`Jones, Take Six Months Off'

More and more employees are given option to take an extended leave - with pay

`MINE was the most productive sabbatical anyone ever had,'' boasts Sally Katzen, a partner at Washington's ninth-largest law firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. During her leave, she gave birth to her first child, a son. She intends to do all the things stay-at-home mothers do for her next sabbatical next June - ``Clean closets, plan menus, sit in car pool lines, pack lunches, and travel. I'll be a full-time mother and wife.''

Corporate America is more readily accepting the idea of sabbaticals - once only the prerogative of college professors. Now these periods away from work are corporate policy at International Business Machines, Time Warner Inc., the Intel Corporation, and Apple Computer.

``We feel it's important for people to get refreshed,'' says Robert S. McCormick, executive director of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, the first of Washington's major law firms to adopt a sabbatical policy 19 years ago. Some partners have already taken a second sabbatical.

``Our lawyers relax, rejuvenate themselves, and pursue other interests. The firm welcomes them back - everyone's come back. Then they attack their work with new fervor,'' McCormick says.

Each of the firm's 75 partners may take a fully paid, six-month sabbatical after every six years of work. Support staff is eligible for a fully paid, three-month ``extended vacation'' after 10 years with the firm and then after every seventh year.

In 1984, partner Dan Mayers spent five weeks alone in his three-bedroom house off a dirt road in the village of Barnard, Vt., writing 130 pages of reminiscences about his parents and his childhood for his adult children who never knew their paternal grandparents.

Partner Michael Helfer was the only man in a basic auto mechanics class. ``I knew how to change a tire before class. I learned the basic car parts so I'd know what mechanics are talking about,'' he says.

Partner Michael R. Klein took his first sabbatical in Asia, backpacking through 11 countries with his architect wife. ``We each took one respectable piece of clothing,'' he says. In the Philippines they used boxes of stick matches to barter with loincloth-clad, head-hunting mountain tribes. They sent home 27 boxes of shoes, clothes, trinkets, dishes from Hong Kong, and wooden ducks and cigar boxes from Bali.

``There's more to our stay on Earth than making money. A sabbatical contributes to the joy of it all,'' Mr. Klein says.

Both the firm and the individuals reap benefits from their leaves. ``I was experiencing burnout after 10 years here,'' says legal secretary Rosita Stewart, who laid tile, installed woodwork in her basement, and redid the kitchen and upstairs bathroom, saving her and her husband about $7,000. ``When I returned I felt like taking on new challenges.''

Edna Blackney, a legal secretary with the organization for 40 years, says the firm receives loyalty because a leave is ``an incentive for longevity.'' During her extended vacation, she took an educational and cultural cruise from Vancouver to Alaska.

THE sabbatical program doesn't always function smoothly or equitably because some partners with continuing client responsibilities can't extricate themselves from their work. And all may receive calls from a partner and a client before the end of the sabbatical asking them please to continue with a case.

That happened to partner Max O. Truitt. Returning two months early ``was awful,'' he recalls. ``I went from a condition of goofing off to working 600 hours in seven weeks, a real shock. One survives, but without a transition period it was difficult.''

Sabbaticals, says Mr. Mayers, ``cost the firm inefficiency two months before the leave because a partner feels he can't take on major assignments,'' and some time after the leave, too, when he's readjusting.

Some nonprofit groups are introducing the sabbatical concept to their employees. Two years ago, The Center for Community Change began offering its 33 workers with seven continuous years of employment a fully paid four-month sabbatical.

``If someone chooses a project related to the center and his job here, we'll kick in $2,000 for his travel,'' says Pablo Eisenberg, president. ``The sabbatical program is our incentive to our employees to stay in the nonprofit world. It doesn't cost the firm much money. We just do without the person for four months.''

Mr. Eisenberg spent his sabbatical looking at the growing nonprofit sectors in the Netherlands, France, and England with a focus on minority and low-income groups.

``I learned more than I had in the previous 10 years. I learned the social safety nets are better in Europe. We have to learn how to become a humane society with a caring government. And they can learn from us how to build strong, feisty nonprofit sectors and to build private-public sector partnerships.''

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