General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

The Compleat Lawyer, Spring 1996, Vol. 13, No. 2

Telecommuting An Alternative Work Arrangement That Really Works


Nicole Belson Goluboff is a New York City litigator who writes and lectures on telecommuting and other alternative work arrangements for lawyers. She has developed a study on telecommuting, sponsored by the ABA Young Lawyers Division Women in the Profession Committee, with the goal of formulating a model telecommuting policy for legal employers.

Although some lawyers are still uncomfortable with the concept of telecommuting, one of the most important lawyers in our country's history--Thomas Jefferson--appreciated the portability of legal work, reportedly designing a portable desk on which he prepared a draft Declaration of Independence.

Precisely because a significant amount of critical legal work can be done anywhere, lawyers are "obvious candidates for telecommuting," said Joel Kugelmass, author of T elecommuting: A Manager's Guide to Flexible Work Arrangements.

Modern day lawyers conduct much of their work, both within and outside their offices, by telephone and e-mail. They bring law libraries and their office files to the courtroom, the deposition table, and the negotiating table on portable computers. Further, they bring reading or writing assignments home at night.

"Lawyers have all kinds of reasons to be out of the office, and everyone lives with that. But if a lawyer wants to replace office time with work at home, suddenly people think the whole foundation of collective effort is undermined. It's absurd," says Kugelmass. "I'm hard pressed to think of a profession more suited to telecommuting than the legal profession."

For some lawyers, the option of telecommuting may mean the difference between practicing law and not practicing law. Such lawyers include lawyers with disabilities and lawyers with child or other dependent care responsibilities who would not practice without the option to telecommute.

Productivity Increases
Telecommuting can increase productivity by increasing the number of hours worked. According to Kathleen McCartney, a part-time attorney with the General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington, D.C., telecommuting has enabled her to increase the number of hours she works per week without decreasing the time she has with her children. Her telecommuting arrangement is advantageous, therefore, to both her and GSA.

Telecommuting also can result in increased productivity for lawyers who would practice full time regardless of whether they had the option to telecommute. Full-time lawyers who telecommute can work more hours than full-time nontelecommuters. Because the necessary tools are always available, telecommuters can put in a longer work week than their office-bound colleagues. For lawyers and law firms still wedded to the billable hour, this aspect of telecommuting may be very satisfying.

In addition, whereas nontelecommuters might have to use personal days or vacation days to attend to such personal commitments as medical appointments (for themselves, their children, or their elderly parents) or for school functions, telecommuters can keep such appointments and still put in a full day's worth of hours (or more) by working before and after those events.

Some telecommuters attribute the increase in productivity to the fact that the time and energy ordinarily spent commuting to the office can now be spent working. According to Michael Katzer, a solo general practitioner in upstate New York who is preparing to telecommute to his office three days a week, "most of the workday in the office is spent managing cases, like answering phone calls, rather than handling substantive work. By reducing my commute, I'll have more time to concentrate on substantive work."

Other time becomes freed up as well. "When you go to the office, there is a certain amount of set-up time each morning. At home, you just sit down to work," Katzer observes. Other lawyers note that not having to dress for the office also results in additional work time.

Telecommuters also report being able to get more done per hour. "I can get my work done faster. As a result, I feel more rested at the end of a telecommuting day than at the end of a workday in the office," says Jerry Thayer, a lawyer with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which has a formal telecommuting program for attorneys. (See sidebar 1: "One Telecommuting Program.")

Some telecommuting lawyers attribute their ability to accomplish more at home to the absence of office distractions, such as colleagues dropping in with "a quick question" and noise from other offices. Telecommuting permits lawyers to set aside a block of time without interruption to handle work requiring intense concentration.

Further, the stressful environment of a law office can diminish a lawyer's ability to concentrate there. Ida Passamonti, also with CPUC, explains, "I tend to get more done at home in part because I am more relaxed."

Telecommuters with dependent care responsibilities may be able to concentrate better at home than nontelecommuting lawyers with similar responsibilities. Although some telecommuters report that at-home arrangements cannot substitute for child or other dependent care, lawyers who are physically near their dependents may be less distracted by worries about them while working.

Communication Is Enhanced
Because telecommuters have more limited personal interaction with colleagues, their communication with colleagues necessarily becomes "more valuable and more precise," explains Alice Bredin, a syndicated columnist on working at home and author of The Virtual Office Survival Handbook (scheduled for publication in Spring 1996). Because a telecommuter must plan meetings in advance, both the telecommuter and a nontelecommuting participant in a scheduled meeting with the telecommuter may be more prepared than they would be for an impromptu meeting in the office. Thus, the telecommuting arrangement actually may increase the productivity of both the at-home and office-bound lawyer.

