For the past several months, nearly every part of our lives has turned upside-down, inside-out, or in some other direction we did not expect it to go. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, even if many cities and states have “reopened” for now. Each person has to assess their own risk when it comes to venturing out into the world. For attorneys, business might not return entirely to “as usual” for some time. Many courts continue to operate on restricted schedules, holding virtual hearings whenever possible. A significant number of attorneys are now working from home, possibly for the first time in their careers. Some may like it, and might try to stick with it even after this public health crisis passes. It might not suit other lawyers, who cannot wait to get back to a familiar office environment. In either case, if you have become a work-from-home lawyer, here are some tips to make the most of your home office and your practice, while also taking care of yourself.
Thanks to the internet and telecommunications, it is possible to do a significant amount of legal work anywhere you can get a wifi connection and a telephone signal. It might not always be advisable, of course. This is not just because lawyers handle sensitive and confidential information on a daily basis. Practicing law takes time and focus, which is why we recommend creating a dedicated workspace within your house.
Your workspace could be a spare bedroom, a storage closet, a corner of the living room, a nook in the kitchen, a shed in the backyard, and so on. You know best what location will work for you.
Working and not-working in the same location — your home — can be disconcerting for many people who are used to working somewhere else. Designating a space where work happens lets you make the distinction in your mind between work and home.
In business, the term “switching costs” refers to the expenses incurred by consumers when they switch from one product or brand to another. This includes more than just the monetary cost of making changes. It can also include intangible costs like the extra time needed to learn a new product and the psychological or emotional toll that can come with even minor changes.
Suppose, for example, that a person who has used iPhones for years decides to switch to an Android device. They will need time to learn the different features. Even though the operating systems on the phones are not that different, they are different enough that the person will notice and be reminded of the more-familiar iPhone until they get used to their new device. If the person uses their smartphone for work, this could affect their productivity. Each incident is likely to be so minor that they might not even notice it, but when combined, they could add up to a reduction in getting stuff done.
Switching from an office to a home office environment can have a similar effect. There is almost certainly something about the office that you will miss, even if you did not know you would miss it until it was gone. You can prepare for this, at least to some extent, by making a workspace for yourself and calling it your office. If you can recreate something of your usual office environment, give it a try, as long as it doesn’t cause domestic disruption or anything.
Much like how switching costs can have an impact on your work on a broad scale, moment-to-moment changes in your home office environment can also affect your productivity. Going from your role as “lawyer” to your role as “parent,” “dog owner,” or “cat manager” can be taxing. It takes time and energy to switch modes every time you’re interrupted or distracted. It can take a while to get back in the zone, so to speak.
One way to manage this in a home office is to have a visual indicator of when you are working and not working, such as a “do not disturb” sign. This only works, of course, on humans who can read. Barking dogs do not care what the sign says. If you want to avoid all distractions for a time, noise-canceling headphones can be very effective at creating a little bubble for yourself. That said, you probably shouldn’t ignore children if they need you while you’re working.
We have talked about creating a space in your home for your work, avoiding distractions, and doing what you can to keep some amount of separation between your work responsibilities and whatever you do before and after your usual workday. If you share your home with others, be they family, roommates, or even pets, you must also make room for your responsibilities to them. Just as your home life can distract you from your work, the opposite can happen — having your work at home can mean you fall behind on your home life.
A work schedule can help you stay on top of all of your responsibilities. Each attorney must find a schedule that works best for them. Maybe you are an early riser, so you handle work matters for several hours in the morning before spending a few hours home-schooling the kids. Perhaps you make sure to set aside half an hour every day at lunchtime to take the dog(s) for a walk. You might institute a rule for yourself that, no matter what, work stops at a set time in the afternoon or evening so you can focus on family time.
Lawyers must protect the confidentiality of client communications and the information they receive from clients. Working from home can present a particular challenge in this regard. Maintaining confidential communications means not only preventing others from overhearing conversations with clients but also using the most secure technologies possible.
Your state bar association may provide guidelines for keeping client information secure. They can also advise you about your state’s ethical requirements regarding confidentiality and information security.
A panelist at a webinar hosted by the American Bar Association suggested using the cybersecurity framework developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for “critical infrastructure” organizations. While the framework provides a wealth of useful information, it might be more extensive than the needs of a lawyer working out of a breakfast nook. The NIST has warned, however, that “attorneys are prime targets for data theft.”
At a minimum, attorneys working from home should take cybersecurity precautions regarding:
● Email communications with clients;
● Phone and video communications with clients; and
● Cloud-based storage of client files and information.
Just because you have brought your work into your home, you can — and often should — maintain a polite distance between your home life and your clients. If you are still meeting with clients in person, you do not have to do so at your home. You can check with your local courthouse to see if they are open to the public, so you could meet with clients there.
Even if you meet with your clients virtually, such as through a videoconferencing service like Zoom or FaceTime, you can take certain precautions to control how much of your home anyone can see on their computer, tablet, or smartphone screen. This could involve a virtual background or a backdrop used for video calls.
There are also alternatives to giving your home or cell phone number to clients, or to anyone else, for that matter. Google Voice, for example, provides you with a single phone number that can route calls to any phone you designate.
As a final note, self-care might be the most important piece of advice we can offer. You cannot take care of your clients if you do not take care of yourself. We have mentioned building structure into your workday so that you are neither too distracted to work nor too focused to stop working. Make time to walk the dog or get exercise by any other means that you can. Exercise not only makes your body healthier and happier, but it can also help your mind stay focused.
Taking regular breaks can help you pace yourself through your day. Don‘t forget to stop for lunch. When no one else is around, it is easier than you might think to forget about lunch or to think “I’ll break for lunch when I finish this thing….no, after I finish this thing…...no, after I finish this thing…..” and suddenly it’s time for dinner and you are starving and irritable.
These pieces of advice can help you get started, and hopefully, they can help keep you going in your new home office.