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Monday, May 14, 2012

Telecommuting for lawyers in a digital age?

I remember having a conversation with someone about a decade ago on the promise of telcommuting for attorneys and wondering why it wasn't more popular. The technology that would facilitate such a movement has increased rather dramatically since that time. Lawyers are generally required to work a lot of hours (at least in large firms and in some smaller ones) and the prospect of spending at least a some portion of those hours at home would seem to be a powerful recruiting advantage for firms competing over top associates (and partners). One survey suggests that 71% of lawyers report that they telecommute "sometimes," but this number also includes working on the road (at least that's how I read it). About half of the respondents reported telecommuting 10-24 percent of their time. While this does suggest a rise, it seems that telecommuting should be more pervasive - it's a win-win - or is it?

It seems that it offers a number of perks for a firm - it should lower office space requirements (would you trade your office for a cubicle if 50% of your work could be done from home?); it should boost morale (I think); and you might actually get more billables out of the situation since attorneys are more efficient (that hour and a half spent commuting could be used to work). Essays promoting the idea can be found here and here.

But there are concerns (real or perceived): Does it cause problems with confidentiality or possible leaks (remember the Apple employee leaving the new iPhone prototype at the bar?). Could it cause office friction if certain practice groups get more time at home due to the nature of the work involved (relative to other groups)? Are clients going to respect and want to retain a firm where there aren't as many lawyers milling about the office when they visit?

I'm guessing that the reasons for firm resistance to expanded telecommuting might fall along the following lines: First, "I'm paying you a large salary - you can do me the favor of showing up for work." Second, inertia "we've always done it this way, why stop now?" And, third (and perhaps most importantly), "I don't really trust my employees." On this last point it seems that the monitoring problems are perhaps a serious concern - especially for new employees. But, on the other hand, you did hire them because you thought they were competent and honest (I presume) - surely they can work without your having to keep an eye on them. In sum, it seems that a good bit of the concerns detailed here can be handled through the massive expansion of technology that we have experienced in the last twenty years or so (e.g. Go To My PC, Skype, Dropbox, etc.).

I am quite sure that I haven't covered everything here and I certainly do not pretend to have all (or any) of the answers on this issue. I would be interested to hear your concerns on and experiences with telecommuting.


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I have been surprised to finds out that many academics have recently surveyed related research studies

Posted by: Testking CISSP | May 16, 2012 2:49:12 AM

Actually many government agencies allow one day of telcommuting for lawyers every other week (or did back when I worked for the feds 2006-2008). My understanding was that part of the goal was also reducing environmental pollution and traffic...

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | May 14, 2012 9:54:30 PM

Just a few comments on the comments :-)

Re Charles' point - I think trust in employees is the central point - examples like the one you give live on for a long time in the minds of administrators when this topic comes up

Your second point on after hours telecommuting rings true to me - it doesnt really count as telecommuting (in spirit) if you've already put in a 12 hour day.

With regard to the working collaboratively/office interaction points by Katie an Charles - that's certainly true and suggests some of the limits of the utility of telecommuting - however, the 'pop you head in someone's office to discuss' has two sides. Whenever I hear that sort of 'importance of face to face time' phrase I cringe a little - I do see it's value in certain situations, but it also can come with a price - distraction and wasted time. I recall a university committee in which the comm chair thought it would be a really good idea for 15 faculty to sit in a room and go through a fairly inconsequential document, line by line, to check for typos and grammar. In another meeting he and several other members rambled on for two hours about absolutely nothing and personal stories - at the end he said something to the tune of 'I used to think we could do these things by email, but now I think we've confirmed the value of face to face meetings.' I remember thinking 'that's funny, I've just reached exactly the opposite conclusion." In sum, in-office communications offer good and bad - much like telecommuting. (Of course, some things absolutely demand office presence - that's a given.)

This brings me to Doug's excellent point - the utility/desirability of telecommuting may be differential for people - some people work better and some groups work better with different environments. I also think that comfort with technology may be important in how people view such a development. There could certainly be hiccups and learning curves, but technology provides opportunities for more efficient interaction - this coming at a time when work life balance seems to be an important concern. (I have no answer to the 'turn work off' concern Mary articulates - I just can't do it - and yes, it can be problem).

On the point of work efficiency and office workspace you might consider a speech given by Jason Fried (co-founder 37 Signals company) for Ted Talks (below). I think that he makes some of these points much better than I do.


Posted by: Jeff Yates | May 14, 2012 2:00:03 PM

I'd like to suggest another reason that telecommuting has not taken hold in law: The tyranny of state regulation of the bar.

A number of our major legal markets include substantial "bedroom communities" across state lines: New York, DC, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and (smaller but still substantial) Cincinnati and Kansas City come to mind as obvious; Chicago, Boston, Portland (OR), and the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island are a bit more distant and less likely, but still substantial. This leads to a disturbing question: Is one "practicing law" in the state where one sits, or in the state where one's "office" purportedly is?

It's hard enough for firms and particularly "specialist" firms to deal with state boundaries when they are external to the problem: The client/court is in a different state than the firm's main office. When one also has to worry about internal divisions... If I were a managing partner, I wouldn't want to (if, that is, I was paying enough attention to spot the issue in the first place).

Posted by: C.E. Petit | May 14, 2012 1:59:13 PM

My probably wrong theory about why part-time telecommuting isn't more popular:

The leaders of firms tend to to be extroverts. Telecommuting disproportionately benefits introverts. Extroverts need everyone in the office to feed off others' energy and to use their often superior hierarchy-climbing skills. Introverts are no less dependable or technically skilled as a group than extroverts, but they are not as good at office politics.

If you don't care much for office drama, glad-handing, and smalltalk, you're probably not going to be in charge. And that's why telecommuting is not popular, because the person in charge loves that stuff.

Posted by: Doug | May 14, 2012 12:53:40 PM

The not trusting employees is a major concern. A few years back, while I was still in private practice, a co-worker decided to "work from home" one day, and then proceeded to post to Facebook about how luxurious it was to have the day off. Of course, she had friended a number of senior associates and partners, and got busted almost immediately. After that, the firm adopted a new policy, in which you had to obtain partner approval a day in advance to work from home.

That said, there really are advantages to being just down the hall from the people you are working with. You might pop into someone's office to ask a quick question or to flesh out thoughts on something, but be wary of setting up a conference call to do the same thing. For the same reason that firms with multiple offices usually are not terribly well integrated across practice groups, having employees work from home seems to create an environment in which people talk to each other less and focus more on their own little silos. I'm not saying it can't work—it definitely can—just that there are a lot more hurdles than your post suggests.

Finally, I'd be interested in knowing how many of those who reported telecommuting were talking about work down at home at night. I know a lot of people who leave the office at a fairly reasonable hour (i.e., by about 7pm), eat with their families, put the kids to bed, and then put in another few hours starting at 9 or 10pm.

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | May 14, 2012 12:38:03 PM

I don't know, I think there's still something to be said for working collaboratively with other lawyers in your firm, which is a lot more difficult when you're not in the same physical space. I think there's also something to be said for keeping a separation between home and work, though of course that's not possible for everyone (nor something everyone feels a need to do).

Posted by: Katie | May 14, 2012 11:27:33 AM

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