firm position, she has been working with the legal advocacy group A Better Balance and writing for NY Working Moms Examiner, and is a contributing writer for Padosa.com.

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