Improved communications technology helps make it possible for work-at-home lawyers to perform their work as if they were in the office. Telephone calls can be forwarded directly from an office phone line to a home phone line. Kugelmass reports that technology is also available that can reroute faxes to home offices or alert home-based workers that faxes have arrived in the office. He also notes the availability of technology that permits two people simultaneously to view a document on their computers in different locations, discussing and editing it over one telephone line. Thus, a law firm partner and an associate could review and revise a brief together, just as if they were sitting across from each other at the partner's desk.

According to Kugelmass, the increase in productivity that stems from improved communications among law office members is especially valuable to small firms where the shortage of people may make coverage of communications from adversaries or clients very difficult to handle, especially when those communications are unexpected.

Perceptions about Telecommuting Vary Although many lawyers agree that some conferences must be held in person, some are more favorably disposed to teleconferencing than others. According to Elizabeth Espin Stern, who telecommutes 1.5 days per week as head of the immigration practice at Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge, a Washington, D.C., law firm, much of the work she does in the office involves advising clients over the telephone; she can do that just as easily from home. According to Jim Rood of CPUC, "whether a meeting must be conducted in person is very subjective," but he will give up his telecommuting day if anyone wants to meet with him in person even if he does not think face-to-face contact is necessary. (See Sidebar 2: "Even Litigation Work Can Be Done at Home.")

Ms. Stern notes that her clients "have been very receptive" to her arrangement. She has met with them in her home office, and they "feel comfortable" meeting her there, she says. "What clients care about is that you will be accessible and responsive to their needs. With today's technology, you can do that anywhere." In addition, "many companies are ahead of their lawyers on telecommuting and already permit it."

Law Firms May See Dollar Signs
There are also financial benefits to telecommuting, for both telecommuters and their employers. For example, telecommuters who decide to advertise their availability in their home communities, as well as their office communities, may attract new business.

Further, firms of all sizes may realize significant savings in real estate costs. Solo practitioners may be able to reduce their rent obligations if they only use their outside office a few days a week. Small firms with space management problems may be able to avoid the cost of expansion, and large firms may be able to reduce their space needs by having telecommuters share offices on commuting days.

Telecommuters may save commutation fare. In addition, telecommuting parents may enjoy reduced child care expenses if they only work during the hours that their children are in school, at other activities, or cared for by a spouse or companion. Dry cleaning and other clothing costs also may be reduced. However, for some telecommuters these financial benefits may be offset by such expenses as increased telephone bills (where employers do not reimburse lawyers for business-related phone expenses) and increased heat and electricity bills.

Balancing Competing Demands
Telecommuting has the advantage of enabling lawyers to lead more balanced lives and to reduce the likelihood of burnout. According to Kugelmass, the number of people with elder care responsibilities "is beginning to equal, if not exceed," the number of people with child care responsibilities, and "many people have both." He explains that "resolving conflicts between work and home when you are in the office a full day is extremely hard. Life doesn't fit that schedule. Telecommuting enables you to balance competing demands."

Kugelmass also notes that "people's values have changed. They value things besides money and status. The evidence is that they are leaving lucrative positions because there is too much hassle. Professionals are demonstrating this more than anyone." He also observes that the "face of law firms" has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Law firms are no longer comprised solely of male attorneys with stay-at-home wives who free them from household or dependent care responsibilities. These changes require reconsideration of current management styles and a thoughtful look at telecommuting.

Telecommuting also can ease personal crisis situations. For example, failed child care arrangements, unexpected school closings, a child's sudden ill health, extreme weather conditions, and transportation failures can cause tremendous stress over how the work will get done. These emergencies are more manageable for a lawyer with the capacity and option to work at home.

The Best Work Environment for You
As Michael Katzer notes, just "working in an environment you prefer reduces stress." Similarly, Ms. Passamonti, who like a number of telecommuters at CPUC has no dependent care responsibilities, perceived a main advantage of telecommuting as the ability to "work in a desirable environment with natural lighting and more individual control over air quality than is possible in a large office complex." Mr. Rood enjoys being able to smoke while he writes his briefs, which he is not permitted to do in the commission's offices. Telecommuters also can live in communities more desirable to them than the communities closer to the office.

Further, a lawyer with the technological capability to work anytime anywhere has the flexibility to work during those hours when he is most energetic and will be most creative. The nontelecommuting lawyer who functions best during early morning hours or late at night may waste his most effective periods in transit to or from an office or at home without the tools he needs to work.

How much telecommuting per week enables lawyers to maximize the benefits? Telecommuters vary in their opinions about how many days in the office are necessary to do their jobs well and to keep them personally satisfied.

One telecommuting lawyer has observed that telecommuting on a part-time basis adds some variety to a lawyer's life. He noted, however, that the benefits of telecommuting may not be optimized by telecommuting only one day a week; if a lawyer can be more productive working at home five days a week, then he should do so.

