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Remote work, or Remotely Working?

Heather Abissi

Author : Heather Abissi

Heather M. Abissi, an attorney beginning her 16th year of practice, having served as an Executive Assistant District Attorney, Criminal Defense Attorney, Civil Rights Attorney, Tort Attorney, Family Law Attorney, Matrimonial Attorney, and Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, and Corporate Outside Counsel, has a practice focused on legal writing, editing, contract negotiation, oral argument, trial support, and strategy in varied areas of practice.

COVID forced a remote working model on businesses overnight. American businesses, law firms included, have rebelled vehemently against the remote work model for years. In fact, it wasn’t until an actual plague was upon us and the choices were remote work or no work that many law firms started making this transition. 

Don’t Let Fear Prevent Success in your Remote Work

The fear of course is that unsupervised salaried employees will be paid to work, but not actually work. The reality is while these concerns aren’t completely unfounded, the message it sends to the associates – attorneys who have completed college and law school and started a career all which required them to be responsible and productive members of society, now that they enter your firm, are suddenly being treated like they need to be nannied, and it can breed resentment.

In a solo practice or small firm remote working takes on a whole different context. It’s a true eat-what-you-kill model, and the question solo practitioners are forced to ask, is am I diligent and focused enough to work from home? Fear of one’s own inadequacy can drive panic, but it shouldn’t, the same drive you had at the office will return in your home office.

Let’s be honest. No one is 100 percent productive, 100 percent of the time. Life is a 4-letter work for a reason. There are a lot of difficult competing interests thrown at all of us at any given time. COVID itself being one of them. 

People who were used to going into an office every day, and then to court, or to closings, or depositions, who counted on the barista who knows their order by heart, and who loved the joy of the closed office door, silenced phone and perfect work environment were now tasked with cooking all meals at home, dealing with deliveries, and animals and children in a home office likely not equipped with all of the technology available at their work. That’s a problem all attorneys from firms of all sizes have faced in this pandemic.

Given the circumstances, of course there will be a learning curve. Of course, there will be periods of inactivity, but whether looking at yourself or the person you hired you were successful pre-pandemic, you will be successful post-pandemic. 

You Were Successful Before COVID, You Will Be Successful After

What COVID has shown is employers who trust their employees and have given them the latitude to “just get their work done,” have seen employees do just that. Maybe someone doesn’t get into full swing until 10am, but because they are trusted they will work long into the night because they want to ensure they perform. You need to show yourself the same trust and give yourself the same latitude. 

Resentful nannied employees, will do what they must, but they aren’t the people who will go the extra mile. Empathy is contagious. Putting yourself in the shoes of another person and endeavoring to understand their frustrations and struggles will never be a mistake. Similarly, solo practitioners and small firms need to be kind and patient to themselves. The burdens of change are many, and when you are shouldering them alone there is an emotional toll that is paid as well. 

Empathy Always Helps

Employees who are empathized with, tend to empathize with the boss who is caring of their needs. Solo practitioners and small firms have this same need for empathy. Sharing your struggles with this transition, what is still hard and what has helped, with other solo practitioners, other attorneys, or members of your staff will also encourage others to be honest with you about what is working and what isn’t, and will serve a cathartic function for everyone.

Lawyers often believe they have it all figured out, yet somehow it was lost on them that the whole of corporate America was shifting to at least a hybrid remote work model and the legal realm was still stuck in the brick and mortar, desk and paper, like a time-warped relic of the past.  

Flexible Schedule, Hard Deadlines

A transition to a remote workspace requires flexible schedules but hard deadlines. The most successful models have told employees you are all adults, you all have families and lives that you are forced to juggle during this transition. We trust you to effectively manage your time. Apart from scheduled meetings, you can organize your day and work hours however you see fit, but you will be given a schedule for deliverables, and those are hard deadlines. This structure ensures that remote work gets done, treats attorney-employees with the respect their accomplishments deserve, and motivates them with the freedom to work in whatever time space they are most productive. 

