February 22, 2024

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Law Firm Steals Future Unused Vacation Pay By *Generously* Offering Unlimited Vacation!!!

Every few years, a law firm will adopt an unlimited vacation days policy and sell it as a recognition of that associates are “adults” and “professionals” capable of managing their own schedules. Which is an odd pitch since those associates would have to be born yesterday to believe that. And yet, despite everyone being clued in on this bait-and-switch tactic for over a decade now, Quinn Emanuel decided maybe its associates wouldn’t piece it together.

Spoiler: They pieced it together.

The firm sent around a memo yesterday offering the same tired pitch to its associates about the magical world of unlimited vacation.

All: We are revising our vacation policy for attorneys. Under the new policy, U.S. attorneys will have unlimited vacation days, subject to case and business needs.

Effective January 1, 2022, U.S. attorneys will no longer have limited vacation days. Instead, everyone understands their professional obligations and the traditional time commitments required for this job. As long as individual lawyers meet their obligations, they are entitled to take as much or as little vacation as they desire. In order to implement this change, at the end of this year you will receive a buy out of your accrued vacation time, and beginning next year you will no longer accrue such time.

As transparent as the crystal clear air on that mountain you won’t actually be climbing because you’re going to spend the whole year in the office. Much respect to whoever tried to write “as they desire” and make it sound earnest. There should be awards for that sort of thing.

I’ve worked here for quite a few years and have never taken more than 2-3 vacation days in an entire year. The effect of this policy for the vast majority will be less money (because we aren’t paid out for unused vacation) and no more vacation than before.

Because this policy doesn’t give associates the ability to take “as much or as little vacation as they desire.” Those associates will still labor under the firm’s minimum billables requirement, already higher than its peer firms, to get their bonuses and, you know, to keep their jobs. Attorneys never use all their allotted vacation time anyway. The only value to the three or four weeks that serve as a shiny object on the firm’s NALP profile is the possibility of rolling it over for an extended sabbatical or, more often, getting a cash-out at the end of the year or when the attorney leaves the firm. It’s that payout that the firm hopes to recoup under the guise of its new, magnanimous policy. If attorneys also feel pressure to never leave the office based on the ephemeral hope that the firm will offer them a shot at the golden ring years down the line, that’s just another perk of taking away a perk.

Associates are in a total uproar…. I cash out yearly to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. But the new policy means associates no longer accrue any vacation time. The result is that associates will still take the same (small) number of vacation days and make tens of thousands of dollars less each year without the vacation payout that most in this industry have come to expect.

Really crappy move, and the timing isn’t ideal for Quinn which has made a string of annoying policy changes during COVID that have hurt associates monetarily.

Unfortunately, this sort of short-changing is likely to take the whole industry by storm in the near future. Even if most firms continue to see vacation time as an inviolable fringe benefit, the way some firms discuss hybrid work models draw upon the same mindset. Firms that eschew a set three- or four-day in-office work week in favor of a hybrid model with “no minimum days in the office” have functionally announced a five-day minimum office week. Because no minimum days in the office also means no maximum days in the office and senior attorneys will take the lack of clarity and run with it.

Being a lawyer is a seven-day work week anyway… but there’s an expectation that the weekend will frequently be at home. When a firm says “four days in the office,” the lawyer isn’t working less, they’ve just shifted to add Friday to the days they’ll — more often than not — log in from home. Setting that expectation matters.

Sorry, Quinn associates. And everyone else.

Minor Edit: Added “Future” to the title because I thought someone might misconstrue it and think the firm was taking away already accrued unused vacation. They’re paying that out for this year and then taking away any pay out for future years by not having a set vacation policy.

Earlier: Change In Vacation Policy Causes Consternation At Biglaw Firm
Unlimited Vacation Policies Can Be Bad For Associates
Another Firm Offers Unlimited Vacation For Associates
Latham Lathams Accrued Vacation

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.