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Telecommuting: Can It Work for Solo/Small Firm Practitioners AND Their Staff?
 

            I have been considering this topic for quite some time and have 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.  What is telecommuting?  According to Nicole Belson Goluboff in her ABA publication Telecommuting for Lawyers, "Telecommute is really just a fancy word for what lawyers do all the time: work wherever it makes sense 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.  According to Goluboff, "what is new about telecommuting is how much more we can do away from the office because of technology."
            Telecommuting does NOT mean working constantly every minute everywhere you go.  Rather it is the ability to manage your time and work flow 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.  What some studies have shown is that people do not necessarily work more hours but are more productive.  Telecommuting as it is being discussed here is not just a "work where ever 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 may do 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 are some questions to ask before considering telecommuting for you or anyone in  your office. 

Issues to consider if telecommuter is an attorney:            

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? 

            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"? 

            How will employee handle phone calls during 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? 

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

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

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

            Will 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? 

            How do worker's compensation laws apply if employee is injured during working hours although working from his/her home?
 

Administrative or Paralegal 

            When considering whether or not to allow a staff person or paralegal to work some time away from the office, some questions to ask are:

            1.  What tasks are portable?

            2.  Is he/she able to work without supervision?

            3.  How will your supervise or monitor his/her work?

            4.  Is the person technically able to telecommute?

            5.  Am I (the solo practitioner)  willing to be more organized to work with this new system? 

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

            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"? 

            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.

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

             If this is a suggestion by the employee, ask why the person wants to telecommute?  Will the person have a problem if he/she needs to sometime come into the office? 

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

            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? 

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

            Will 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? 

            How do worker's compensation laws apply if employee is injured during working hours although working from his/her home?
 

Technical Issues 

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

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

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

            If employee leaves firm, how will firm determine that all files are off the person's home computer? 

Who is responsible for maintenance of hardware and software? 

To whom is software licensed? 

If files are saved, who is responsible for backup? 

Will offsite computer be password protected? 

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

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

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. 

            Oh, I think the answer to the question about whether 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 a basis will find that it works great and creates happy staff and increases efficiency and even the bottom line.
 

Telecommuting resources:

             Telecommuting for Lawyers, Nicole Belson Goluboff, ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1998.  It can be purchased at http://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. 

            "Telecommuter Handbook" TMA Group Smart Travel Information, http://www.tmagroup.org/TelGuide.html

             "Making Telecommuting Work", from Catherine Roseberry, Your Guide to Mobile Office Technology, http://mobileoffice.about.com/cs/balancingact/a/familymatters_p.htm

             "Setting Ground Rules for Telecommuting", Ajilon Pinstripe, http://www.pinstripegroup.net/articles/pinstripe_news_telecom_no1.asp

 

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