Flexible work arrangements can be an effective tool to maximize productivity and more efficiently manage and balance a lawyer’s personal and professional lives, although flexible work arrangements are perhaps not an available or preferred choice for everyone. This article explores the candid perspectives of three attorneys at Milberg Tadler Phillips Grossman LLP, all of whom primarily work remotely from their homes, with children ranging from a toddler to teenagers.
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Brooklyn and a Baby
With a lease on a one-bedroom apartment expiring around the time my baby would be six months old, my family set our sights on the suburbs (well, on Brooklyn—“baby” steps).
Moving outside of Manhattan had many upsides—but it also meant a commute that would take away from the already stretched-thin hours in the day. I am a person who strives for efficiency. I started law school at 19, focused my coursework on a field that would ultimately become my career, and endeavor each day to streamline complex and class action matters and lead them efficiently. I had trouble reconciling those motivations with more hours on the subway every day.
Before committing to make the move, I approached one of my firm’s executive committee members about the possibility of working from home. As a litigator, the majority of my time at work is spent researching and writing at a computer, on conference calls, or outside of the office at depositions and court appearances. Although it’s nice to chat with my coworkers and brainstorm face-to-face, I knew I could get my job done, and do it well, from anywhere.
I had reservations about my request to work remotely—the last message I wanted to convey so soon after my maternity leave was that I was not up for the job. The partner I approached is herself a working mother who commutes every day and manages a demanding travel schedule. However, I had worked hard to make myself an indispensable part of the team in my years at my firm. I stayed committed to my cases until my due date during my pregnancy, and I hit the ground running in my first days back on the job. I knew working remotely would not just make my personal life easier—it would give me hours back every day that I could dedicate to work.
Because I had invested in my work and developed good relationships with my supervising partners, they trusted me to be accountable and work autonomously, regardless of my location. I was given the go-ahead to work remotely, with the caveat that I come to the office for firm and case team meetings. It was important to our firm’s leadership that the firm maintain a collaborative environment.
Working from home has freed up hours of time each day and greatly increased my efficiency, but working remotely is not without its trade-offs. I miss seeing my colleagues, the infinite source of coffee down the hall, and printers so large they wouldn’t fit through my home office door. When I do go to the office, I am often pulled away to catch up with colleagues, and it can take some extra time to get the job done.
There’s also the challenge nearly every remote worker—and really everyone with a smartphone—has: setting boundaries between work life and home life. It’s nice to work so closely to my baby, though if she’s playing near the kitchen when I go grab lunch, it can require some stealth moves to sneak back to work without a protest. For me, it helps to have a defined space for work, a consistent routine, and full-time child care.
I was also concerned about my visibility at the firm. My close coworkers can see my day-to-day contributions, but I feared my other colleagues—and management—might question my role or commitment. With this in mind, I make an effort to demonstrate that less face time doesn’t mean less dedication. I strive to take on my fair share (and then some). I share news of case victories with others at my firm, and I’ve found opportunities to contribute to firm management and case development projects that keep me in contact with attorneys I might not otherwise work with.
Working remotely has been a great fit for my work responsibilities and personal style. While parenthood was a catalyst for my decision to try it, I think the option is a very natural one for many lawyers, regardless of whether they have children.
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A Four-Hour Roundtrip Commute
I moved to Connecticut from Brooklyn in 2014, gaining square footage, an unruly dog, and a four-hour roundtrip commute in the process. The reasons were the usual—more space and better schools for my sons—but also to be in closer proximity to a parent in ill health. Given that my practice group at the time was based in Detroit, the group’s managing partner had no issue with me working from home, and an executive committee member approved the request. After six years at my firm, I had already adjusted to the challenges of working with a group based in another city.
I’ve been a litigator for almost 20 years. I had my sons, now 13 and 15, while at a firm where the partnership was almost entirely male. While the firm was supportive when I had my children, I felt an internal pressure to prove that motherhood hadn’t changed anything—that I could be relied on to work on any assignment, regardless of the hour, and personal obligations would have no bearing on my work productivity. I recall working on a case that went to trial the last trimester of my pregnancy with my second son. I worked months without a day off, pulling two all-nighters the week of the trial. I remember my husband validly questioning why I wasn’t able to draw a firm line when it came to my pregnancy and work demands. I explained that I didn’t want being a parent, or being pregnant, to diminish other attorneys’ expectations of me—as well as my own expectations—at work.
After experiencing that struggle when my sons were young, I’ve found more of a balance as they’ve grown older, and my ability to multitask and exist on very little sleep certainly has helped. For the first time, working remotely at my current firm, I’m now there when my sons come home from school, and I’m able to make dinner and help with homework on a regular basis. I no longer feel the competing needs of wanting time to decompress when I get home from work versus making the most of every minute with my sons before they go to bed. And those have been some of the most valuable benefits for which I’m most appreciative, even on those days when teenage angst reigns supreme in my household.
I’m now able to work more hours than I did previously, without spending hours commuting. There have been nights when briefs were due that turned into mornings, when I was grateful to be home, as opposed to being in the office. In some ways, the fact that my children are older makes working at home easier. They’re self-sufficient and understand that I have to work in the afternoon if they’re home. What I’ve found the most beneficial is that I can organize my time so that I’m maximizing my efficiency at work but still feel like I’m not missing my sons’ childhood. The time I usually would have spent going to lunch at work is spent with my sons when they get home from school. I can take a 15-minute break to drive them to baseball practice, and it isn’t a major disruption to my workday if I have a parent-teacher conference.
