How to minimise the impact of a long-term absence 

Whether it’s down to maternity leave, paternity leave, sabbatical, illness or any other reason, the long-term absence is something that all departments in all types of organisation face at some point. And the legal function is no exception. 

Here, we look at the key areas of long-term absence from the points of view of the three people most likely to be affected - the line manager, the person taking the leave and the department head. 

The line manager 

If you’re the line manager of a colleague about to start an extended period of absence, you’re likely to be the one with the most responsibility for managing its impact and putting temporary arrangements in place. 

For this reason, you need to ensure that you and your team members keep your: standard documents, play books, stakeholder contact list/maps per role, process flow documents in which the role plays a part and policies up to date and accessible and have all working materials in accessible shared folders using a common file structure and document naming system. Don’t wait for a colleague to announce they’re leaving before creating a last minute project of this task. Having current documentation at your fingertips will help you get a new joiner on board and up to speed quickly. 

In terms of how you fill the vacant role, your options include: 

  • Bringing in a secondee from an external law firm you use; 
  • Offering the role to an internal employee on a temporary secondee basis; 
  • Hiring a freelancer or independent interim; 
  • Spreading the tasks out (for short periods) among other colleagues; 
  • Asking one of the team member's own reports to "act up" temporarily to cover the role; and 
  • Contracting with an agency or alternative law firm provider to provide cover. 

So, as a line manager it pays to maintain an awareness of the landscape for interim resource. Networking at industry events and building your social media presence are great ways to achieve this. 

Which option is best for you will depend on the skills and experience you’re looking for, the anticipated duration of the leave and, of course, your budget. Unless the required skillset is highly specific, you may find that chemistry is the decisive factor. A self-starter who’ll hit the ground running, communicate well and know when to ask for expert input could be a better bet than a specialist who’ll need time-consuming onboarding. 

Think too about whether you even need a like-for-like replacement or whether you can allocate some of the work elsewhere and rely on ad hoc resourcing for the rest. Some creative thinking here could save you money and help develop existing team members. 

Sometimes it can make sense to bring in someone to cover who has an extra skillset which you need on a temporary basis to do a team (like a contract management system roll out) or for a defined business project (like a new country or product roll out or an IP audit) while also covering the absent person's core role. You might have to pay a bit extra to secure these extra competencies temporarily but it may well be a lot better value than getting someone extra internal or external to do the project or to not do it at all. 

If your leaver works closely with your internal clients, discuss the issue with these people. Their buy-in to your decision is important. Then, if possible, arrange for the leaver to introduce their replacement to their clients in person (or leaving a role checklist can also be used for this purpose). Even if this is not possible, involve the leaver as much as you can in the recruiting process. If the interim can shadow the leaver, so much the better. 

With your new person (or people) in place, allow time for them to get up to speed. In these early days, ask your established team members to handle urgent issues. Ensure your new starters have the access to the IT systems they’ll need as this can make a massive difference to early success. 

Treat your interims as permanent team members and ask your clients to do the same. Invite the interims to contribute and share their experience and insights. Similarly, involve them in your departmental strategy and training programs. Remember their fresh eyes and different experience may highlight opportunities for improvements in your team. 

Finally, stay in touch with the staff member on leave. Have a full debrief before they depart and agree a communication plan for the duration of their absence. Include them in your training plans and, if appropriate, invite them to your organisation’s and department’s social events. 

It is worth remembering that some banks use enforced sabbaticals in key roles as a means of checking that what the person on sabbatical has been doing is correct, efficient and still needed (and not fraudulent) - so, especially if you have performance or development concerns with an employee, a gap cover provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the role that is being covered and the person normally in that role. 

The person taking the leave 

If you’re getting ready for a long-term absence, help your line manager, colleagues and interim replacement by making your know-how and advice easily accessible. An up-to-date work planner shared across the department will help them prepare for your departure. Format this in the way that suits you and ask the interim to follow your structure. 

Your key tasks are to make your colleagues feel that your colleagues are impacted as little as possible by your absence and are aware of and grateful for the efforts that you have made to ensure this - if nothing else because it will be their turn one day and you would like them to make the same effort for you. 

Include access details to key documents and any background emails or files. Also, share your insights into the clients and list the top priorities. From here, set out what specialist expertise the interim will need and make sure your manager understands. 

For your own part, make a plan for communicating with your line manager while you’re away to ensure you’ll get back up to speed quickly and easily when you return. Consider what you will need to know - such as policy changes, training and personnel changes – and what you won’t – such as day-to-day operational detail and minor policy changes. 

Don’t spend your leave worrying that, as in a recent BBC drama, your replacement is plotting to take over your role. They’ve made a conscious decision to work in contract or temporary roles for their own personal and professional reasons. And, it’s in your interest for their assignment to be a success and for you to know your work will be in safe hands in your absence. 

While the advice we’ve provided here will help you plan for extended leave, much of it is equally applicable to unexpected long-term absences. Up-to-date documentation that’s easily accessible and understandable is the key to enabling others to pick up your work and take it forward in an emergency. 

For the same reason, using common filing systems such as SharePoint, rather than allowing people to store their work on private drives, is critical. 

It could also be helpful to maintain a network of external lawyers who are familiar with your organisation and who could step in at short notice. 

The department head 

Even if there’s no impending long-term absence on your department’s calendar, be ready for one to be announced at any time. 

In terms of resourcing, ask your panel firms to be creative. In a recent example of what’s possible, an external law firm put together a hybrid model to cover a long-term sickness absence for one of its clients. This involved handling churn work using a standard template, placing secondees on site, operating a volume discount structure and meeting surges in demand with agile resources. 

Keep in touch with good freelancers, especially any that have worked in your organisation before. Many are not tied to recruiters’ fees and most are up for long-term assignments. That said, don’t ignore the opportunity to boost the career prospects of existing staff in other departments if an internal secondment could provide the solution. 

Think too about governance and sign off-authorities. Does the person going on leave have any specific authorities that should be reassigned? Will they leave a gap on any boards or committees they’re involved with? 

Conclusion

Long term absence, whether planned or unplanned, doesn’t have to be a major disruption to your organisation or to your career. There are steps that the person leaving, the line manager and the department head can all take to determine the best way to fill a vacancy and ensure the transition from leaver to interim – then back from interim to returning employee – is as seamless as possible. 

To read the next article titled 'Inductions for in-house lawyers' click here.
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