Section Review

Telecommuting and the home office

Ellen Tanowitz is a solo practitioner in Newton and a member of House of Delegates for the Massachusetts Bar Association.
When I first started practicing law in the mid-1990s, I, like most folks, put in long hours at the office everyday. I remember staying home very rarely during those first years - once during a snowstorm and once to write an appeals brief so I would not be bothered with the constant interruption of the telephone and the partners. Back then, we did not have e-mail and we had to dial into our computer-assisted legal research.

In October 2000, I decided to telecommute two days a week, because my husband, who was doing double duty working from home and being a dad two days a week, took a job in an office. My firm was not thrilled, but agreed on a trial basis. When I became pregnant with my second child, I knew I could not work from home with two kids, no matter what the technology or the office rules. My firm did not need part-time help, so now I work from home all the time with my own firm and as a contract lawyer.

Working from home can be great, and with technological advances, it can seem like you're not even out of the office. Here are some things to consider to telecommute successfully.

Plan on homework, but not housework. While I occasionally do laundry or defrost meat for dinner, don't plan on doing housework while at home. You've got billable hours to keep and your employer does not necessarily expect reduced billable hours.

By the same token, if you work for yourself, time is money. Unlike when you work for a firm, where your paycheck remains steady, if you only bill 2.9 hours in a day, you are only going to get paid for 2.9 hours of work.

Get childcare. Child rearing and work don't mix. I have day care three days a week and either rely on babysitters for the rest of the time or, ideally, don't work the other two days. When caring for an infant, it worked out well, because I worked while my son napped twice a day, but soon he wound up watching TV while I pounded out a brief.

Consider who you will be speaking to on the phone. Almost every person I speak to is quite understanding when I tell them that my kids are home with me for the day. But no client, let alone opposing counsel, wants to hear your child screaming at the top of his lungs about his broken toy while you are trying to schedule deposition dates. Whether you are telecommuting or working from home for yourself, you have an image to maintain; the sounds of kids wrestling on the floor every time someone calls does not give the caller the impression that he or she has your undivided attention.

Don't forget to turn it off. Working from home has some obvious advantages, but the biggest disadvantage for me is that I have trouble turning it off. Because I am home, I keep working - later than I would have at the office. I frequently check my e-mail and respond, well into the evening hours. If at all possible, use a room with a door for your office. This may sound obvious, but for many of us in our old New England homes, our computers or home offices are stuck into a corner of the living room or dining room. If you have a door, you can close your office at the end of the day, just as if you were leaving work. It will be a lot easier. If you can't do that, find some way to shut down the office at night.

Have the "right" technology. You must have high-speed Internet access at home, a reliable computer with a firewall, antivirus software and a printer. Your employer may not provide all of these tools. I also would recommend a scanner and a fax machine. If you are working for yourself, I highly recommend software that can create PDFs, and you will need some sort of billing software. Billing software can be as simple as a spreadsheet or bill-paying software, or you can invest in the many timekeeping programs.

Figure out the mechanics of telecommuting. Will you use a floppy disk? Will your firm permit your remote access to its server, via software or Web-based services? How will you access your e-mail? What accessories and supplies will you need to have a home office? Will you install a second phone line? Will you have a separate number for faxes? Will you use a "virtual office" number like j-fax or e-fax? How will you communicate with your secretary?

If you are going to work from home on a more permanent basis, a separate phone line is critical for at least three reasons: first, you don't have to worry that your child will be answering the phone; second, you can leave a professional message on your voice mail; and third, you can turn the ringer off and not have to answer those business calls after hours. I use an e-fax number, which allows me to receive faxes as an e-mail attachment. The cost is far less than a separate line and I don't have to worry that the fax line will be busy or that the line will ring at odd hours of the night. I use my phone line to fax out.

Although working from home does have some pitfalls, for me the benefits far outweigh the problems and it allows me to have more flexibility and control than I would in a traditional office - well, not all the time, but that would be too good to be true.

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