Thanks to the ubiquity of home computers and easily accessible high speed internet connections, telecommuting is becoming increasingly common: a 2015 Gallup poll found that 37% of workers telecommute at least occasionally, an increase of almost 30% since 1995. The fact that working from home has become more commonplace is a huge advantage to the military spouse attorney. Establishing a virtual practice or finding a telecommuting-friendly employer means enjoying a truly portable career.
One of the greatest obstacles facing military spouse attorneys is the difficulty of maintaining employment PCS move after PCS move. Between the need to take yet another bar exam and the amount of time it takes to find local work, repeated moves are a huge barrier to a career in law for a military spouse. Remote work is a major step in ensuring continuous employment. I have worked remotely for Littler Mendelson, a large labor and employment law firm, since 2013. When my family PCSed from Singapore to Hawaii in 2014, I was working again within hours of landing, and once we moved into our home, it was just a matter of having the cable internet installed. Due to the fact that my firm has been so accommodating of my husband’s PCS moves, and that my job position does not require me to be licensed in my state of residence, I gratefully refer my job with Littler as a “unicorn job”. Other MSJDN members have also been able to find jobs that permit remote work, and some have even created their own virtual law practices.
MSJDN communications director Libby Jamison converted her established law practice into a virtual practice when she and her husband moved away from California, her state of licensure. “[I work] remotely using my California license doing research, writing, and client management for other California attorneys although I’ve been living in Florida and Rhode Island for the past four years. Most of my clients are business or family law attorneys from the network I built while we were stationed in San Diego.”
With respect to transitioning from a traditional work environment to remote work, MSJDN members stress the importance of setting a solid work schedule, for ease of communication with work contacts as well as to promote a manageable work-life balance. Many of my colleagues are in California, so I have structured my workday to mirror West Coast working hours as closely as possible even though it means a very early morning start. In addition to making myself more accessible to my colleagues by phone and email, this schedule also allows me to use the late afternoon hours for picking my kids up from school, taking them to their various sports practices, and sitting down for a family dinner.
Lindsey Savage, a partner at the Seattle-based Tollefsen Law and the current MSJDN governance director, has been working remotely for the past few years and advocates making work hours strictly for work. When you telecommute, it can be hard to resist sneaking other household chores in. Lindsey says, “I also don’t try to multi-task; I don’t throw laundry in, I don’t try to rely on naptimes to work, etc. I wouldn’t be doing it if I were gone from the house, so I don’t do it even though I’m physically there.”
While career portability and the ability to work in comfy clothes and flip flops were universally reported as advantages to teleworking, isolation was the most frequently mentioned challenge. I’ve noticed I tend to be overly chatty with the cashier at the commissary when I do a grocery run at the end of the work day. Kate Pennington, who works remotely for a Maryland-based law firm, acknowledges that she “miss[es] the camaraderie of working in an office and having people to either celebrate with when things are great, or commiserate with when things are tough.”
Another common pitfall is the potential for a technology failure. If there is a power or internet outage in your home office, you may find yourself plugging in your laptop at Starbucks until the problem is resolved. Libby Jamison recommends investing in high quality equipment and internet capability in order to maintain a high level of productivity. “You are often going to be your own IT person and you don’t want to be spending time troubleshooting when you could be billing.” For strategies and tech product recommendations geared toward establishing a successful virtual practice, check out this blog post by Greg McLawsen of Puget Sound Legal, recapping his excellent panel discussion at Making the Right Moves 2015.
Remote work can be challenging for parents with small children at home, but here again, creating a solid work schedule that coordinates with the family’s schedule will help. Dawn Giles has worked for the same small litigation firm for the past several years and has negotiated a schedule that allows her to work from home two days per week. On her telecommuting days, Dawn has one of her young daughters at home with her, and she reserves those days for routine tasks: answers to pleadings, simple motions, and similar projects. According to Dawn, the part-time telecommuting schedule has been incredibly beneficial to her work-life balance. “I’ve really valued being able to spend time with my girls while they’re young and to limit the time they’re in daycare and to still be able to work in time when I can.”
Finding the “unicorn job” admittedly may require a mix of luck, good timing, and a leap of faith. It can be scary to make a move from an established job to hanging out your own virtual shingle. A frequent recommendation from other MSJDN members is to ask a current employer if they would allow remote work. A PCS move does not necessarily need to mean the end of employment if an attorney is willing to ask for, and the employer is willing to consider, telecommuting as an option. It can be advantageous for employers as well – retaining a valuable employee by allowing the employee to work remotely means being able to keep talent into whom the employer has invested time and money, and also means the employer will not need to conduct a lengthy candidate search and train someone new. Kate Pennington successfully petitioned her employer to be able to work remotely when she and her husband moved from Maryland to Hawaii. Says Kate, “I’m incredibly appreciative that my firm was willing to consider letting me work remotely and I think we’ve all been surprised at how well it has worked out.”