Can Lawyers Work from Home Sweet Home?
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Time magazine offered advice on working from home and the essence remains just as true today as American society and its workforce opens back up: “Plenty of people fantasize about working from the comfort of their own home, foregoing their commute in favor of more sleep, family or exercise time. But working remotely is a double-edge sword—sure, you get to stay home, but it can be harder to focus on actually working.” No doubt, many Americans are returning to an office environment but many are also remaining or transitioning to a home work environment.
Working from home may impact the legal profession more than others. We’ve witnessed tectonic shifts in the employment model, changing more in the past year than it has in the past quarter century. “71% of employees regularly work from home,” reports Forbes, “and over 50% hope to work from home after the pandemic is over.” Forbes stresses that companies need to “rethink” how they operate with a more remote workforce. Lawyers and law firms need to rethink how they deal with various sensitive issues, including the protection of confidential information.
For an attorney operating from a home office, working with your clients is a major consideration. Almost every piece of advice offered below will help to enhance that relationship. In many instances, clients are under duress; they’re worried and anxious about a personal or business situation. Before working remotely, face-to-face meetings between client and attorney may have significantly helped the client’s emotional quotient. When working remotely it’s important for attorneys to keep this front and center. Even though your client isn’t in your office, they still need that part of you that can ease the stress. Working from home may create a demand for you to ensure that your client feels confident.
Stay Productive & Maintain Balance
The law firm office vs. home playing field remains a constantly shifting phenomenon. Whether the pandemic forced you into a baptism by fire reality, or your employer recently decided that the economics of a remote workforce makes more business sense, or possibly you’ve landed a remote-based job, you probably need to review and/or establish practices and routines that will help make working from home a success. Even if you’ve been working from home long before the pandemic, these tips may come in handy.
Bottom line: every lawyer who works from home must solidify three main cornerstones: (1) where to work, (2) when to work, and (3) what are the boundaries between work and personal life. With this in mind, let’s discuss some tips for working at home.
CREATE A MORNING ROUTINE
Get out of your pajamas
Now we’re not suggesting that you dress formally as you might have previously, but we are suggesting that the pajamas return to the closet or drawer for the day and that you dress casually. For example, put on an outfit you might wear to go out for breakfast or for lunch. (Sweatpants can also stay in the closet!)
Take a shower
As well, factor in all your basic hygiene habits: shower, shave, hair, teeth, etc. These fundamental cues help our brain lock in for the day. And remember, for many, video chats and meetings, as well as court appearances are a common occurrence—you’ll be ready.
If you enjoy working out or going for a hike, we suggest that it’s a great way to start an energetic day and it’s also a great way to break up the day with a scheduled workout. Walking at lunch is also a beneficial option. Meditation can be a great practice before you start your day or you can set a time during your daily schedule to meditate.
Keep Regular Hours
It’s incredibly easy to lose track of time while working at home. Stable and consistent hours will help you plan and allocate enough constructive hours to complete and/or move along your various tasks throughout the day. Stable and consistent hours will also guard against a tendency to become a workaholic in your home environment. Again, it’s all about balance—call it the “Goldilocks” strategy: too much, too little, just right. Setting alarms throughout the day can also help with time management. As a reminder, it can be helpful to set an alarm simply to get up and move around. We can all get mesmerized in front of a computer screen: go for a short walk outside or even inside your home; take some time to stretch; change your field of vision even if only for a few minutes.
When you’re at home, it’s also easier to get distracted. You might decide to vacuum the den or watch three reruns of The Office. Regular work hours will help keep those distractions minimal.
YOUR OFFICE IS YOUR CASTLE
Maintain a dedicated work space
Here are some no-no’s: don’t work in bed with a laptop and don’t crash on an old sofa or Barcalounger. Create a dedicated and real work space with an ergonomically-positive chair and a desk with all your necessary accoutrements. And if possible, select a space that has good lighting throughout the day. Many folks are also opting for stand-up desks. A dedicated and consistent work space will enable you to remain oriented to an office-like experience. This will undoubtedly help with your constructive output.
When working in an office, great Internet connectivity is usually a given. It’s important to go the extra mile with your Internet provider at home to ensure that you have a strong and stable connection. This will help greatly when connecting with colleagues and clients, and will also help cut down on the frustration technology can sometimes cause. It’s important to set up your remote access to your cases and documents. You’ll need numerous online documents and case details if you’re planning to work remotely—and you may need them immediately. You don’t want to rely on the mail or messengers. It’s also a good idea to have the ability to scan so you can digitize existing and new paper documents.
