Blending Work and Home: Remote Work in this New Era

We all remember March 2020 – how we were suddenly forced to adjust our work lives for the two-week window, when we thought that we would just need to work from home for a short period of time and get back into our offices by April. That two-week window kept expanding, and soon many firms began looking at how to make remote practice functional until California could fully reopen. Here we are, 20 months later, asking ourselves whether the remote practice is here to stay.

What has evolved since that initial time, however, has been the adaptation by many to embrace this remote environment and make it work. In the legal setting, the creative strategies have seen no boundaries.

According to a poll conducted by Pew Research in December 2020, 71% of employed adults were working from home, but only 57% of those polled stated that concerns of exposure to the COVID-19 virus were the driving force behind their decision to work remotely. This leads one to wonder what other factors might be keeping workers at home, and the significant factors repeatedly raised are convenience, flexibility, and increased acceptance to break the mold of the traditional office.

At the beginning of this pandemic, firms had to quickly adapt from reliance on in-office computers and hard drives. With the many options available to streamline the firm into a cloud-based setting, firms have been able to pick and choose what might work best for them. The use of an answering service eliminates the need for a person to be present to answer calls each day, and therefore lessens that tie to an office. Others have adapted practice to meeting with clients entirely via video conferencing, which hardly requires the use of the traditional office. In addition, personnel meetings on platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams eliminate the requirement of the physical conference room. Many have been able to utilize Dropbox and other cloud-based storage systems to do away with the need for the physical hard drive in the office. While utilizing technology requires additional ethical considerations on the attorney’s part, it is also hard to argue against any model which allows you the opportunity to wear sweatpants all day. (For further information, please visit the State Bar’s Ethics & Technology Resources page.

Many firms are choosing a hybrid model, either rotating staff on certain days or allowing employees flexibility to work remotely as it suits them. Cheryl Kozachenko, an attorney practicing in multiple counties, has had the benefit of enjoying a personal choice within her firm as to whether she wants to work at home or in office. To allow all employees to advantage of this, that firm increased their technology, ensuring that all remote workers have computers which have access to programs and servers, and allowing for calls into the office to ring directly through to their cell phones at home. For Cheryl, this has let her maximize her productivity while her children are in school, while making her available for them at the same time. The hybrid firm appears to be the “new normal” for many firms.

Other firms have embraced the remote model in full, working hundreds of miles from where the businesses are based. Marta Vanegas shared that she has actually been working towards a cloud-based model for years, with COVID giving her the push to fully integrate this into her practice. In fact, due to this flexibility she has had the opportunity to hire a new senior counsel who can work both in California and run her current practice in Ohio, a seemingly impossible feat only a few years ago.

For some, the days of brick and mortar are in the past. Patrice Truman, a jury consultant whose practice is based out of Oakland, has been working out of Chicago for years. She has been enjoying the fact that she has a couple hours’ head start to the day, often having completed other tasks by the time her California clientele is starting the workday. On down time she has the opportunity to take up smaller items that could command an evening after a day in the office, such as running a load of laundry or dishes. She was even able to work out of her flat in Paris – the ways of the past would never have allowed for that.

For Ariel Brownell Lee, the choice to transition her busy practice to her home was a no brainer. This has allowed her the opportunity to tend to her growing family as the mother of two young children, something she could not do if saddled with both a commute and 40 plus hours per week in office. She stated, “Working from home has so many benefits. It allows me to give my business the attention it requires while being around for the kids as much as possible. With a toddler and a newborn, that flexibility is priceless.”

While work-life balance has improved for some, it has created boundary issues for others. Another interviewee, who preferred to remain anonymous, lamented that employers and clients expect them to be available beyond the traditional hours. That attorney also felt that it is easier to overwork given the ease of access to work, adding to feelings of burnout, along with the other emotional effects of the pandemic.

The long-term impact of blurring the lines between the office and the home remain to be seen, as many attorneys are now choosing to modify work beyond standard business hours with this increased flexibility. Some use the home office advantage to spend more hours during the day with family and attending to other tasks, choosing night-owl hours to do work which would normally have only been done during the traditional nine to five workday. There are also the new issues of employees working in different time zones, and what that means for their standard workday.

Breaking the traditional office model risks further breaking down the work-life balance, but it remains to be seen whether the lure of convenience for clients and attorneys alike, and the court’s use of technology, will permanently change the landscape of law practice.

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