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Being sent home isn’t necessarily a bad thing anymore. Expanding technology allows many employees to save time and money and avoid nightmarish traffic by working from home. Telecommuting isn’t new, but it’s a subject that has plenty of firms considering whether it’s a viable option. Firms that offer a telecommuting option could have the upper hand when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent. All in all, telecommuting is an up-and-coming issue that firms should address if they want to remain keep their employees happy. “Telecommuting is changing the way people do business. I think it is reasonable to believe that as [Texas] law firms try to cut costs and use new technology, many offices will turn to telecommuting as an answer,” says Jodye Kasher, a paralegal assistant with Fanning, Harper & Martinson in Dallas. “Telecommuting allows offices to trim real-estate costs, eliminate timely office commutes and free up employees to spend more time working. It also serves as a good, long-term investment for companies to successfully adapt to the changing workplace,” says Kasher, who telecommutes. Telecommuting offers several advantages, and more paralegals are interested in full- or part-time options. Kasher says she got the idea to telecommute when her firm’s computer system went down and she was able to run her firm’s programs from her computer at home. The quiet environment is more efficient than the office, she says. With added tools, such as postage.com, a scanner, fax machine and the two hours she saves each day by not commuting, she says she actually gets more accomplished at home. “Telecommuting may be an option that many paralegals are looking for and for different reasons. Some may want less stress than can be found in an office setting, and some may want to spend more time with their families,” says Kristine Farmer, president of the Dallas Area Paralegal Association and a paralegal/administrator for the Law Offices of Tommy R. Rodgers. Larry McNeill, a managing shareholder in Austin, Texas’s Clark, Thomas & Winters, says he’d like to see more telecommuting at his firm. “I like the notion of people working from their home, but I think that they should come into the office at least once a week to maintain social discourse,” he says. Kasher notes that when it comes to telecommuting, communication is really the key. “There will be some adjustment with the employer in that it is different to manage someone you can’t see, rather than someone who is around the corner when you walk by. It is helpful if the telecommuter can anticipate and understand what the employer’s problems are going to be and vice versa. That’s why it is also important to iron out ahead of time how the arrangement is going to work, when the employer expects the employee to be available and what kind of communication they will use. The employer needs to know which days you are going to telecommute, when you will be available by phone and how often you will check e-mail,” she says. Still, many professionals agree there needs to be frequent face-to-face contact between paralegals and their firms. “Although most office duties could be completed at home, I think that maintaining personal contact with the people you work with is important. Even if it’s a staff conference every other week, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with co-workers,” Farmer says. Kasher adds that an important aspect of telecommuting is having a very detailed plan. “Look at all of the ways you communicate within your firm, and identify areas that will potentially be problems before the plan is introduced. If you identify and address the specific areas of concern before the telework arrangement is formalized, it will go a long way to ensuring success,” she says. CASE BY CASE It’s possible that telecommuting in the legal industry may take a different route than it has in other industries, Farmer says. “Some firms might find that the best way to go would be to have an in-house paralegal and a contract paralegal,” Farmer says. Houston-based Vinson & Elkins and Dallas’ Jenkens & Gilchrist don’t encourage telecommuting because they find their firms require more hands-on work. However, they do treat telecommuting as an option on a case-by-case basis. “Not every practice lends itself to working outside the office, but if there’s a special case, we’ll certainly look into it,” says Lisa Graham, paralegal manager at Jenkens & Gilchrist. Graham explains that her firm doesn’t have a formal plan for telecommuting, but is looking into it. “It’s not that there has been much opposition to telecommuting for paralegals, we just haven’t had much request for it,” Graham says. “We’re looking into it more for a recruiting and retention tool than anything else.” Robert Kimball, a partner in the corporate finance and securities group at V&E, says his firm’s policy is not to encourage telecommuting during the work week, but additional work may be done out of the home. “We have a strong sense of collegiality here, and personal contact is very important. However, there are some rare exceptions where we allow a paralegal to work from home,” Kimball says. Under certain circumstances, some V&E paralegals are given laptops to use when they can’t make it into the office, but they are normally expected to work in the office. “Some attorneys are reluctant to allow their paralegals to telecommute because there is a comfort level of ‘having them there,’ and because they wonder if they can know if their paralegals are working if they can’t see them,” Kasher says. Employers can determine if work is being done in a timely manner, and if the quality of work has been maintained through the transition, she says. Also, knowing when employees are physically available and working out a routine may help put employers’ minds at ease, she says. “In the few we’ve done, it seems to be more comfortable for the attorneys if the telecommuting paralegals come into the office at least once a week,” McNeill says. NOT FOR EVERYONE Although telecommuting may sound like a good alternative to working in an office, it’s not for everyone. It can be hard for some people to focus at home, and they might find themselves distracted by family members or the television, Farmer says. Some people just focus better in the office and are better able to maintain relationships with co-workers, she says. “I’m the kind of person who needs to work in the office. In fact, I come in on the weekends because I’m not motivated to work at home,” Farmer says. “Telecommuters really do need to be self-disciplined and be able to motivate themselves to treat their home as an office during office hours,” Kasher says. Whether firms will fully embrace telecommuting remains to be seen. Both firms and paralegals will have to decide what works best for them and take it from there. “Change will take a long time, but there will be some kinds of firms that will adapt easier,” Farmer says. “If telecommuting has been a success for an attorney in the past, he or she may be more lenient with paralegals who want to work from home.” Kasher offers the following advice to both employers and paralegals: “Telecommuting can only work with supportive employers. It is helpful for employers to plan ahead as to how they should handle the folks who are left in the office, how to stop any jealousy and how they can be supportive of telecommuters. If the telecommuting program is well designed and supported, it will make believers out of many employers.”

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