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September 29, 2009 5:35 PM

Remote Control

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Patricia Gillette

The most important man in the free world is doing something that many businesses and even more law firms say can't be done. He is working at home.

That's right. Our President, Barack Obama, is working from his home. So what if it's the White House--that's where he lives. And, as he admits, the advantage of his set-up is that he can be a busy executive, but still spend time with his family when he wants to and when it matters. "One of the huge benefits of being president is I now have this nice office and I go upstairs and have dinner with my family just about every night," President Obama told the BBC in June.

Of course, the President has advantages the rest of us lack: A staff that works night and day and is at his beck and call, a host of people ready to attend to all of his family's needs, and a house big enough to accommodate them all. Plus, he's the boss. But even taking all that into consideration, the underlying fact remains:  the President quite often takes time out of his work day for "family time." Then he returns to work later in the evening.

Women lawyers--albeit without the support on the home front the President has--have been doing this for years: Interrupting their work day to insert "family time" and then finishing work later. But this down time in the traditional work day often puts these lawyers in the category of part-time attorneys or requires an agreed upon "alternative work schedule," both of which carry the stigma of not being committed.

One of the primary reasons for the negative stereotyping of such arrangements is the harsh reality that working from home is characterized as something women, not men, want. This partly reflects a holdover from the 1950s model that permeates many law firms, a model where dad went to work and mom stayed home. Home is therefore not viewed as a place from which people can actually work, or the place for committed attorneys who want to be partners. It is the place for people who don't share the same values, responsibility, and dedication of those who work in offices. As a result, in most law firms, "on-track" associates are limited to those attorneys who are full-time employees and who work in the office, not at some remote site.

However, in our new world where technology enables nearly everything, it is time for law firm leaders to acknowledge and embrace the fact that employees can access information and provide good counsel from almost anywhere. And that makes working remotely viable for anyone, regardless of gender. Gen Yers grew up with this virtual reality, and as they become a larger proportion of our workforce, they will expect different work structures and work spaces. That is partially why the stigma that has traditionally been attributed to working remotely, whether full time or part time, already has become a thing of the past in high-tech companies and professional services firms. To keep the new generation of workers, these companies have realized that they must change the way work gets done.

What does this mean for law firms? It is time to eliminate "face time" as the measurement of dedication and commitment. Big corner offices with senior partners in them are status symbols of the past. (And it is costly real estate, to boot, that smart firms would be wise to give up.) Hours devoted to a commute are no longer signs of commitment, but the tipping point in attempts at work/life balance. And the new reality is this: Clients don't care where the work gets done.  They just want it done as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

The time is now. The message is clear. Law firms need to step out of the 1950s and into the new world where the place from which someone works does not define success or commitment.


206040

Patricia Gillette is the founder of the Opt In Project. She is a labor and employment partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. She can be contacted at pgillette@orrick.com.

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