It’s been a little over a year since Seyfarth launched a project that provides mini sabbaticals to help relieve some of the stress of Big Law life, giving employees the chance to test the theory that time off can go a long way.

Near the end of 2018, the firm of 900 lawyers across 15 offices launched the Inspiration Project, which had a simple premise: let employees take breaks to do something that inspires them, whether that’s pursuing wellness, lifelong learning, or community service.

Sabbaticals have been one of the latest ideas to improve mental health in Big Law.

In the wake of the 2018 ABA well-being pledge, more law firms are trying to tackle the stress and anxiety generated by long hours of work on high-stakes matters. Other tactics have included modifying work schedules, allowing telecommuting, providing therapy, and offering perks like massages or art therapy.

Firms’ efforts picked up steam after a 2016 ABA report highlighted the widespread problems that lawyers have with drinking and substance abuse as well as anxiety and depression.

Exploring Roots

The initiative at Seyfarth is the brainchild of a group of partners.

Ariel Cudkowicz, a labor and employment partner at the firm, said in August 2018 a four-person steering committee — along with some of the firm’s administrative staff — “met for a day of brainstorming to come up with ideas to promote and celebrate well-being and wellness at the firm.” They came up with what would become Project Inspiration.

Ariel Cudkowicz
Courtesy of Seyfarth

The program announced in November 2018 initially provided $4,000—the amount was increased to $5,000 for 2020— to pursue a project, which has included tracking family roots, volunteering, attending a wellness retreat, and helping register voters.

Response to the program has been enthusiastic. Last year, 29 people applied and six scholarships were awarded. For 2020, 22 people applied and seven scholarships are being awarded— one more to honor the firm’s 75th anniversary this year.

Among the winners last year were Michelle Gergerian, a labor and employment partner in the firm’s Boston office, who wanted to trace her family roots in Italy. Her great-grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. in his late teens or early 20s. She and her family went to village of Serre, in the southwest of Italy, last year and stopped in at city hall for help in locating her relatives.

“City workers began pulling books off the shelves, looking for my family name. They tracked down four families with the same surname, Impemba. They contacted people in the village and within a short time, a relative was handing me a picture of my great-grandfather.”

Gergerian said that her quest gave her peace of mind. “This was a missing piece of my life, and it taps into my work and my professional affairs and contributes to my general outlook.”

“And once you have children, it’s part of their life and you want them to know about their background,” she added.

Michelle Gergerian
Courtesy of Seyfarth

Diana Pedersen, an attorney in Seyfarth’s Chicago office, won another Seyfarth grant to pursue her own well-being project. She created a video that shows her family’s trip last June to New Orleans, where they volunteered for the nonprofit Youth Rebuilding New Orleans. In the program, children 12 and older are taught and supervised by adults while they repair distressed and foreclosed homes.

“It was a chance to spend a week where my children could learn things like painting and building that can help other people,” said Pedersen.

Big Law Breaks

Other firms have also adopted the “sabbatical” model.

Through its “Unplug On Us” program, Orrick gives associates and certain other categories of lawyers a vacation reimbursement of up to $15,000 if they billed more than 2,400 hours in the prior year. The program was first announced in 2018 to encourage the firm’s lawyers to take extended paid time off.

And at Shook Hardy & Bacon, lawyers are eligible for a three-month sabbatical every six years once they’ve spent seven years at the firm.

“If we tried to change it now, there would be a revolt,” said Phil Goldberg, the managing partner of the firm’s Washington office, of the sabbatical program. “It’s an opportunity to take things down a few notches.”

Many partners spend the time with their families, relaxing and taking trips of a lifetime. In 2018, Goldberg cashed out all his credit card points and he and his family of five went on a trip to Southeast Asia and Australia.

Colleague Al Saikali, a partner in the firm’s Miami office, took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Middle East in 2018. As part of the same sabbatical, later that summer, he had the freedom to go the movies at noon with his teenage daughter.

“It’s the most amazing and underrated perk to be able to do things like that instead of waiting until you retire.”

Law firm sabbaticals may conjure thoughts of travel or service projects in faroff places, but they can also be spent much closer to home.

Some Shook Hardy partners have taught classes in their time off or, like James Muehlberger, written a book. When he took a sabbatical in 2016, he wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln’s guard force, a group of men who protected the president from possible Confederate attack at the beginning of the Civil War.

Muehlberger said he is planning to take another sabbatical.

“This time, it will be white water rafting with my 16-year-old. It takes a long time to write a book.”