Coping with Christmas: should law firms close for the holidays?
Rita Gupta considers whether or not your law firm should close over the Christmas period.
Is your law firm closing for Christmas this year? This decision will be faced by managers and owners of UK law firms, trying to balance the needs of their clients with the wellbeing of their team.
Assessing seasonal workload could be especially difficult for busy UK law firms this year.
On the one hand, client demand could drop as many UK non-legal businesses wind down towards a much-anticipated Christmas period.
On the other, your law firm may be suffering from staff shortages due to coronavirus (COVID-19) and flu. Experienced employees may have decided not to return from furlough. And as any business will tell you, recruiting experienced skilled staff is extremely challenging.
To close or not to close?
Although law firms may be busy, there is a myriad of compelling reasons why you should close over Christmas and New Year's Eve 2021.
The festive season is the time when tired team members in all areas of law need to take a well-earned break from the pressures and demands of work.
Built-up stress and accumulated tiredness can be highly detrimental to your physical and mental health. An extended break can help by giving you time to:
- relax and sleep better
- enjoy activities unconnected with work, boosting creativity
- reconnect and reset your work-life balance
Annual leave is more than just time off, it’s essential and well-deserved downtime that will benefit the mental and physical health of all team members. If you value those precious days spent away from the office, so will your employees.
There are also sound business reasons for giving employees leave over Christmas too. Taking an extended break can increase productivity on your return to work.
‘Being there’ for your clients
However, it may be hard to tear yourself away from work. Although we care for the wellbeing of our colleagues and employees, there is often a perceived need to always ‘be there’ for our clients that may make us want to remain open over Christmas.
This will particularly apply to those working in criminal law, where often teams stagger responsibility between them. In commercial high-level law firms with international clients, there will be time differences to contend with, and clients from other cultures who are not celebrating and expect a normal service.
This sense of duty and commitment is one I can empathise with as a family lawyer. My high-conflict or abuse cases all have my mobile number over Christmas, just in case.
But should I even do this?
Jonny Gifford of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (as quoted in the Guardian) believes that leaders need to be mindful of their own mental and physical wellbeing: “It's important to realise that a healthy business requires a healthy leader. If you're not taking proper care of yourself, and that includes taking a break, you're also not taking proper care of your business.”
This suggests that as a business owner and leader, I should set an example to my team and log off completely, to protect myself and my team (even though in reality I never make myself completely unavailable over the Christmas period).
Season of goodwill?
The post-Christmas period can be busier for those practising family law. As for far too many couples, the festive season is anything but enjoyable, with arguments fuelled by money worries, drink, stress and being in each other’s company more than usual. The end of the Christmas / new year period brings a deluge of enquiries as the Christmas spirit wears off.
While I don’t believe there is a ‘Divorce Day’ as the media often claim, undoubtedly it is busier in the new year. To return as a team after a break helps service those clients better.
I am also acutely aware that after Christmas I will be taking on matrimonial cases where clients’ lack of quality time with their families has led to marriage breakdowns and separations. This reaffirms that spending time with my own family is important too.
Trial and error
Opening at Christmas is something we considered and trialled over the first few years of our boutique family law firm.
We used to open in between Christmas and new year but found little benefit in this. Many lawyers were not working on the other side, and existing clients also needed a well-deserved break from their case. The workload was not enough to justify making our team come to work during this period.
We also used to open for part of Christmas Eve. We found we could never get out on time, as there were always high-conflict cases which deliberately timed their correspondence to clash with our Christmas closure. These actions made our team late to join their families.
We now give all the team Christmas Eve off as paid annual leave so they can enjoy a more relaxed run-up to the whole period. For Christmas 2021, we are closed right through to 4 January 2022.
Needless to say, we do log on to check enquiries periodically, and as explained before, we are available for our clients in high-conflict and abuse cases.
Christmas cover – a big ask
If you still feel your firm needs to provide some form of cover over the statutory holidays, consider this: asking tired office staff and weary senior legal partners and directors – who worked continuously through lockdown – to cover Christmas may prove a request too far for their mental and physical health.
A Christmas closure policy may not work for every industry. However, I would argue that, for legal firms, it would demonstrate to your team that you value their hard work and respect their need for a proper work-life balance. It could also boost your staff retention.
Lessons from the pandemic
The pandemic has made a generation reflect on their work-life balance differently. If you practise an area of law where a Christmas closure can happen, it may be the way forward. If not, look at the logistics of a skeleton staff, fair coverage rotas and giving a fixed set of days off for all employees.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.