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July - August 1998

Commentary by Nicole Belson Goluboff

More about Nicole Belson Goluboff...  Nicole earned her Bachelor's Degree from Columbia University, Columbia College, where she graduated summa cum laude and Junior Phi Beta Kappa in the college's first co-ed class. She earned her J.D. from the Columbia University School of Law. While practicing law she "...successfully pitched an arrangement involving full-time telecommuting to a firm with which she had not previously worked..."

She chairs the Subcommittee on Telecommuting of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division Women in the Profession Committee. Serving in that capacity, she authored the committee's Report on Telecommuting and "Guide to the Topics a Telecommuting Policy Should Address. She is a member of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Citizenship Education and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Standing Committee on Lawyers in Transition. She is also a member of the LAAWS Network (Lawyers Advancing Alternative Work Solutions).Now for her commentary...

Debunking Myths about Telecommuting for Lawyers

The legal profession is filled with telecommuters, albeit many unwitting ones. Travelling lawyers who work out of hotels, their firms' branch offices, or the offices of local counsel are telecommuters. Litigators in court and transactional lawyers closing deals outside their own offices are remote workers. As I report in Telecommuting for Lawyers (American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, 1998), according to a recent survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of the almost 900,000 lawyers and judges surveyed performed at least some work from home. In short, working outside the office, or telecommuting, is routine in the profession. As my book describes, some firms have chosen to maximize the benefits of this familiar practice, authorizing every lawyer, from entry-level associate to senior partner, to telecommute at least on a part-time basis.

Nonetheless, there remains resistance in the profession to giving lawyers the freedom to work from home. Some of the objections lawyers raise to telework are similar to objections raised by corporate middle managers, but some are more specific to the profession. In the paragraphs below, I will identify some common objections lawyers raise and explain why these objections are misplaced:

1. "It may be a good idea for women with young families, but not for those committed to the full-time practice of law."

Telework should not automatically be linked with family friendly policies. As Telecommuting for Lawyers details, telework is primarily a more profitable way to run a law firm than traditional practice strategies. It can certainly have benefits for lawyers with dependents. But lawyers and firms report a wide variety of reasons for implementing telework, including increased productivity and marketability and significant overhead savings.
 
Nor should telecommuting be confused with part-time lawyering. It is a way of working, whether you work full-time or part-time. Indeed, many lawyers report that telecommuting increases their work time, making them available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week anywhere they are. At least partly because telework facilitates the workaholic tendencies many successful lawyers have, telecommuters include among the most high powered law firm partners in the country.

2.  "We are in the business of crisis management. We need on-the-spot availability."

You are more likely to get such availability with telework than without it. For example, if an emergency arises requiring resources only available in the office and the responsible lawyer has left the office for the day, he or she may not be able to handle it. However, if the necessary tools are all on the lawyer's notebook computer, he or she can get to work anywhere. Lawyers can review documents together on their computer screens in different locations and simultaneously discuss on the phone how to handle the problem. They use telephones and e-mail to address questions as they arise.
 
The perception that lawyers will be less available because they are offsite reflects the assumption that lawyers outside the office are not working. If you have hired the right lawyers, properly equipped them and trained them to use the technology, they can--and will--always "be there" for you.

3.  "I have to be in court every day."

Even litigators frequently in court can telecommute. First, telecommuting does not have to be frequent. If there are even a few days per month you do not go to court, you may be able to work from home on those days. Second, when you go to court, it may not be for the whole day. You still need to consider where is the most efficient place to perform your work during that part of the day when you are not in court. For example, if the court house is actually closer to your home than your office, why go to the office just because you have to be in court?

4.  "You don't get the same kind of interaction from e-mail and telephone communications. Lawyers need to meet face-to-face. Also, spontaneously bouncing ideas off each other is part of the fun of law firm practice."

 Telecommuting does not mean you seclude yourself permanently at home. As I suggested above, many telecommuters only work off-site on a part-time basis. Moreover, while full-time teleworkers may use their home as their primary office, they continue to go to the office or elsewhere whenever necessary. Thus, face-to-face meetings generally remain important in teleworking firms. However, such meetings tend to be planned, with the result that participants come better prepared and the meetings are more consistently productive.
 
Further, face-to-face meetings are no longer the exclusive or primary means of communication. Telephone conversations (still good for a spontaneous brainstorming session), e-mail, and voice mail substitute for many contacts that would otherwise be in person, serving as well or better. They enable lawyers to be in more frequent contact with other lawyers and clients, keeping them current without constantly interrupting them. Voice mail compels lawyers to be succinct. E-mail (because it is recorded information) may compel greater accuracy. With telecommuting, you have in-person meetings when you need them and use telecommunications when you don't.
 
Is worklife less fun with this variety of communication options? Those who think so should continue to work mainly in the office. But law firm managers should consider that not every lawyer thrives on the unplanned meeting. To help assure that the firm maximizes each lawyer's potential, lawyers need the option to decide where they can be most productive.

5. "Clients will not respect work-at-home lawyers."

To the contrary, many telecommuters report either positive or indifferent responses from clients. Because it is often easier to reach a lawyer working at home than an office-based lawyer "away from his desk," clients tend to appreciate the increased availability of telecommuters. In addition, corporate clients already familiar with telework in their own companies or other clients who work from home may feel at ease with lawyers who do the same. Clients may also be attracted to firms where increased efficiency and reduced office use result in reduced professional fees and disbursements.

6.  "What incentive do we have to become more efficient if we bill by the hour?"

Clients demanding more predictable costs will leave firms in favor of those that can achieve results in less time. Although you may bill less per matter, you can use the time you save to develop and work on new business. Moreover, because work product improves when you enhance efficiency, you may actually be able to command higher fees.

7. "In my office, out-of-sight is out-of-mind."

The fact that your office is not currently prepared for telework, doesn't mean it can't become so. A successful telework program requires training, not only of telecommuters, but of their supervisors and other co-workers. Among the goals of training are to teach office-based workers techniques for remembering and including remote workers and to teach telecommuters how to stay "in mind."

8. "Many of the features of a successful telework program--like training, technology consultants, extra insurance, new taxes and licensing requirements--seem more trouble and expense than they are worth."

Telecommuting has been the subject of many trials and much research. The evidence is clear that the economic benefits substantially outweigh the costs of developing and running the program. In order to make your firm more profitable, you have to spend money. For example, you may spend a lot of money purchasing new hardware and software for your firm to permit remote access. Used properly, this equipment can improve your firm's profitability dramatically. However, your investment may cost you much more than the purchase price unless you also retain MIS people to install and maintain your tools and train your firm to use them.

Similarly, it will cost something to address the various legal issues pertaining to telework (e.g., assuring compliance with workplace safety rules in the home, satisfying business licensing requirements, paying the proper tax authorities in telecommuter jurisdictions, etc.). However, the gains are likely to justify the expense. Real estate savings, e.g., may far exceed these costs. Telecommuting for Lawyers includes tips on how to budget for telework. Until you have undertaken the budgeting process, do not assume new costs are additional costs.

Although law firm practitioners tend to regard their practices as distinct from businesses, they are nonetheless generally as anxious as business people to reach the bottom line. Telework is proving a management strategy that helps firms accomplish this goal. While making them more profitable, it improves the quality of the services they render.

Nicole Belson Goluboff

eg45@columbia.edu 

Copyright © 1998 - Nicole Belson Goluboff 

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