A zero-minute commute and the ability to work in your pajamas are just a few of the perks of working from home. And with technology advances of the past few years, more and more in-house counsel are finding it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of alternative work arrangements.
When Alan Triggs took his first in-house counsel position with MPD Inc. last December, he had just one problem with the Owensboro, Ky.-based company — it was three-and-a-half hours from home. Triggs wanted his family to be able finish out the school year in Ohio, so he found a temporary apartment in Owensboro and drove home on the weekends.
But Triggs found early on that he was coming into the office early Monday morning just to get on the phone with someone located elsewhere. “What I noticed was that a lot of my work was email, telephone calls and conference calls with other attorneys and other individuals all around the country,” he says.
Triggs wanted to explore the possibility of working from home a couple of days a week so that he could spend more time with his family. But he didn’t know how to broach the subject with his new employer.
He started a discussion thread on the LinkedIn page of In The House, a web-based professional networking community for in-house counsel. He asked for “Pros and Cons of In-house counsel working a day or two a week from home,” and has gotten around three dozen comments from the group’s members.
From that online discussion, Triggs cobbled together a list of plusses and minuses and pitched the idea to his company’s president. In typical lawyer fashion, Triggs aimed high in his negotiations: “I asked for Mondays and Fridays, and he gave me Mondays.”
What did his employer think? “They had never done it before, so they didn’t know how it was going to work,” says Triggs.
Janilyn Daub, a partner in Barnes & Thornburg, says that for most employers the benefits of offering alternative work arrangements far outweigh the risks. Daub represents companies in labor and employment litigation and advises management on handling employment-related issues.
Daub has seen increased interest in work-from-home arrangements, especially among recent law school graduates. “It’s a generation that is very technologically savvy,” says Daub, and they see technology as removing longstanding barriers to alternative work arrangements. In general, says Daub, giving in-house lawyers flexibility improves productivity and job satisfaction, helps recruiting and reduces turnover.
But employers considering permitting their lawyers to work from home on occasion should take some precautions. “Consistency and fairness are issues,” says Daub. She notes that although lawyers are exempt employees (i.e., they don’t receive overtime pay) the U.S. Department of Labor has said that their paralegals are not.
Employers might be more reluctant to allow non-exempt workers to work from home, and those support staff members could raise fairness issues. And if the employer does open up the flexibility to non-exempt workers, both the company and the employee will need a system in place to track their hours.
Companies should either have a hard-and-fast policy in place that forbids non-exempt workers to work offsite, or they should consider requiring those workers to log-in from home and record their hours officially.
Daub says that employers also need to make sure they have systems in place to ensure that lawyers working from home maintain client confidentiality. Networks need to be secured, she says, and precautions need to be taken to make sure documents and files are protected outside the office.
The flexible work arrangement has proved to be beneficial to Triggs and his employer. Triggs says he notices that he often gets even more work done at home than he does when he is in the office. His home office is equipped with a fax machine, scanner and web camera — everything he needs to connect with internal clients and outside attorneys.
He says the only downside to working from home is that he tends to have trouble wrapping up for the day. When he is in the office, he goes home at 5 p.m. But when he works from home, Triggs is prone to working until he finishes a project — even if that means going back to work after rushing through dinner. “It’s a downside for my family,” he says, “but good for the employer.”
When his family eventually relocates to Kentucky, Triggs says he will no longer be able to justify working from home: “Nowhere in Owensboro would be more than a 10-minute commute from the office,” he says.
But for Ellen Dunkin, associate general counsel at Crump Group Inc. (and one of the respondents to Triggs’ In The House query), working from her suburban home on occasion cuts a total of two-and-a-half hours off of her daily commute. And although she does go in to her New York City office most days, she says that, like Triggs, she is often much more productive at home.
Years ago, Dunkin looked for employers that offered flexible work schedules because she had young children. She ultimately quit one job because the employer wouldn’t give her the opportunity to work offsite on occasion. “It was a disadvantage for both parties,” says Dunkin.
Even though her kids are older now, Dunkin says having the option to work from home still helps her maintain a favorable work-life balance.
And then there’s the option to only work from home. For years, David Slater has served as an outside general counsel to a set of clients, which typically have had less than 40 employees. None of them are large enough to have their own in-house counsel, says Slater, who is more than happy to accommodate them.
Slater, who also offered his thoughts about remote work in the LinkedIn forum, often acts as his clients’ corporate secretary and HR department, too, and he handles additional legal issues as they arise. “I take responsibility for any in-house functions,” he says, but without having a regular on-site presence.
The New York-based lawyer meets with his clients on a regular basis, and he says he often just drops by their office if he happens to be in the neighborhood. Some issues — such as developing strategy or avoiding liability — require face-to-face discussion, he says.
But Slater also takes full advantage of being able to work from just about anywhere. He recently spent six weeks in Florida — without having to take any time off. “I still had to work from 9 to 12,” he says, “but then I would go to the beach.”
Shannon Green is a staff reporter with Corporate Counsel magazine, a Texas Lawyer affiliate that originally published this article.