Frank D’Amore ()
Almost all law firms and corporate law departments I am familiar with provide their attorneys with remote access to files, the organization’s intranet, and the accessible portions of the computer system. And, even if that is not available, or the system is down, emails and texts proliferate and follow us around the clock.
This has become an instrumental part of practice today and is unlikely to change any time soon. This access has led to some lawyers working at home, as the need to be in the office to accomplish many tasks is not as important, or even necessary, as it has been. Initially, this at-home work was done before or after normal business hours and over weekends. As many lawyers have become more comfortable with, and proficient at working remotely, this has begun to creep into working at home on a Friday or two per month, on days when inclement weather rears its head (which seem to be increasing of late), at those times when family situations arise that require someone to be home, and when colds, viruses and other mild maladies suggest that going into the office is not wise.
This column has advocated, at least several times during the past few years, that firms and companies create more formal policies that permit lawyers, if prescribed conditions are met, to work from home on a more consistent, and sanctioned, basis (such as a day or two per week). I have not surveyed firms and corporate legal departments on this point, but the anecdotal information I have received suggests that if such policies exist, they are few and far between.
The feedback I have received from some law firm and in-house leaders is that such a policy is unlikely to be adopted on their watch. While several reasons for that view have been mentioned (and will be discussed below), the overriding rationale is that this is just too big of a leap in their organization. I think the time has come to make that jump, and it no longer requires Bob Beamon or Carl Lewis to do it.
An interesting, informal study of this topic was discussed by Scott Berinato in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review. The study was conducted by Nicholas Bloom (an economics professor at Stanford University) and a grad student, James Liang (who is also the co-founder of the Chinese travel website, Ctrip). Call center employees at Ctrip were given an opportunity to work from home for nine months; half of the volunteers were permitted to do so, while the remainder, who served as a control group, worked, as normal, in their office.
The author reports that the study found that those who worked at home made 13.5 percent more calls, quit at half the rate as those in the control group, and generally had higher job satisfaction. The article discusses the findings in more depth and provides some good insights into the topic—it merits your attention.
Skeptics may immediately note that lawyers are far different from call center employees, which is a point beyond dispute. Lawyers, after all, often have greater education, are asked to perform higher-level thinking, frequently need to be more creative, and commonly work on teams. While those factors prevent the study from serving as a perfect parallel, the differences, in my opinion, actually lend greater credence to the thesis that working from home benefits lawyers.
Even in the absence of formalized policies, the value of all the hours that have been billed to clients or charged back to business divisions by in-house lawyers as a result of such work at home, including all those off-hours emails and calls, surely must be staggering. In fact, I’m confident that the aggregate number would put a nice dent in the national debt. As such, before someone reflexively scoffs at this idea, just think of the value that has already flowed to your organization through its informal application.
The advantages to allowing lawyers to work at home, for at least a day or two a week, are numerous. They include:
• Eliminating commuting time and all the attendant stress and associated cost. For some, this means adding an hour (or more, for many) to the workday. Do the math on the value of that extra time, when multiplied across the number of employees who work remotely, and again by the number of times it happens each year.
• Fewer interruptions, which allow lawyers to better perform the high-level thinking, drafting and counseling that are crucial parts of their job, and to get more work done. Studies have shown that interruptions at work cause one to lose at least 15 minutes, and often more, to regroup and get back to where they were before someone disrupted them. As we all know, many of those interruptions are pointless and are automatically avoided when you are not in the office.
• People who work at home—if they are disciplined—tend to work longer hours. Some of that is due to the commuting gain, but other factors also come into play. For example, it has been shown that at-home workers take much shorter lunches, normally do not run errands during that time period, and take shorter breaks.
• Providing much-needed flexibility for those with young children and others whose home life makes working in a more traditional office structure, and timeframe, quite difficult.
• Assuming that the lawyer has a good home office setup, this often produces a quieter environment, which is conducive to improved concentration, which should translate to better work product and more effective communications, whether those occur on the phone, video, or through email.
• Increased job satisfaction, which is consistently reported as a benefit for those who work at home. I know that it is hard for some to fathom that lawyers could possibly be happier, but that can become a reality for those who are comfortable with working at home.
• Fewer sick days, which one would expect, as the lawyer is not exposed to all the bacteria, viruses, colds and other illnesses that he or she normally would confront in the office or on trains, for example, if one takes public transportation to and from work.
• Last, but certainly not least, some potentially considerable cost-savings for the lawyer’s firm or company should be realized. If working at home becomes more ingrained, it should reduce the number of lawyer offices in a particular market. Shared office suites, especially for younger lawyers who are more accustomed to less informal environments, should begin to proliferate. Similarly, if lawyers, in general, are in the office less often, the average amount of square footage needed in a typical office should also decline. Additionally, for firms or companies in large cities with wage taxes, there should be a reduction of such taxes for all those days on which lawyers work at home (assuming their home is outside of the city).
There are some potential disadvantages that need to be weighed. The principal one is that working from home is not for everyone. There are some who are more comfortable in a traditional office and need that structure to thrive. I think the number of such lawyers will decline over time, especially as Generations X and Y, and the Millennials, continue to rise through the ranks. Nevertheless, if someone is not comfortable with this, it is unlikely to work.
Additionally, there is unmistakable value, if not need, for some lawyers, particularly junior associates, to work side by side with mentors and other more senior attorneys. I don’t believe that need exists forever, but, being around others, especially from whom they can learn, is quite important in developmental years. Laterals who join a firm also would benefit, particularly during their integration period, from being in the office a lot. At some point, though, this need begins to diminish, at least a bit, and should support working from home on a more periodic basis.
Bonding, and the camaraderie that can develop when others are physically present, is an additional factor that also needs to be considered. Some of this is likely to be lost when one is out of the office and that is a reality (although, the enmity and other negative feelings that develop from being around certain others, at times, cuts the other way). Our world is changing, though, and much more bonding is taking place through social media, text message, emails and online. Many rightfully may question just how good that bonding may be, but, it is a reality that this change has taken hold and is likely to become more dominant in the future.
I would be remiss if I did not include the concern that some have that those who work at home may slack off, and, as a result, need to work in the office. The proof is in the proverbial pudding here—if someone is getting his or her work done, billing appropriate hours, is accessible to clients and colleagues, and is otherwise doing the job, this concern should be obviated. As such, if someone regresses at home, it will quickly become apparent. Moreover, Internet and email tracking software will also surely catch this. If someone is truly a slacker, he or she will exhibit that behavior in the office, at home, and on the road—the venue ultimately does not matter.
In summary, the benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the downsides. This can’t be taken to an extreme, in which lawyers rarely see each other, as that would be far too radical and would produce nothing more than a confederacy of practices. But, a well-crafted policy that fits the culture of a firm or company can work. This is a benefit that costs an organization nothing (or very little), reduces overhead and provides other financial upsides (which can be significant), gives lawyers much more flexibility (which is particularly helpful in our 24/7 world), and enables them to work more efficiently (and effectively). It certainly seems that the time has come. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.