October 23, 2012

Ask Bill

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January 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 1| Page 18

Ask Bill

From new tracks to nightlife options, K. William Gibson gives a behind-the-scenes preview of the profession’s premier annual technology conference.

Bill, I’m an associate at a small firm that is offering us the option of working from home part-time. Although the offer is tempting, I’m not certain that working outside of a “traditional” office is doable for me. I’m sure the firm will give us resources to help, but I’d also like some outside advice.

A. Your question jumped out at me because it echoes a transition that I recently made. I’m a solo practitioner and had subleased office space from another lawyer for a number of years, but he moved recently and, rather than get involved in a long-term lease with someone else, I decided to move my practice to my house. All my office furniture went into storage, and my legal assistant, Joy, and I took our computer equipment and retreated to work from our respective homes.

Joy and I continue to work together every day via phone and remote-technology tools. It’s easy to stay in continuous touch because we both have high-speed Internet connections. Each day she scans in my snail-mail for the practice and sends it to me by e-mail. She also sends me daily e-mail updates on new cases, canceled cases and other goings-on related to our work.

In preparing to give you advice more particular to your situation, I pulled out an ABA book titled Telecommuting for Lawyers, written by Nicole Belson Goluboff, an early enthusiast for telecommuting (or teleworking, as some now call it). These days she focuses on its legal implications and has also written an excellent book titled The Law of Telecommuting, published by ALI-ABA. To get her perspective on your situation, I called Nicole Goluboff at her home office in New York.

When her first book came out, she wrote that “The primary reason law firms need to implement telecommuting is to get more out of their lawyers—both telecommuters and non-telecommuters.” Among the materials supporting this point, she cited anecdotal reports showing that telecommuters at one U.S. governmental agency reported a 20 percent increase in productivity. A senior lawyer at a private law firm similarly reported that because she sometimes supervised her office-based team from home, the team’s productivity “skyrocketed.” In addition to becoming more productive, people working from home also became more organized.

In our conversation about your situation, Nicole offered a few words of advice to make your experience a success. She says that unlike employees who come to the office every day, home-based workers may be tempted to work too much. With the computer always at the ready and files never out of sight, they may feel drawn to spend personal or family time on work activities instead. She stresses the importance of you establishing regular working hours and avoiding the temptation to work on briefs at 3 a.m.

Nicole also raises concerns about the client confidentiality problems that arise when someone is working at home. For example, she says you will need to take steps to ensure that your computer is not used by family members or others so that no one inadvertently compromises client confidentiality.

Of course, you need the right technology tools for telecommuting, and your firm should be willing to provide those tools, as well as IT support. Fortunately, with broadband Internet access and appropriate Web-based tools, you should be able to access the firm’s network, as well as online databases and the like, as easily from your home as from your office at the firm.

The final thing we talked about was the “social isolation” that people sometimes feel when they work from home. I told Nicole that after only a month of working from home, I was finding the adjustment to be more difficult than I had expected. Although I only had one employee in my subleased office, there were a lot of other people around to talk with and I miss that. I miss the maintenance guy who chatted soccer with me every week and the people at the coffee shop who noticed when I hadn’t been in for a while.

This will be less of a problem for you if you are only working from home part-time, but it will still be important for you to stay in touch with the outside world every day. In addition to physically getting out of the house to take walks or meet people for lunch, you might avail yourself of virtual communities and online social networking sites to connect with others who share your lifestyle and interests (and even find some new business contacts in the process). But it is also critical that you not be away from the firm’s office so much that you lose touch with what is going on there. You need to keep up on office politics and people’s comings and goings. You wouldn’t want your not being around every day to affect your promotional opportunities within the firm or your ability to get good cases to work on. We all know that being seen is important, so make sure that while you might be gone some of the time, you are not forgotten by your bosses. Participate in all of the firm’s business, ask for positions on firm committees or special projects, and attend social activities to the same extent as if you were at the office every day. 

One last piece of advice is to make a deal with your firm that if it turns out not to be right for you, you can come back to the office full-time. As for me, I’m getting out of the house more to do arbitration and mediation sessions and I’m starting to warm up nicely to this home office experience.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice , 2nd Ed. (ABA, 2006).