$80,000 for a Year Off? She’ll Take It!

Susan Dominus, The New York Times
business check

This year may be a disastrous one for the global economy, but it’s shaping up to be one of the best that Heather Eisenlord has enjoyed in a good long while. Granted, that might not be saying much: For the past five years, Ms. Eisenlord has been an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a notably grueling place for a lawyer to work.

But even by more stringent standards of fun, the coming year looks pretty good. Ms. Eisenlord, 36, who works in Skadden’s banking group, will be buying a plane ticket that will take her around the world for a year, and she’s been stocking her apartment in Brooklyn with Lonely Planet travel guides.

Although she’s not yet sure exactly what she’ll be doing on her trip, she has some ideas. She would like to teach English to monks in Sri Lanka and possibly help bring solar power to remote parts of the Himalayas. She’ll probably hit 10 to 15 destinations around the world, most likely practicing not-for-profit law wherever she can be helpful.

The best part of all: Skadden is paying her about $80,000 to do it.

For a sixth-year associate at a New York law firm, $80,000 isn’t exactly competitive pay. But for someone cruising around the world, doing good wherever she sees fit and, let’s face it, probably hitting a beach or two, the pay is excellent.

Only in a financial world turned upside down would an arrangement like this one make sense. Looking to cut costs like everyone else, but not prepared to lay off employees, Skadden has chosen instead to offer all of its associates — about 1,300 worldwide — the option of accepting a third of their base pay to not show up for work for a year. (So far, the partners have no equivalent arrangement.)

The company is helping associates find pro bono work, and is encouraging them to do so. But the lawyers could also spend the year catching up on every episode of “Top Chef” that they missed during the boom years, or traveling around the world, “all of which is O.K. by us,” said Matthew Mallow, a partner at the firm. Other firms have adopted similar strategies, but Skadden’s program is unusual in that it has no pro bono requirements..

As of Friday, about 125 associates had expressed interest. “I think it’s fair to say that the numbers are in excess of our expectations,” Mr. Mallow said.

Only at a corporate law firm would the managers underestimate employees’ interest in taking a year off from the grind for what most of America would consider a small fortune.

Not everyone could cover monthly living expenses on a third of one’s pay, and naturally some skeptical lawyers grilled the partners about job security. If there are layoffs in a year, they wondered, is it really possible that the lawyers who’d been defending trees in British Columbia wouldn’t be disadvantaged, compared with the lawyers who’d been slaving away on contracts in Midtown?

Not only were the lawyers assured that their time away wouldn’t hurt them; in some ways it would be protective: If there are layoffs while they are away, they will be immune.

So far, the majority of the lawyers are looking for worthwhile legal work, Skadden says, to keep them as competitive as possible; but yes, some will take the year off to spend time with their children or look after a sick relative. Someone’s planning to wrap up his Ph.D., someone else is looking into legal work for a news organization, and another associate will be joining Ms. Eisenlord on her round-the-world adventure.

Ms. Eisenlord says she fully intends to go back to Skadden after her trip, and will be eager to return to the work she loves and the co-workers she admires. It’s possible that after a year teaching monks English, installing solar panels in the Himalayas and working on human rights in developing nations, she will come to the conclusion that there is no more fulfilling life than the one she has spent in corporate law.

But maybe she will have some kind of revelation. If there is any silver lining to this financial catastrophe, it’s that business as usual has come to a grinding halt. Sometimes it takes getting thrown out of the office to notice there is a life outside.

Already, Ms. Eisenlord seems to be making some sort of transition. Has she been getting any work done lately as she anticipates this thrilling new trip?

“No comment,” she said.

Spoken like a lawyer — but a lawyer on the verge.