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If he could, one King & Spalding associate would gladly swap face time for homework. It’s not that face time forces him to sit around the firm on Saturdays watching the digits on his computer’s clock change from 2:43 to 2:44. There’s plenty of work. It’s just that he could do it from home or the park or a coffee shop just as well. And for awhile, he did work remotely. He rarely does it now. The funny thing, he says, was partners didn’t reprimand him for telecommuting. The knuckle-rapping was done by other associates. They complained about his working from home and told him the firm expected him to be in the office during regular business hours. His question is why. “You bill by the six-minute increment. People know when you’re not working. You can’t get away with anything,” he says. Thanks to technology, lawyers have the capacity to be reachable, connected and billing 24 hours a day. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Palm Pilots and BlackBerry devices are pocket-sized miracles facilitating remote communication. There’s desktop faxing and video applications. Even the minimally tech-savvy can access e-mail, the Internet, Lexis and Westlaw from outside the office. And a combination of virtual private networks and firewalls makes secure, fast, remote access to internal networks and documents a breeze. So why go to the office? “It’s a cultural thing,” says Barbara Gerth, a Somerset, N.J.-based senior consultant on law firm technology matters at Hildebrandt International. Law firms are resistant to letting lawyers out of their sight for two primary reasons, she says. First, despite the ability to track billable hours, partners want to keep a literal — not virtual — eye on associates. And second, law firms want lawyers to reap the collaborative benefits of working with others. There’s no argument that face time offers a chance to cross-pollinate ideas, build rapport with co-workers and establish visibility needed to snag top assignments. It also offers access to the office grapevine, which can provide early alerts to valuable news, such as partners leaving in a huff or an impending merger. Though he’s quick to say face time has value, Patrick Wiseman, a Georgia State University law professor who in 1995 pioneered an online class called “Law and the Internet,” has learned that online communication sometimes offers surprising advantages. For example, he says, students in his classes’ e-mail discussion groups explore topics more deeply, take more risks and express themselves more openly than during face-to-face classtime. At in-person meetings, they’re better prepared thanks to the electronic chats. In a law firm context, telecommuting offers freedom from office distractions and may be a good forum for work that can be done in a solitary way, he says. He suggests that firms might build online community by doing something that works well for his classes — establishing a Web page, open to everyone, where participants offer anonymous feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. Despite its advantages, Gersh says few firms have clasped telecommuting to their bosoms. Until they do, there’s still face time. Face time takes many forms, ranging from hours of desk-sitting when there’s no work to the need to take a clandestine breather during a 10-hour day. And sometimes, frankly, it’s nice to look like a gunner even if you’re not. What to do to create that enticing, work-around-the-clock illusion? Creative telephone time is the answer for one government lawyer who works on her novel when things get slow. Because office passersby can see her computer screen, she pretends to be on the phone. She’ll clutch the receiver between ear and shoulder, but won’t press the button for a phone line. Listening to silence, she handwrites her manuscript on legal pads. When people come by, she’ll say, “Mmm-hmm,” into the phone and continue to write. A lawyer who works with Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy says the firm requires little gratutitous face time, but acknowledges putting in five to 10 additional hours a week. “Sometimes, you come in at 8, you get your work done, you leave,” he says. “Other times, tough … because the partner is still working and you’d better be, too.” He’s also careful to imply his presence when he’s not around. If his secretary beats him to the office she is instructed to open his door and turn on his light and computer. Another PoGo lawyer also says there’s little extra face time. But he takes care to point his computer screen away from the door for privacy. “I regularly, if I’m on a personal phone call, surf the Internet to make it look like I’m working on my computer.” One big-firm lawyer who works for an eagle-eyed partner puts a steaming cup of coffee on her desk when she needs to leave on brief errands. If she’s not done in 15 minutes or so, she’ll come back, replace the cold coffee with another steaming mugful, and slide out again. A former federal appellate court clerk says government bureaucracy forced 9-to-5 face time even when there was nothing to do. He recalls spending a day and a half solid surfing the Web. He’d pull up a text file, minimize it and surf away. “If someone came in, you could sort of slam on the mouse and up pops the text,” he says. Other young lawyers admit to sending late-night e-mails to partners or leaving their office lights or computers on to create the illusion that they’re burning the midnight oil. Though the King & Spalding associate who longs to work from home has tried a few of these techniques, he says he generally makes no attempt to imply he’s at the office when he’s not. After hearing about others’ modus operandi, however, he says he’ll have to rethink his system. “Maybe I’m being a little too cavalier about it.”

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