The Blueberry Patch Exception
Boulder’s Hutchinson Black and Cook allows its partners a year off
Published in 2017 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 15, 2017
Fifteen years ago, Brad Peterson was hanging out in a blueberry patch at his brother-in-law Sven Olaf’s house in Mellbystrand, Sweden—the address was actually 2 Blueberry Way—when he received a phone call from Chris Ford, an attorney at his firm, Hutchinson Black and Cook in Boulder, who needed advice on a case.
“I’m in a blueberry patch,” Peterson responded. “Why are you bothering me?”
Peterson, now 60, was on the first of three sabbaticals he has taken as part of HBC’s unique, long-standing, university-style policy intended to keep its lawyers refreshed and motivated. All 22 lawyers at the 125-year-old firm take roughly 5 to 7 percent annual pay cuts so one rotating partner can take a year of paid leave. Attorneys must work at the firm 10 years to be eligible; non-legal staff are granted shorter sabbaticals of three to six months.
“The policy is to never call a lawyer when they’re gone,” says Peterson, outside a coffee shop down the street from HBC in Boulder, “except when they’re in a blueberry patch.”
“It’s called the Blueberry Patch Exception,” adds Ford, 49.
Over the years, HBC attorneys have gone on elaborate explorations to Ireland, Zimbabwe, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Russia and Serbia.
Retired partner Forrest Cook sailed in a boat he built himself to the South Pacific, eventually reemerging off the California coast; Stan Black became a bush pilot in Africa; and Ford once enrolled his children at a bilingual school in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, before traveling through Europe and staying with a family in St. Petersburg, Russia. Peterson has traveled to Switzerland, Portugal and Costa Rica, taught his two kids math on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and gone fishing in Canada and boar hunting in Oklahoma.
In the early ’90s, on his second of four sabbaticals, Bill Meyer spent his time working with the Bulgarian government on law-reform issues as a representative of the ABA. “Without a sabbatical program, there’s no way I could’ve economically afforded it. I would’ve had to quit the firm if I wanted to take a year off,” says Meyer, who is of counsel after 41 years at HBC.
HBC instituted the program in the early 1970s, when lawyers arrived at the office one day and found partner Dudley Hutchinson Jr. dead of an apparent suicide. “It became readily apparent that life is too short and we had to get people out of the office,” Meyer says.
The program attracts lawyers to the small firm, whose offices are off Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall in view of the Flatirons. After graduating from the University of Colorado Law School in 1982, Peterson worked at a large Denver firm for three years when he and his wife decided to take a year off and travel the world. A fellow attorney learned of the request and demanded his own six months. The firm quickly returned with a decision: “Absolutely not.” The partners feared a mass exodus of attorney-travelers.
Peterson took the time off anyhow, and when he returned, he contacted HBC.
Lawyers on sabbatical shift their clients and caseloads to other attorneys. Some worry about losing business, but according to Ford that’s never happened. Peterson knows of only one client who complained when his personal attorney was on sabbatical: “He felt the lawyer who was covering for me wasn’t as quick to get back to him as I would have been. But he’s still with us.”
Baine Kerr, who has been with the firm since 1979 and is now of counsel, has taken his time off to serve as an election supervisor after the Bosnian War in the former Yugoslavia, traveled to Tasmania and Costa Rica, and stayed home to work on his published novels and short stories. Some in the firm, he acknowledges, have had trouble with the strain of not working.
“You have to adopt a more modest self-appraisal: ‘I can leave for a year and my practice isn’t going to completely fall apart and die,’” he says. “You find life goes along much better when you take time off.”