Howard Cabot

In the February issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine, I wrote about Howard Cabot and a great ASU Law School program at which he spoke. But I wanted to add a few things.

(In case you missed it, I pasted in below my editor’s column.)

Howard spoke that evening about the power of the sabbatical to refresh and re-energize. When the idea first started to gain traction at law firms, a bug was discovered in the system: Lawyers who went away for six months to “rest, relax and to get recharged” did not return. Life “on the outside” was simply too appealing. Reducing it to four months (a three-month sabbatical plus a month’s vacation) did nothing to reduce the attrition level. So finally his firm struck an agreement with those desiring a sabbatical: They had to return from their sabbatical and remain for t least two years, or they would forfeit some compensation. Giddyup.

Now, Cabot said, he compiles enough “credits” to take a sabbatical every seven years. Most recently, he took three months off-though he had enough credits for eight.

Before the ASU audience, Cabot was extremely willing to explore his own personal reasons for endorsing the sabbatical:

“The practice of law is difficult—dealing with the billable hour while keeping your family together. I had been at the firm 10 to 13 years, and I was growing short-tempered and was losing my focus.”

Until a firm partner told him, “Go away, Howard. You’re not doing anyone any good here.”

“Is it OK just to go away and golf?” Cabot asked ASU listeners rhetorically. “Yes, if you need to, by God, do it.”

He and his wife made other choices. For the first sabbatical, they traveled abroad to study at Worcester College, Oxford. With their kids, they took the Grand Tour. Most important, though, “We all had breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. We got to know each other as a family again. It saved us as a family.”

Their second sabbatical involved volunteer work in Eastern Europe, where they were able to trace their Jewish roots.

In those trips, Cabot says he learned a few overarching lessons: Life really goes on (“The world can get along pretty well without you.”). And the sabbatical can be used to prepare clients for new lawyers—after all, life changes.

Fourteen years later, Cabot was in need of another sabbatical, which is when he was approached about Guantanamo litigation.

“You learn as a young lawyer that there is a code for cases to avoid.” This, he saw later, may have been one of those cases. At the time, though, he was asked if he “would mind helping out” on a case that should only require a bit of his supervisorial duties.

The only thing Cabot hadn’t counted on was that his client—Noor Uthman Muhammed—would be one of only 10 detainees who were indicted for war crimes. “Of 800 or so in and out of Guantanamo, he’s 1 of 10.”

To illustrate the seriousness of the situation, Cabot reminds listeners that 5 of the 10 were implicated in the 9-11 attacks.

ASU Law School Interim Dean Doug Sylvester, Center for Law and Global Affairs Executive Director Daniel Rothenberg, and Perkins Coie partner Howard Cabot

ASU Law School Interim Dean Doug Sylvester, Center for Law and Global Affairs Executive Director Daniel Rothenberg, and Perkins Coie partner Howard Cabot

Cabot described his work as a lawyer on behalf of his client in that matter. But a unique view into that work may come from Cabot’s son, who is a writer for Esquire Magazine. He wrote two features about his dad—read them here and here.

Back at ASU, Howard Cabot was eloquent as he described his wrestling with ethical dilemmas, as a Jewish American representing a man who opposed the state of Israel and whom the government contended was an enemy of the United States.

Finally, he concluded, “Who but we as lawyers will take on unpopular causes? If we don’t take on the higher issues—like torture and prolonged detention—are we any better than our supposed enemies?”

That case led Cabot and his wife to another sabbatical. As he described his travel pitch, “Let’s go to places that know about unlawful detention and torture: Buenos Aires, Morocco, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Israel, Capetown, Johannesburg.”

To help them prepare for the trip Daniel Rothenberg gave them huge binders of background material. That work by Rothenberg, the Executive Director for ASU’s Center for Law and Global Affairs, allowed the couple to get a running start on their education.

In regard to law-firm sabbaticals, Cabot’s takeaway at his talk was pretty simple: He is a strong advocate of “living a whole life.”

“If the people with you don’t find that important, find different people.”

(More photos for this story are on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.)

Here is my column from the February issue:

Please Release Me

Raise your hand if you’d like to take a sabbatical. Anyone?

I write this on the third day of a new year, and my hand is high in the air. Perhaps immediately after a welcome break and a return to work is the wrong time to ask.

The notion of a sabbatical arose thanks to a unique event at Arizona State University. There, a successful large-firm lawyer extolled the virtues of—down time. Will wonders never cease?

The speaker melded the time-off idea with his own experience representing a detainee housed in Guantanamo Bay—quite the synopsis.

Congratulations to Perkins Coie partner Howard Cabot, who joined the topics surprisingly well. He offered candid insights into his own path toward rejuvenation, and even shared what he could about his imprisoned client.

The event was presented by the Center for Law and Global Affairs, and its Executive Director, Daniel Rothenberg, adeptly engaged Cabot in a far-ranging dialogue.

As Cabot called it, the sabbatical is like a schmita—a Hebrew term signifying how it’s best to allow fields to lie fallow for a season so they may regenerate their nutrients (a literal translation is “release”). His experience with lawyer sabbaticals started at Brown & Bain, which had borrowed the idea from Latham & Watkins. At the firm, Cabot said, Jack Brown, Paul Eckstein, Randy Bain and others “developed a culture that saw a lot of good in taking a break.”

In his long career, Cabot is pleased to have taken three extended breaks, each of which involved travel and mind-broadening experiences. His most recent included the representation of a Guantanamo detainee—a release in more than one sense.

Later in 2012, we will publish the results of a unique survey of Arizona lawyers—on their professional happiness. Until then, consider some well-deserved time away, and enjoy the ninth verse of the wisdom of Tao, which Howard Cabot shared:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.
Care about other people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.