The same holds true for solo practitioners and small firms. For the naysayers, I can use my own example. I started a new practice Jan. 2020, I picked up a handful of clients and then the courts all closed, businesses all closed down, and none of us knew what was happening. That first two week shut down was probably the least productive two weeks of my whole career (that includes times I’ve been on vacation because I always still work on vacation). It was unproductive because I was suddenly forced to do massive grocery shopping and prepare bulk meals because we didn’t know if the stores were going to close.

There were no cleaning ladies or other services, so chores I outsourced were all now mine again, and my partner had the misfortune of being injured on the job and needing surgery, so his chores were now mine as well. Add to that the fact that nothing was going to be happening on anyone’s cases, I readily admit, those two weeks were a “remotely working” period of time. However, although it wasn’t productive literally with work, it was productive because it gave me the time to figure out how to make my home office work, what equipment I needed, and how to get things done in a house with three cats, a dog, and an injured partner all competing for attention. 

I realized very quickly that the nighttime was my most productive time space. As a natural born night owl, staying up late didn’t bother me at all. I devote my days to necessary zoom meetings, conference calls, and imminently needed tasks, and my nights to writing assignments. The quiet and lack of interruption means I am not stressed while writing and my clients get better work product. 

Remote Work Requires Remote Resources & Equipment

Each attorney is different, and the demands of each office will allow more or less flexibility but humanizing the problem will always lead to better solutions. Another part of humanizing the problem is recognizing that associate attorneys are not going to have the same financial access to home equipment. Many are using apps to scan even voluminous documents because they don’t have a high-volume scanner at home. Ensuring that your attorneys have access to the tools they need is essential. Employees stressed either because they are using inadequate tools or because they are in debt from buying tools they could not afford, are not going to be in the best frame of mind to be productive.

For solo practitioners like me, that meant updating my home office, maxing my app alternatives to ensure that I have remote access to my work space and tools like email and fax. Remote work solutions mean investing in the tools needed to be comfortable and efficient in your home office. Adapting to the “new normal,” is accepting and managing what is needed to function normally.

We are all People First, Attorneys Second

COVID has brought out the best in some firms, the worst in others. Firms that require attorneys to log on remotely and clock in and out like a line worker, are getting their 8 hour dime out of their employees but not a second more. Happy attorneys who enjoy their work and have the flexibility to fit their work into their other life demands will always do more and better-quality work in the end.

I remember in one of my government jobs, I was told that for the first 60 days I had no sick time because it had to accrue. As luck would have it I got very sick and needed surgery. They had no flexibility for me, no ability to advance the time. I just had to figure out, while ill and recovering from surgery how I was going to pay my bills with two weeks of unpaid time. That is how an entity with massive resources treated their new associate. It should come as no surprise that when I got a new opportunity I left.

Balance is Key

The Partner-Associate relationship has to be about mutual respect and balance. The Partners incur all risk, expense, and damage to their reputation if something is mishandled at the firm. The associates, however, do the bulk of the work and reap little of the glory. Working associates to the bones just ensures attrition, and expense with retraining. Love ‘em or lose ‘em. If your associates do not feel valued and respected, they will not stay. The same holds true for solo practitioners and small firms. Take care of yourself, if you drop nothing gets done, so take care not to burn out. When working from home, it is important to know when to shut work off and just be at home – balance is always key. 

Post-COVID everyone has realized that remote working is possible, and much more cost effective. If your firm is placing overly demanding or limiting requirements on its associates not only will you lose associates you may find it challenging to hire and keep new associates, who have had a year to acclimate to this new normal and expect that they will be treated with the same degree of freedom they have enjoyed elsewhere.

