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This article, like many others, was first published exclusively for long-term supporters, some time before everyone else got to read it.

Nishith Desai rolls out (theoretically) unlimited holidays for all, vows to empower employees (not make them take less leave)

Do unlimited leave policy mean more or less time at the beach? (Covid notwithstanding)
Do unlimited leave policy mean more or less time at the beach? (Covid notwithstanding)

From 1 Nishith Desai Associates is extending its unlimited leave policy to all lawyers come 1 January 2021. This is an expansion of the flexible leave / unlimited holiday model the firm had trialled since 2017 for all lawyers who had worked at the firm for longer than 1,000 days.

“From day one, a member of the firm is at liberty to manage his or her time off, without any approval formalities. It means its members are free to take whatever amount of vacation or leave as they deem appropriate,” NDA now announced in a press release.

Managing partner Nishith Desai said in the release: “We believe our firm members are adults, responsible and accountable for their actions. Over the last three years, our people have shown relentless responsibility, work excellence and client centricity, despite availing of the freedom to balance their lives, health and well-being. Their passion for their profession, work and clients has ensured a collaborative, supportive culture that supports individuals’ decisions on time off.”

NDA senior leader Gowree Gokhale added: “Our people have always been diligent and our experiment in the past has worked well and hence we have decided to scrap the leave policy for all members

“We trust our people. We believe, as responsible, trustworthy and competent professionals, each of them is considered able enough to chart their own course of action on their time away from work. They can organise their leave in a manner that best fits their personal and professional needs - and least unsettles their deliverables, clients and colleagues.”

Do you like Pina Coladas?

The move follows renewed popularity of the unlimited holiday policies in corporates.

In the 1990s, IBM had led the charge, which has also been more recently followed by more trendy tech companies such as Netflix, LinkedIn and Github.

But while they sound great on paper, such policies can have counter-intuitive effects, particularly in competitive workplace environments, which is widely documented, especially on HR blogs.

The New York Times, for instance, had reported in 2007 that a former IBM staffer said that there “was not one year in which she took all her allotted time off”.

“It wasn’t seven days a week, but people ended up putting in longer hours because of all the flexibility, without really thinking about it,” said the staffer. “Although you had this wonderful freedom to take days when you want, you really couldn’t. IBM tends to be a group of workaholics.”

That does not sound different to the environment at most high-powered Indian corporate law firms.

We asked Gokhale about the potential for adverse effects of such a policy (how it could lead to staff taking fewer holidays since they might be worried about perception issues or to compete with colleagues) she said: “In our firm, I do not believe anyone has apprehension on these points.”

“We see overall annual performance as against commitments made,” Gokhale added, about how the internal appraisal process works. “I don’t need to keep account of leaves of anyone. We don’t even ask [about the number of days taken off].”

Instead, “total performance” was what mattered, such as client work, innovation, writings, thought leadership initiatives, and so on (as we have documented in more detail recently when the firm hiked its pay).

The messaging has also been sounding the right notes on that front.

In the press release, Nishith Desai wrote: “We believe, if a professional is passionately in pursuit of a ‘calling’ and a life’s purpose, then extraordinary commitment, excellence and reliability is implicit. Where then lies the need to direct, stipulate, and even less, police those very people who are now self-driving to their highest potential?

“As it is, in a profession that is ready round the clock to mitigate complex problems of our clients, there is little correlation between the leave policy, and how the professional avails it. Invariably, he or she does what is needed and in the client’s best interests. Now, if [our talent] take leave, they will consider the purpose of it, and use it wisely. Even if it is for an entirely personal goal, it will still be grist to the mill of self-development, well-being or fulfillment. When there is no compulsion or boundary, it will bring back to work a rejuvenated, committed and inspired person.”

How do you feel about unlimited holidays at your firm (or NDA)? Do you currently take your annual allowance or do you have to be forced to? Or do you run out of your holidays far too quickly every year. And do you feel like you could / would take more or fewer holidays with such a policy? Answers in the comments, please.

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