The Drawbacks
Are there any downsides to at-home arrangements? When pressed, telecommuters and telecommuting experts can identify a few. A considerable disadvantage to a telecommuting arrangement may be that it requires an evaluation of management styles. For example, technical issues may have to be resolved, like how telecommuters will receive phone calls at home and be connected to their office computer systems and the files stored in them. Department or staff meetings may have to be rescheduled for days when everyone is in the office. Employees, including junior lawyers, must be given a certain degree of autonomy.

According to Kugelmass, these matters "should not be trivialized, but if you handle them professionally, none of them permanently afflicts the arrangement." He explains, "change is costly, but it is balanced by both short-term and dramatic long-term advantages. We had to go from typewriters to computers, and it was hard. But it was worth it."

Kugelmass also notes that the "cost of change should be significantly lower in law offices than in other organizations, because with lawyers out of the office so much anyway, the management foundations for telecommuting are already in place."

Another disadvantage is that telecommuters may experience significant frustration when problems arise with their computers or communications systems because they have no technical support staff immediately available to help them handle the glitches. If the technical support staff cannot help the telecommuter solve the problem over the phone, the telecommuter risks losing valuable time at home and may have to return to the office.

Some telecommuters also report a certain amount of stress arising from the possibility that they may accidentally leave materials they need at the office. Telecommuting requires tremendous organization, which for some may be a liability, but for others is a tremendous asset.

For some telecommuters, especially those who maintain only one telephone line in their homes for both business and personal use, home may lose its quality as a refuge and a place for privacy. In addition, some telecommuters may find it difficult, at least in the beginning, to set up boundaries for their families, friends, or neighbors who perceive the at-home arrangement as an invitation to take the telecommuter away from work.

There is also the problem of the stigma attached to home-based lawyering. Some legal employers may perceive (or may fear their clients will perceive) that telecommuting days are really days off and that lawyers who choose to absent themselves from the office are not committed to office goals. As a result, telecommuters may worry that their decision to telecommute, even one or two days a week, may jeopardize their opportunities for career advancement.

A related problem is that, in an effort to prove themselves as committed as nontelecommuting lawyers, telecommuters may work an excessive number of hours, diminishing if not eliminating the sense of balance that may have prompted them to seek telecommuting arrangements in the first place.

Kugelmass notes that employers who have granted telecommuting arrangements may want to see productivity increase immediately and may impose unrealistic expectations on the telecommuter during what should be an adjustment period, also making the arrangement very stressful for the telecommuter.

Still, the only way to prove that "telecommutation" does not mean "vacation" is to telecommute. The prejudice against telecommuting will not disappear until lawyers do it and demonstrate the benefits. According to Katzer, because of all the benefits to telecommuting, "you just have to say, 'who cares what people think?'"

Sidebar 1: One Telecommuting Program

The telecommuting program for the Legal Division of the California Public Utilities Commission is available to all attorneys, regardless of how long they have worked for the commission. The Legal Division management does not place any restrictions on the reasons for which a lawyer may request to telecommute. Although lawyers must renew their requests to telecommute each year, there is no set limit to the number of times a lawyer may renew the arrangement, and no limit to the number of lawyers who may participate in the program.

Program participants are generally permitted to telecommute one day each week. The Legal Division management requires telecommuters to check in with the office via computer at least twice a day on at-home days and provides laptop computers to telecommuters who need them. The rules also provide that if "a crisis arises, or a face-to-face meeting is necessary and cannot be rescheduled, telecommuters will be required to forgo telecommuting, as necessary, to resolve the crisis or to attend the required meeting."

Sidebar 2: Even Litigation Work Can Be Done at Home

Some lawyers may assume that the time crunches associated with litigation necessarily bar at-home work, but there is evidence to the contrary. Ida Passamonti reports her ability to negotiate, prepare, obtain signatures for, and arrange the filing of a stipulation to a preliminary injunction all from her home in one day.

Similarly, Kathleen McCartney observes, "telecommuting is particularly good for the litigation work I do before the Board of Contract Appeals because I can file motions before the Board by fax." While at home, she also has "many a conference call with the Board and opposing counsel, including status conferences and discovery disputes."

Sidebar 3: Attention, Telecommuters!

The Women in the Profession Committee of the Young Lawyers Division is conducting a study to learn more about the number of telecommuting lawyers in the country and the nature of their arrangements, with the goal of developing a model telecommuting policy for legal employers. If you are a telecommuter and are interested in participating in the project, please print your name, address, and telephone number in the space below and either fax this box to WIPC Telecommuting Study at 312/988-5711 or mail it to WIPC Telecommuting Study c/o the General Practice Section, American Bar Association, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611. You then will receive a survey.

For the purposes of this survey, a telecommuter is a lawyer who has an office outside the home but who works from home on a regular basis (however infrequently) for pay. Telecommuters do not include lawyers who only work from home on an "overtime" basis; i.e., who only bring work home at night, on weekends, or on days off to finish tasks they could not complete during their regular workday. Please note: you may complete the survey anonymously. The ABA will not disclose the identity of participants. Your help is tremendously appreciated.

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