Walden Pond Sabbatical

By Bruce L. Kaplan 

Dreams are the touchstones of our character

 Simplify simplify simplify 

Live deliberately, 

—Henry David Thoreau 

WHY

I have used secured leave and good timing to take the entire month of January away from my office for the past four years and have stayed in Seabrook Island, South Carolina.  I am a sole practitioner, who has practiced in Boone, North Carolina since 1981, and have one office staff person who has been with me for fifteen years. 

My love for Walden Pond, oceans, Lake Michigan and now Seabrook Island’s marsh, brings me at age 71 and having practiced for more than 40 years [NC Bar No 9900], to days of being at peace with, and in balance with my life.  I cannot describe the sunsets over the marsh or how it is the perfect ending to a day away from work. Henry David Thoreau writings and visiting Walden Pond have been touchstones for my balancing work, socialization, family, and quiet time.  My legal assistant prepares my “going to Seabrook Island” box as my office away from the office, and I head out on December 28th each year to my sabbatical adventure.

I rent a three-bedroom villa and 60-65% of the time I am by myself and then the other time with friends and family.  I wake up early to read on the deck and then decide whether I want to walk, read, bicycle, go to the beach or play tennis [and occasionally playing pickle ball].  When I am at my retreat I am mostly a tennis player and not an attorney.

I googled sabbatical and found that the concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita, which is related to agriculture. According to Leviticus 25, Jews in the Land of Israel must take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years.  A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual.  I feel I am restored to health as I embrace the time away from the courthouse and not wearing a suit and tie.

Yes, I questioned whether I “deserve” to take a month off from the office and this being an absence from my image and identity as an attorney.  I have made it a priority, and because it occurs every January, all the local attorneys, the clerk’s office and Judges recognize and support my month of January sabbatical.  Yes, they actually support my sabbatical.

I continue to seek balance in my work and personal life and gifting to myself this time away and embracing being at my Walden Pond.  I believe because of my sabbaticals that at 71 I still want to practice law because I enjoy the challenge and I want to continue to assist clients, including some that have been my clients for 35 or more years.

HOW

As a sole practitioner for more than thirty years I have created a legal environment that respects my sabbatical and works with me with scheduling and planning.  

My assistant gets files ready and folders and checks and other necessary items such FedEx envelops and labels in banker boxes. She is a very loyal and competent administrative support person who “covers for me” when I am away and helps me plan to take my sabbatical.

I have a strong relationship with a backup attorney.  This for me is an attorney who I am also her backup when she is out of town. I have built strong relationships with Judges, other attorneys, Clerks, and Trial Court Administrators.  I have formed these strong relationships in the 39 years I have been practicing in Boone.

I plan in advance, including deadlines for cases and sending out secured leave notices early.  I create an outline of what needs to be accomplished in December to be able to leave the office on December 28th.  I work to not have anything that cannot be continued or easily handled by my backup attorney.  In the four years I have taken a month-long sabbatical I have had to return for one hearing and it was scheduled on a Friday.  

I attempt to make some financial plans so I will not be stressed about money.  The lessons from COVID-19 on how to survive with less revenue will carry over to my future financial planning. I pay some bills early, so I am not worrying about having money in my professional account to cover expenses. I try to plan that there is some income coming in during the month of January. I aim to be flexible and have reasonable work boundaries and expectations.

It has not been difficult to schedule around my month away as all attorneys and Judges compliment me on taking a month off and going to Seabrook and we actually joke about it.

My administrative staff person, who knows me well from working together for fifteen years.  She is able to make decisions if and when I need to be notified.  She also discusses issues with another attorney who I share staff time and who also covers for me when I am not available. I continue to talk with those who support me in my decision to take this time off away from the office and Court. 

I have also learned from COVID19 how to work remotely and how to create attorney client relationships via zoom.   This hopefully will be an easy time to be away from the office as many attorneys are working remotely from their home and I will be working remotely from my vacation home.  

I don’t know when I will be retiring but I believe taking this time off and detaching from my identity as an attorney will help me to transition to retirement.

Reprinted with Permission. This article first appeared in the NC State Bar Journal, Spring 2021 edition.

About The Author

Bruce Kaplan

Bruce Kaplan has been practicing law in Boone since 1981. He is a past-chair of Hospitality House, past-chair of the Children’s Council, and past-president of the Watauga County Bar Association.