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Sabbatical Doesn't Come Easy at Small Firm

The Recorder

By Petra Pasternak

May 29, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - Many law firms are paying young lawyers to stay away. But one associate at a small San Francisco litigation shop has had to work to take this summer off.

Myles Solomon, a fifth-year at Bassi Edlin Huie & Blum, won't be relaxing on a beach. He's going to Africa to volunteer through a charity organization, a dream that meant leaving his increasingly busy firm and the growing sports agency he has created.

"I'm at a point in my life where things like this wouldn't be possible for me soon," Solomon, who turns 32 in a few months, said. "I still don't have ties like a spouse keeping me here, so I was pretty determined to go."

But with only 19 lawyers, this was no small matter for Bassi Edlin. No one had ever taken so much time off at the firm, partners there say. And, unlike big firms that typically have the resources to cover a lawyer's absence, Bassi Edlin was looking at a potential revenue hole to the tune of $130,000 to $145,000, and extra work for the lawyers who'd have to take over Solomon's sports law matters and insurance defense cases. To a lesser degree, but still palpable, there was the personal reaction of the more senior partners. "I've been practicing law for 27 years and I've been working since I was 17, and I've never had three months off," Noel Edlin, the managing partner, said. "This is so contrary to the work ethic of lawyers."

Ultimately though, Solomon's contributions to the firm and the humanitarian nature of his project led the partnership to give him the green light. Solomon leaves June 4. "We would give any associate a second thought on something like this, but he brings a lot to the table," Edlin said. "It's not a relationship that we'd want to sever over a few months of absence."

There are plenty of reasons associates don't take sabbaticals. Reed Smith's Bette Epstein, the Oakland office managing partner, doesn't know of any sabbaticals at the 1,500-lawyer firm. There is so much focus on developing skills, billing hours and building relationships, she says, "it's even harder to take a vacation, let alone a sabbatical." Plus many have family and financial commitments. But she believes it wouldn't be impossible. "If it was something the associate felt passionate about, I would hope that the management would seriously consider it."

At the Bassi Edlin firm, Solomon said, getting the OK from partners "wasn't smooth and easy." He said they took awhile to think it through. Aside from the firm's culture of flexibility, he thought his involvement with the sports agency, of which the partners are co-owners, helped tip the scales in his favor. "Because we have this extra relationship, they might've been more willing to work with me," he said. Bassi Edlin's name partners had contributed startup money to help Solomon get the agency off the ground. Today, they own 49 percent. "We take three percent of any contract that we've negotiated," Solomon said. "The partners and I split the revenue." He declined to give details, but said he now counts 12 college coaches as clients. He says the agency is poised for another growth spurt in the next year. "It hit me at the last coaches convention in Nashville," where more than 6,000 coaches appeared. "I belong there. Before it was just going around trying to meet people, now I get business done."

Bassi Edlin partners say that Solomon has helped bring new business to the firm, too, and he bills at a 1,900-hour pace. Edlin said that some days, he finds Solomon at the office at 5 or 6 in the morning. He is popular with the firm's clients, existing and new. "He is unique in the sense that his personal effort has resulted in helping bring in new clients," Edlin said. "I have been on trips with him with clients - these people view him as their lawyer."

There is also the investment the firm's made in Solomon as a lawyer. "He knows our practice now," said partner Marte Bassi, who conducts weekly seminars for new hires to instill the firm's approach to clients and cases. "All new lawyers to the firm are required to [attend] for a couple of years," he said, "until I feel they're competent enough."

The firm handles insurance defense and corporate-driven environmental litigation. Bassi estimated average billing rates at about $275.

Bassi Edlin is involved in three trials this year. With the notice Solomon gave, the firm has had time to adapt, Bassi said. This week, it hired two midlevel associates.

There is a tradeoff in extra hours for the other lawyers. Edlin said other people are using nonbillable time to learn Solomon's cases. "I'm getting e-mails from partners at 3:40 in the morning," asking questions ahead of out-of-town depositions for his cases. "That's what happens when you accommodate someone and stretch a little bit so they can grow."

In just a few weeks, Solomon will be in Uganda, digging ditches and wells, helping build community buildings and teaching English, HIV prevention and general health. In Arusha, Tanzania, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal is still trying war criminals for the Rwanda massacres of the 1990s. Solomon plans to sit in on those. The firm is not paying his salary, but will cover benefits, he said. (Fifth-year associates make between $90,000 and $125,000, according to Edlin.)

Solomon said that he's raised money through friends, family and clients to "use as I see fit," once he arrives in each country. "One of my basketball coaches sent me boxes of things like athletic gear," and 30 soccer balls, which people can't afford in the places he's going.

"This is something that I'm really looking forward to and something I have to accomplish in my life," Solomon said. "Working in the sports industry is fantastic. At the end of the day, it's still a job. I like the things that come after a job."