Bar News - October 5, 2007
Telecommuting and Work/Life Balance
A Look at Two New Hampshire Attorneys
By: Betsy Black
Lorne Fienberg with his dog Lilly. Fienberg is a NH immigration attorney who telecommutes to the Boston firm of Mintz Levin from his home in Amherst
When the commute to work is 30 seconds, there is always time to pat the dog or make a quick pass at tending the garden…
With the growing preponderance of electronic communication, telecommuting is a trend in the workforce that is also affecting lawyers. Steven Scudder and Lorne Fienberg are two New Hampshire attorneys who telecommute. Scudder, who serves as Committee Counsel to the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, has been telecommuting from Concord for 13 years. Fienberg commuted to Boston as an immigration attorney for Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. (Mintz Levin) for three years, before beginning telecommuting from his home in Amherst in January of 2007.
To telecommute, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to work at home by the use of electronic link-up with a central office.”
Scudder describes his telecommuting arrangement as evolving over time. At first, he traveled to the Chicago office of the ABA every other week, then every month, and now goes there every five to six weeks. His work also involves significant travel: he is away from his home office about 25 percent of the time, traveling throughout the United States.
Fienberg describes his arrangement as an experiment, now eight months old. He works at home more than 80 percent of the time and travels to the Boston office of Mintz Levin every seven to ten days with only occasional travel elsewhere when needed for his clients. He describes his firm as one of the largest in the U.S., with 500 attorneys and a long-standing attentiveness to flexibility with its employees. After three years, he found that commuting three hours daily (which had eventually become four hours) to Boston interfered with some of his personal interests, such as practicing and performing music, and serving actively on nonprofit boards.
Combining Work and Other Pursuits
Fienberg’s wife works outside the home and his children are grown. By deciding to telecommute, he ended a 23-year-old conversation with his wife about having a dog. They both agreed that one person needed to be at home, so within one month of working remotely, Fienberg brought home Lilly, a German Shepherd puppy.
Fienberg’s personal interests and a separate legal practice (in addition to his job with Mintz Levin) fill his time. He appreciates the benefits of flexibility. “Every day is a mix, which is part of the pleasure. I have days where I sit down at 7:30 a.m. and except for brief breaks such as eating and briefly tending to Lilly, I work until 7:30 p.m. I also have days when I do the household chores, such as laundry, dishes, and cleaning. I have my nonprofit commitments and my music, too. Some days I do very little ‘work’—and some days I am out of the office all day, and start work at 5:30 p.m.”
Scudder notes that from the start, he established patterns of diligently maintaining separation between work and personal time. He says that having a designated work space/equipment at home is vital to performing efficiently and effectively. He finds that being able to close a door promotes a mentality of separation that is essential for him in maintaining a work/life balance.
Scudder finds that the absence of distractions and interruptions found in the office allows him to be more productive than he would be in an office setting.
In addition, he appreciates the flexibility telecommuting offers. “While I try to avoid regularly carrying my work into night hours, I can go watch my daughter’s soccer game, and work later that day. I can also take the equivalent of a coffee break to give my kid a quick snack after school.”
Touching All the Bases
When he’s home, Scudder is extremely conscientious about being available to and staying in close contact with his staff by phone and e-mail. While traveling, either to the Chicago ABA office or elsewhere, the challenges shift so that he balances coordinating work with staying in touch with family. For him, staying in touch and in tune with the daily life of his wife and kids at home is essential when he’s on the road.
Steve Scudder in special work space at home. Steve telecommutes for the American Bar Associatio to Chicago and other cities.
For a lawyer contemplating a job that involves a lot of travel, Scudder suggested having an Ipod or a means of providing a connection with family, such as photos or shared music. For him, these things make traveling a lot easier. Also, while routines that provide as much comfort and sanity as possible may be hard to maintain, they make a huge difference. He advises “Don’t use telecommuting as an excuse to avoid healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise.” He walks to work when in Chicago and avoids the temptation of fast food by shopping at natural foods stores.
For Fienberg, an unexpected upside of working remotely is something he hadn’t considered until he heard a friend extolling the virtues of the new solar panels that heat his family’s water. “I realized that working from home keeps me off the road and reduces my carbon footprint,” said Fienberg.
Fienberg and Scudder both espouse the importance of the effective use of technology for telecommuting. “My Internet connection just went down and I must have access to work. You need to know how to fix the technology yourself or know the person in your neighborhood who does,” cautions Fienberg.
Reliance on technology is essential for effectiveness. “Pay attention to technology as a friend,” advises Scudder. Technology enables both lawyers to stay in touch with colleagues and clients. For Fienberg’s immigration practice, technology used when working out of the home offers the advantage of accessibility to his clients, who are located in 20 different time zones.
A Visionary Employer Important
The employer must be amenable for telecommuting to work, notes Fienberg. “My routine wouldn’t work if I didn’t have a very large, very fast and receptive employer. It’s good policy for an employer to be flexible to attract and retain good people. Mintz Levin has come to realize that good talent is tough to get and if a lawyer has the correct skills, the firm will have a competitive edge by offering flexibility. Mintz Levin has been in the vanguard on flexible scheduling, starting with young women and parental leave policies and more recently stretching to the concept of flexible time. The firm has a flex-time policy and a committee that considers and acts upon requests for alternative work arrangements.”
Organization and thoughtful planning help in the effective execution of telecommuting. “I have a long-term perspective regarding my calendar, coordinating what I need to accomplish in Chicago with my staff while keeping an eye on family events and activities,” says Scudder.
Similarly Fienberg lines up activities that require his presence such as final document review, signatures, and section meetings while he’s in Boston. Both use in-office time to remain connected with colleagues.
Some other issues to consider regarding telecommuting include:
- How will you maintain relationships with colleagues?
- Will the arrangement interfere with overall career goals, such as promotion?
- Will taking advantage of the flexibility and potentially billing fewer hours reduce income to the detriment of overall financial goals?
- How will you define work/life boundaries so that working remotely does not by default mean 24/7 availability?
- Do you have the right personality to be disciplined and happy working without the constant stimulation of colleagues and an office environment?
- Will the arrangement affect your access to benefits?
- How will you maintain efficiency and focus with the presence of home distractions such as chores, hobbies and family members?
- What other concessions might you need to make and are these right for you?
Betsy Black by the Sauk River in the state of Washington. Betsy is on sabbatical and telecommutes with Bar News.
For more information about the nuts and bolts of telecommuting for lawyers, see Telecommuting for Lawyers by Nicole Belson Goluboff (ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1998).
Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited life coach who specializes in working with lawyers seeking greater satisfaction in their work and personal lives. Please direct your thoughts, questions and requests for future topics to this monthly column to her at email@example.com or 603.228.6195.