As for what I find challenging about working remotely, after my sons depart for school, the ensuing silence for the next eight hours, with the exception of phone conferences, can feel quite isolating although it permits at times uninterrupted focus on time-sensitive tasks. I miss the bustle of an office, the impromptu discussions of cases with colleagues, and the social aspects of being among other human beings. The mind-set of dressing in work attire, and being in a formal office setting, is integral to how I prefer to function at work. I like the separation of my work and home life, and the two are now completely intertwined.
I’ve learned that I need to make much more of an effort with colleagues in terms of accessibility and flexibility. I try to make contributions to my firm in additional ways, assisting with management and firm projects, which helps me to feel connected to, and a contributing member of, the firm. And despite the hours of travel, I commute to the office twice a week, which feels professionally more fulfilling and provides me much-needed interaction with colleagues. Given my commute, this is the optimal situation right now for my family and my work.
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The Siren Song of the Suburbs
My first attorney job out of law school was in 2001 when telecommuting was a barely nascent concept. By 2005, when I began working for my current firm, I remember hearing that some attorneys were working from home and, ironically, I did not understand how anyone could work from home without being endlessly distracted and thus less productive.
Fast-forward to when my husband and I started considering having a child. Initially, I was staunchly opposed to a suburban move and the resulting commute. Like so many before me, however, I was ultimately wooed by the siren song of the suburbs. Although I was already a partner in 2012 when I left the city and had my son, I was still loath to request to work from home, thinking it would reflect poorly on my abilities to juggle my child, commute, and career. It was then that the reality of what the commute entailed set in. To make up for the time lost commuting, I would frequently have to work for several hours after putting my infant son to bed. This was bearable in the short term (and something I still often do on commuting days), but I realized that I would prefer to have a few days where I could reclaim those lost hours.
When I asked to work from home (at the time, two days a week), I quickly appreciated the importance of who approves such a request. In my case, it was a committee, none of whom had worked with me directly. Fortunately, my mentor spoke to a committee member of my excellent work ethic and my request was approved with the proviso that this arrangement was subject to a trial period during which I would be closely observed.
My trial period set the tone for what proved to be a fruitful experience, which quashed some colleagues’ preconceived notions of what attorneys can accomplish when working from home. For example, on my first day working from home, I replied to an email within seconds, prompting surprise from a colleague. I responded that when I am at home, I am in front of my computer and working just like everyone else. This encounter highlights what I think is the most important part of working from home: You must be always available and responsive so that everyone knows you are actually working.
For me, the other key part of a successful working from home scenario is having an “office space” in which you are pleased to work and which allows for minimal distractions. When I first started working from home, I had all of the trappings (e.g., home office line, industrial-sized printer/scanner) but would often just hunker down with my laptop at the kitchen table. My efficiency and focus increased once I spruced up my formerly drab office space with my father’s childhood desk, artwork, and a proper computer monitor such that I now wanted to work there. Working in an office space that has a door was also important for the literal separation of work and home when family members were afoot.
As others have noted, one of the biggest challenges to working from home is the lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues at the office. Phone calls and videoconferences may not always be an adequate substitute for an in-person discussion. This is why I still go into the office at least twice a week. That said, the lack of interaction with colleagues is also one of the boons to working from home as I enjoy the large swaths of uninterrupted time that make for a more efficient work day.
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Electing to work remotely requires a realistic assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, career aspirations, and what works best for your firm. Our firm, while not actively promoting flexible work arrangements, has been supportive of situations such as ours, if an attorney has demonstrated the qualities necessary to make a flexible work arrangement productive and beneficial for both the attorney and the firm. Two of Milberg Tadler Phillips Grossman’s four managing partners are women: Ariana Tadler and Peggy Wedgworth.
Tips for Flexible Work Arrangements
- To successfully work remotely, you must be aware of how you optimally function. If you’re prone to procrastination, easily distracted, or thrive on face-to face collaboration, you may find working remotely isn’t a productive setting for you and may even be injurious to promotional opportunities at your workplace. You have to be motivated, self-directed, reliable, and responsive.
- It helps to have a defined work space in your home and a consistent routine. If you need a clear delineation between your home and work life, working remotely may not be for you.
- Those whose projects require more face time, client meetings, and interaction with supervisors, or those who need to supervise junior colleagues closely, may not find remote work to be the best fit, though great strides are being made with videoconferencing capabilities and web tools for project management, brainstorming, and document collaboration.
- Those seeking approval for a flexible work arrangement should take time to develop strong working relationships, be prepared to cite examples of their ability to work independently, and have a game plan for staying connected to their team.
- Consider a trial and review period to evaluate whether a remote arrangement is practical, and have a process in place to address any issues.
- Attorneys working remotely should be committed to working similar hours to others on their team and to staying accessible. This ensures that their perception matches your reality— that you are carrying your weight and are still very much a part of the team.
- Recognize the contributions of your coworkers and acknowledge their work to others. Gratitude and recognition can remove some of the barriers of working in different locations.
- Remote work or other flexible work arrangements can mean less overhead for employers and happier, more productive employees.
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