Attorneys need to take full advantage of all available technology (especially when working from home) in order to draft and review legal documents, have them signed electronically, as well as helping clients stay up-to-date.
You may want to take advantage of filing documents with the courts via e-filing. Not all courts offer this option, but many do. It’s worth investigating.
Another good tip is to make sure you have the necessary office supplies to do your work in an easy and reasonable fashion. Plan ahead.
Some experts suggest getting a dedicated phone line for business—landline or mobile. If possible this is an excellent idea and helps to underscore the work-life balance.
Lists Lists Lists
The old “to-do” list is almost a must when working remotely. It’s a great way to plan for your day. Many folks break down the hours of the day and dedicate time boundaries around various tasks. Other folks prefer an itemized list of specific tasks. You can even merge these two techniques. Or maybe you have your own method to keep track of productivity. However you do it, this keeps your focus sharp and strategic.
DON’T BECOME A HERMIT
Socialize. Mingle. Engage.
PC Magazine stresses that folks working from home should socialize with colleagues. They write, “Loneliness, disconnect, and isolation are common problems in remote work life, especially for extroverts. Companies with a remote work culture usually offer ways to socialize.” Remaining “plugged-in” with co-workers keeps you feeling bonded and involved. If your company does not have a vibrant remote culture, PC Magazine suggests that “you may need to be more proactive about nurturing relationships.”
Don’t dodge meetings
There may be a tendency to sidestep a meeting. It’s important to remain engaged with your colleagues and your office environment (albeit remote). You don’t want an important nugget of information falling through the cracks—and you may have valuable input to offer. Also, make sure the group knows you’re present and participating. We all remember how important “face time” is when it comes to our relationships and careers—well, video conferencing is the new face time.
By definition, working remotely removes you from the day-to-day contact with friends and co-workers. The reality of less face time can create invisible barriers when we communicate. People begin to “read into” emails and texts—oftentimes incorrectly. “In remote work settings, everyone must be positive, to the point where it may feel like you're being overly positive, gushy even,” writes PC Magazine, “Otherwise, you risk sounding like a jerk.” They suggest that you “embrace the exclamation point! Find your favorite emoji. You're going to need them :D”
For an attorney to excel, a strong grasp of associated technology is a must. The legal industry is running digitally and lawyers need to be completely up to speed and incorporate technology as a trusted tool.
Never Stop Learning
The law constantly changes. Seminars and classes are an important vehicle to increase one’s knowledge of substantial areas in the law, including decisions in case law that alter the playing field. Online programs and presentations are a great way to interact with other attorneys and to “make yourself seen.”
HEALTHY DIET = SUCCESS
Eat well, Eat Smart
It’s imperative that you eat healthy every day. Overeating will lead to sluggishness and undereating can lead to headaches and loss of energy. Planning a nutritious diet throughout the day will help you function at your best. The Cleveland Clinic offers invaluable tips for eating when working from home:
Don’t work in or near the kitchen
Plan snack or meal times
Make sure you actually eat
Meal prep your lunches
Eat real food (protein, fiber, fruits, veggies)
Drink plenty of H2O
Not too much caffeine
Don’t buy junk food
When you eat, just eat
Portion out snacks and meals before eating
BOUNDARIES FOR FAMILY MEMBERS
Teach your children (and family) well
Obviously, everyone has a different home environment. Some families may fully understand the boundaries necessary and some may not understand them at all. Regardless, we strongly suggest having an open and friendly conversation with family members about your new or existing reality. Set some basic guidelines and rules for your work lifestyle. For children, you need to set very clear rules on what they can and cannot do. Make sure they know your schedule. A door to your space is always a nice luxury.
WRAP UP: COMMUNICATION IS KEY
When working from home it is of utmost importance that you take your communication skills to the next level. Proactively use your phone, video chats and conferencing, email, texts, and whatever other means you have at your fingertips. Ask your co-workers and clients how they want to hear from you and how often—and then offer your preferences to them. They’ll appreciate the clarity.
Client confidentiality is always at the heart of the matter. As an attorney, you’re required to uphold your responsibility to keep client information private. Depending on the type of law you practice, if communication channels are not encrypted it’s possible for others to gain access to client conversations and information. Ensure that your channels of communication are encrypted.
Keep an open flow of dialogue and information. It won’t hurt to over-do your effort. The lack of face time and office time must be compensated for with outstanding, consistent, and carefully crafted communication. Provide constant updates and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if and when needed. Strong communication with co-workers and clients will build and sustain a formidable work-at-home foundation.
PC Magazine wraps up their advice quite well: “Above all else, figure out what works best for you. Consider, too, that you might need to shake up your routine once in a while, lest it gets too...routine.”