When I started out in BigLaw, I was expected to bill 60 plus hours a week. Accomplishing that meant being at the office for 80 – 90 hours a week. It was no surprise that many young associates began looking for greener pastures after their first year. Long hours at the office also means sacrificing some of life’s more enjoyable activities like three-day weekends, holidays, and time with friends and family.
As tough as being a successful attorney is, it’s even more challenging if one is a parent. Children may be cute, but they are seriously selfish and demanding, especially the littlest ones—their cries are impossible to ignore and their smiles even more enthralling.
Fortunately, the environment for law, even in the big firms, has become more understanding and accommodating of attorneys who are also parents. More firms actively foster a healthy work/life balance including mandatory time off, health and wellness programs, generous paternity leave, and flexible schedules. The advent of the internet and powerful tech-tools have even led to many firms allowing some amount of remote work.
Still, life for an attorney with parental duties remains difficult to balance. On top of juggling a boatload of non-work responsibilities, maintaining physical and mental health, serving clients, and meeting their billable hours, there is a new wrinkle to the equation, the COVID-19 Pandemic.
When stay-at-home orders hit in March, we all figured we could make it work. After all, it was only going to be for two weeks, right? We’d flatten the curve and soon be back to normal. Now it’s December and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight to our “confinement.”
With many childcare centers closed and large numbers of school-age children attending school virtually, intrusions into our “designated” work areas and time has become a common occurrence. This is especially true for younger associates who have younger children and, because many are just starting their careers, don’t have an established home office in which to work.
The other day while conducting a negotiation via Zoom, the other lawyer’s 18-month old granddaughter toddled into his office. This charming tyke climbed into grandpa’s lap, said hi, and began waving at me. I waved back. It was kind of cute until she did it for the 14th time, then it became distracting. I don’t blame the attorney—he was the only person watching the girl—but the kid got us off track and because we were unable to finish the meeting on time, I was forced to push a different meeting to the following day.
While older children are generally more understanding of a parent’s work time and space, interruptions will happen. Regardless of their age, kids still need help with homework and rides to activities and part-time jobs and sometimes they just want a parent’s undivided attention.
So, how does a harried lawyer stay productive yet sufficiently engaged family-wise in the midst of so many important and conflicting demands for attention? Here are 10 tips to help navigate working at home and interacting with online co-workers and those in much closer proximity.
1. Designate a workspace
If you have an established home office, great. If not, figure out the best location in your home to work. Be aware of noise, lighting, internet access, and above all the ability to have private conversations when speaking with clients.
2. Be organized
Working from home means being as organized as if you were at your regular office. Take a few minutes at the end of each workday to clean your space. Empty the trash, discard unfinished drinks, and file documents properly and securely.
3. Maintain regular work hours
Clients and co-workers need to know when you’re available and part of being organized is keeping regular office hours. Since it’s likely you won’t be able to work a straight 8 or 9-hour block of time, schedule in periods when you know you can do so uninterrupted. Scheduling set times to check emails and return phone calls is a great way to help keep regular work hours.
4. Keep proper supplies
Make certain you have needed supplies in your workspace, like printer ink, paper, paperclips, a comfortable chair, and a dependable computer. And don’t forget the dual computer screens. If needed, ask your firm for permission to bring your screens home. It’s a nightmare comparing documents on your 15-inch laptop.
5. Know how to use your technology
You’ll be working almost always online. Understand the Cloud, security protocols, video conferencing, cutting-edge case management software, and how to use electronic signatures.
6. Ask for help
No one can do it all by themselves. It’s a guarantee that your work hours will sometimes conflict with familial responsibilities. If you have a spouse, an older child, or other family members who can lend a hand when needed, ask.
7. Plan and communicate with family members
Your spouse and children need to understand you have important work to do and that you need to be left alone to do it. Even some young children can understand that mommy is busy and can’t be disturbed right now. Make sure to plan each week for time to complete other necessary activities like doctor visits, work meetings, and so forth.
8. Schedule regular time to meet with co-workers online
Regular meetings and calls with co-workers keep everyone up to date on case developments and scheduling. If a team member has a scheduling conflict, another team member can fill in or provide backup. Meeting up with colleagues, even online, also gives you an opportunity to socialize and talk about something besides being stuck at home.
9. Be flexible
A Navy Seal friend always tells me, “No plan executes flawlessly.” Detours, unforeseen occurrences, and conflicts will inevitably arise. When they do, don’t panic; adapt, improvise, and overcome. If your child got sick and you had to go to the doctor during work time, that may mean you need to burn the midnight oil or wake up a few hours earlier to finish a project.
10. Be understanding, patient and forgiving
Remember that you’re not the only employee working from home. Your colleagues and clients are often in the same boat. Be patient if a client needs to speak with you outside of your normally scheduled work hours, or if a colleague calms a crying infant by bouncing them on their lap during a meeting. Forgive interruptions others may cause while speaking with you because you’ll have interruptions as well.
Practicing law while simultaneously parenting during a pandemic is rough on all of us. While these 10 tips won’t solve every problem, they will help you be less frazzled and more productive at work and at home.