Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

January, 2005

 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER:

BY PAT YEVICS  

"Telecommuting: Can it work for solo/small firm practitioners and their staff?"
By Pat Yevics

I had been considering this topic for quite some time, and I decided to look into it more deeply when I heard that Western Maryland was expecting 12 inches of snow. Admittedly, those in areas where there is more snow are accustomed to it, but travel can still be difficult. Telecommuting for lawyers and staff could be extremely helpful in situations such as these.

As I did more research, it occurred to me that lawyers, especially solo and small firm practitioners, could benefit from telecommuting. But what exactly is telecommuting? According to Nicole Belson Goluboff in her American Bar Association publication Telecommuting for Lawyers, “Telecommute is really just a fancy word for what lawyers do all the time: work wherever it makes the most sense to work.” Lawyers, regardless of size of practice, have always taken work home, worked while waiting for trials, answered client calls from the car and did whatever was necessary to get the work done. “What is new about telecommuting,” notes Goluboff, “is how much more we can do away from the office because of technology.”

Telecommuting does not mean constantly working every minute, everywhere you go. Rather, it is the ability to manage your time and workflow efficiently by being able to work when you would be unable to do so, thus freeing up time for your family, friends or leisure activities. Some studies have shown that people who telecommute do not necessarily work more hours but are more productive. Telecommuting as it is being discussed here is not just a “work wherever I am” but rather a systematic approach to working away from the traditional office on a regular and scheduled way.

If you are the solo “owner” of the firm, it is easy for you to make the executive decision to allow yourself to telecommute. You will need “rules” for this telecommuting if you have others in your office. Some may question, “If I telecommute and am not in the office some days, how can I trust my staff to get their work done?” If you plan to telecommute or offer the option to staff, then you need to have people working for you who can be trusted and are able to work without constant supervision. Telecommuting is only for those people and firms where people work hard and are organized.

I do believe that in some cases there will be opportunities for administrative and paralegal staff to be able to telecommute. This could work for the person who does your bookkeeping or billing. It could also work for a paralegal, who could do much work from any location for one or two days a week.

Telecommuting can work for most attorneys and even some paralegals as long as the technology and plan is in place and everyone understands what will and what will not happen when the person is scheduled to be working from a different location. Offering telecommuting one or two days a week can also be an incentive to younger attorneys or staff with family obligations. It could be easier than replacing a valuable employee.

Listed below are some questions to ask before considering telecommuting for yourself or anyone in your office.

Issues to consider if telecommuter is an attorney:

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Will the person be a full-time or part-time employee or an independent contractor? If full-time, will he/she have a set schedule for telecommuting or as needed?

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Will the person be required to work set hours or on an as-needed basis? If set hours, what happens if there is not enough work when she/he is “working”?

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How will the employee handle phone calls during his/her business hours? Are there children or other family members home during work hours? What is the firm’s expectation about how the phone should be answered during business hours? Will the employee be required to have a separate business line?

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Discuss how the employee will handle personal distractions. Will the employee be required to let the office know that he/she is not available during his/her scheduled work times?

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Will the firm have the expectation that there will be minimal personal interruptions during the work time?

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Will the attorney be allowed to meet with clients in the home office?

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Will the employee be expected to have a separate work space and file area to protect client confidentiality? Will client files be required to be locked in a separate file cabinet?

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How do workers’ compensation laws apply if the employee is injured in the home office during working hours?

Administrative or Paralegal

When considering whether or not to allow a staff person or paralegal to work some time away from the office, keep the following in mind:

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What tasks are portable?

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Is he/she able to work without supervision?

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How will you supervise or monitor his/her work?

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Is the person technically able to telecommute?

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Are you, the solo practitioner, willing to be more organized to work with this new system?

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Will the person be a full-time or part-time employee or an independent contractor?

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Will the person be required to work set hours or on an as-needed basis? If set hours, what happens if there is not enough work when he/she is “working”?

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How will the employee keep record of his/her time? The timesheet should be detailed indicating exactly what was done and how long it took. If you bill for word-processing time, the employee must keep information about what clients should be billed.

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Will the employee ever be required to come into the office? (If the employee is new, consider having the employee work at the office first in order to get a feel for the firm.)

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If the arrangement is at the suggestion of the employee, ask why the person wants to telecommute? Will the person have a problem if he/she needs to come into the office from time to time?

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Discuss how the employee will handle personal distractions. Will the employee be required to let the office know he/she is not available during his/her scheduled work times?

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Will the employee be required to have a separate business line? How often will the person be required to contact the office? Will the employee be required to contact the office if he/she is leaving the home office?

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Will the firm expect minimal personal interruptions during the work time?

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Will the employee be expected to have a separate work space and file area to protect client confidentiality? Will client files be required to be locked in a separate file cabinet?

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How do workers’ compensation laws apply if the employee is injured during working hours although working from his/her home?

Technical Issues

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Who will own the equipment that the employee will use? Will there be a need for a separate phone and fax machine?

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If files are stored on the computer, will the employee be required to have a separate computer for office work?

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Will any client files be saved on the employee’s home computer?

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If the employee leaves the firm, how will the firm determine that all files have been removed from the person’s home computer?

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Who is responsible for maintenance of hardware and software?

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To whom is the software licensed?

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If files are saved, who is responsible for backup?

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Will an offsite computer be password-protected?

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Will the offsite computer have a firewall and virus-protection software? Who is responsible for making certain virus-protection software is kept current?

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Will the employee be required to have a separate e-mail account for business use? If yes, who will pay for the account? If no, how will the firm safeguard client/firm data?

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If the person has a laptop, is it owned by the firm and is it password-protected?

These technical issues are important regardless of whether the person telecommuting is you, a partner, an associate or a paralegal.

The answer to the question of whether or not telecommuting can work for solos and staff is yes. I think those practitioners that start to systematically telecommute and offer it to associates and staff on even a limited basis will find that it works well, creating a happy staff and while increasing efficiency and, yes, even the bottom line.

Telecommuting Resources

bullet Telecommuting for Lawyers, Nicole Belson Goluboff, ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1998. It can be purchased at www.msba.org/departments/membership/abapubs.htm or borrowed for one week at a time by calling Kay Aronhalt at (800) 492-1964, ext. 3038.
bullet “Telecommuter Handbook” TMA Group Smart Travel Information, www.tmagroup.org/TelGuide.html.
bullet “Making Telecommuting Work”, from Catherine Roseberry, Your Guide to Mobile Office Technology, mobileoffice.about.com/cs/balancingact/a/familymatters_p.htm
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“Setting Ground Rules for Telecommuting”, Ajilon Pinstripe, www.pinstripegroup.net/articles/pinstripe_news_telecom_no1.asp

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: January, 2005

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