Working from home as an attorney can be an amazing experience if it is planned correctly; an unmitigated disaster if it’s not. More importantly, if handled incorrectly there can be a lot of friction in your home. Why? Because, while your spouse and kids go off to work and school to then come home to their ‘sanctuary’, you are carefully and thoughtfully converting your sanctuary into a work space for a finite number of hours each day. This is a major psychological challenge.
I have worked from home for more than a decade so it’s fair to say I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t; what lines to draw and what lines not to draw in order to keep you sane and your work time and space respected by your family. But I also know there is an unspoken assumption that never really goes away; that if you are working from home you are always available for something and some even go so far as to think you’re not really working simply because they can physically see you, or you take a break for lunch and watch the news or you decide it is a sweats and t-shirt day. This unspoken assumption, and sometimes resentment, never really goes away. Never. So, how to do you plan for success?
First, it is a key to have a dedicated space which includes your computer, phone and a door that can be both closed and locked. Psychologically, you need to know that once you enter your work domain you are working. And your family needs to know this, too. I always keep my door open, though, so when it is shut, no one even knocks, never mind enters, unless the house is on fire. This might be harder with kids under the age of 10 running around if they are not in school or day care, but we’ll assume for this article, they are out of the house Monday through Friday.
Second, keep a shared calendar (without divulging confidential information) so that your spouse and kids (if they are old enough to access) know your work day which includes conference calls, court calendars, appointments, ‘power hours*’ and more. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have your spouse ask at dinner how your meeting was or tells you they waited to call you because they saw you had a conference call at a certain hour.
Third, let your immediate and extended family know your ‘power hours*’ – those hours of the week when you are drilling down to work, writing briefs, conducting legal research, and do not want to be disturbed. Mine is every morning, especially Mondays. I’ve trained my family to never call or text unless it is an emergency. It takes time for your family to learn this because of the assumption mentioned above – ‘if you’re home you aren’t really working.’
Fourth, set up definitive work hours. This can be very hard when you carpet commute because it is so easy to get up early and ‘go to work’, so easy to finish dinner and run to your computer to work or just check that ‘one thing’, especially if you need to connect with someone and they are in a different time zone. But this is where you need to be disciplined. Your home is your sanctuary, too. When your spouse is home and your kids are home, it needs to be family time, sanctuary time.
This is probably the hardest part of working from a home-based law office because it is incumbent on you, not your family, to be disciplined enough to turn it off. It is much easier to leave an outside work environment, unwind during commuting time, walk into your home, kick off your shoes and know the work day is over, then it is to get up from your desk, leave your office, shut the door and not open it until the next morning. This is quite simply the greatest challenge. And to put things in perspective, when my son was five years old he got very mad at me. All he ever saw was me working at the computer as I readied the launch of Solo Practice University. He was angry. Finally, I asked him why he wouldn’t give me a hug. He said, ‘because you love the computer more than you love me.’ Out of the mouths of babes.
The benefits of working from home as a lawyer are numerous. The possibility for familial friction is very, very real for the reasons stated above. But forewarned is forearmed. I’ve successfully navigated the landmines and reaped the rewards for more than a decade and you can, too.
Susan Cartier Liebel is the Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only online educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students designed for those who want to create and grow their solo or small firm practices. She is a coach/consultant for solos and small firms and regularly writes about and speaks frequently to law schools, bar associations and professional organizations around the country on issues facing solos, offering both practical knowledge and inspiration. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.