There is, of course, a difference between flexibility and being a pushover. Employees can set their own schedules, and work times, but that does not obviate the need for requesting time off, advising the employer of sick days, vacation, or doctor’s appointments. I am self-employed and I still check-in with clients before planning a vacation, and let them know if I will be unreachable for any period of time. Those courtesies are a matter of respect, not obligation.

I had to have an uncomfortable conversation with a subordinate who booked a two-week vacation without requesting the time in advance, and without checking the calendar. Her absence would have left the office devoid of coverage, since everyone else was booked. This was an abuse of my trust and showed a lack of respect for several reasons. First, I imposed no arbitrary limits on sick or vacation time, I only asked that there always be coverage and that the work would get done. In her first six months of work she had already taken over 30 days off, which had put a tremendous burden on me to ensure that the work was made up. When in addition, she stopped asking permission to go and did not do the only thing I requested which was to ensure coverage and that the work was done that was crossing the line. 

I explained that she hadn’t being doing advance work to account for her extended vacations, she hadn’t ensured coverage, and she hadn’t requested leave. I told her that while I prefer to freely give time off in this instance, she had to cancel her plans or take the two weeks unpaid. To her credit, she apologized and cancelled the trip. She hadn’t seen things from the perspective a supervisor, but when she did she felt badly and made it right. There were no further issues after that.

Solo practitioners and small firms have an even tougher time finding that balance because often it is the clients driving the lack of balance. When a client hires you, they gain a service, not a servant. It is ok for a client to be told that you will have to get back to them another time, and it is ok for a client to get a call back the following day for non-urgent matters. Set boundaries and stick to them.

Never Apologize for Enforcing Necessary Boundaries

Open communication, boundaries, and prompt intervention when there is an issue ensure that a flexible work environment can be enjoyed without anything going off the rails. Memorialization of tasks and goals is also helpful. In outlook, emails can be sent with reminders scheduled on them, so a reminder pops up at a specified time in the recipient’s email. I often use this function to ensure that I have a backup reminder for deadlines, by sending an email to myself, but this function is useful to help associates stay on task as well. This tool can also be used to keep clients updated. Schedule in an set reminders to update clients on a weekly or bi-weekly basis at a convenient time, rather than have them chasing you down on your time.

Everyone Has Value

Whether it is your success, or an associate’s success, it’s the firm that succeeds. Everyone has the best chance of success when given firm positive guidance, and reasoned feedback. Establishing an environment of mutual respect is always a win because it will permeate into how clients, court personnel, and support staff are treated as well. Every member of a law firm’s staff has value, and is necessary, and all should be treated in that fashion.

Which leads to the next point – none of these points solely apply to the attorneys working in a firm and every attorney in the firm needs to understand that. Many law firms are notorious for over working and being generally condescending or abusive of office staff, whether their own or opposing counsel’s. Remote work is especially challenging for support staff who are now tasked with juggling calendars, calls, and zoom meetings in a 100 percent remote capacity because all instructions, changes, and directives are coming at them via electronic communication of all forms – email, text, outlook invite, phone call – all of which they must be sure to accurately update and maintain. 

They were tasked with undertaking this function while juggling the same personal household demands, and same limitations of home equipment – if you wish to keep your office functioning, there should be a zero-tolerance policy of disrespectful conduct toward support staff. They aren’t “just,” an administrative assistant, support staff are firms’ lifelines. As someone who fields my own calls, manages my own calendar, faxes and scans my own documents, and assembles my own motions and appeals, I have perspective many firm side practitioners do not have. The help and filing expertise of support staff is a gift. Ensure that every single member of your firm understands this gift, and have the same empathy and flexibility with your support staff, as you do with your attorneys. Solo practitioners doing it all – if it is too much hire an answering service. Truly, there is no shame in needing help, and your peace of mind is worth it.

Remote work is a viable cost-effective tool for any industry, but especially law firms. With these strategies in place, remote work can increase your firm’s productivity and profit, by keeping overhead low, and work satisfaction high, a success for everyone.

 

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