She flashes her grin and triumphantly waves her hand, standing tall on the top of the slide.
You wave back to your three-year-old. It’s a glorious afternoon. Sitting on the bench, you savor the crisp air while your little girl earnestly explores this all-too-familiar playground. Another mother sits on the other end of the bench as her little girl embarks on her own exploration. Soon the two moms, perfect strangers, begin to relish their “adult conversation” for a change.
“I was/am an attorney,” you tell her (and yes, you do wonder whether it should be the past or present tense.) Okay, perhaps you’re a little self-conscious, looking down on your faded jeans. Perhaps you once glowed in a pinstriped suit. Perhaps your nails were meticulously painted. But those days feel almost impossibly distant now. “Oh?” The other woman opens her eyes wide. “So was/am I.” You two exchange knowing smiles and sigh, lamenting “lack of intellectual stimulation” in the domestic sphere.
I have often experienced this sort of exchange with another lawyer mom — on the playground, at a coffee shop, at a bus stop. Once I was a childless-by-choice woman in a politically progressive law school, where all of my five professors in my first semester were women, and where Ms. was so naturally chosen that one totally forgot the existence of Miss and Mrs. Years later, I volunteer to bring homemade blue- and pink-frosted cupcakes (“Blue for boys, pink for girls, Mama,” my daughter painstakingly instructs me; so much for her parents’ gender-neutral parenting) to school, where Ms. never exists (or so it seems). I cherish motherhood. Nonetheless, I crave my own professional identity, refusing to define myself through my children.
Some of the lawyers-turned-homemakers I have met appear to be perfectly content with their new role. More, however, seem to remain somewhat ambivalent about their choice. Ours is a profession requiring an all-or-nothing commitment. In the name of climbing the career ladder, one finds herself forced to toil mindlessly, often to the exclusion of family. The challenges of conquering the juggling act have kept many “women lawyers” away from the career world.
Not too long ago, I held a dream job for a mommy-track lawyer: telecommuting to a Silicon Valley law firm. This job allowed me to participate, albeit indirectly, in cross-border patent litigation, all the while working from the kitchen table. I also carried my laptop in the car. Between my children’s drop-off and pick-up times at their schools, I worked here and there, ultimately becoming an expert on “Free Wi-Fi” locations.
Thankfully, technology had made it possible for us — a team of about 20 lawyers scattered across the nation — to communicate and collaborate effortlessly and effectively. Curling up on my living room sofa with the laptop, I interacted with colleagues from Denver, San Diego and New Orleans. Admittedly, I sometimes felt estranged from the mainstream legal community, especially when working in my pajamas. But after all, I was the one who had sought out a family-friendly alternative. Genuinely grateful for my mobile office, I tried my best to produce high-quality work as a way of expressing my appreciation. I felt a keen sense of loss when this contract work predictably came to an end.
Michelle Bomberger and Mason Boswell, both solo practitioners as well as parents, have endeavored to create a home-based career. Bomberger operates Small Business Legal Services, a law firm focused on serving entrepreneurs and small-business owners. The mother of two preschoolers, Bomberger constantly felt “pulled in different directions.” Finally, she has learned to “prioritize, delegate and set boundaries.”
She has freed herself from mundane, non-legal tasks by hiring support staff, and works at home two days a week. She also worked with a financial coach, who helped determine what the growth model for the business was. “Understanding what needed to happen to balance my life and make the money I needed to make from the business really helped pull things together,” she says.
Harmonizing work and family remains a universal struggle. Men are not mere onlookers. Becoming a first-time parent during his third year at a large firm, Boswell and several colleagues fought to implement a paternity policy. “I wanted to build a firm,” explains Boswell, “where having a family was considered natural and encouraged.” He eventually founded Boswell IP Law, specializing in protecting ideas in the software, electrical/electronic/computer, and game industries.
Boswell also works from home. “I may get up and work four hours, go to the park with my daughter for a couple of hours, then come back and work several hours more,” he says. “If something is due to be filed that day, I may have dinner with my family and then pop back into the office to work another hour or two before going to bed.” Boswell calls this working style “quite liberating.”
Undoubtedly, successful solo practices helped Bomberger and Boswell keep building their careers in the quiet and comfort of their home offices. However, the benefits of telecommuting should be available to lawyers outside solo practice as well.
Work-at-home has remained an eagerly awaited opportunity, especially among parents with young children. But a wide variety of individuals would benefit from a mobile and flexible workforce. Consider many other non-traditional professionals, potentially talented and dedicated, but underused, such as the physically disabled and those caring for elderly parents. Transcending geographical barriers enables the employer to recruit from a broader talent pool.
There are other benefits to the employer that reaches out to a more diverse workforce — from reductions in office overhead to enhanced productivity deriving from personal satisfaction and rejuvenation. From a global perspective, the positive impacts of telecommuting on the environment can be profound. Research confirms that minimizing the daily commute would reduce air pollution and energy use.
Remote work isn’t a panacea, however. Despite advances in communication technology, some jobs do require face-to-face interaction. I speak from my own experience. Once I worked on a project for a Washington, D.C. firm. Looking back, I ask myself if certain aspects of the job could have been vastly improved if personal contact had replaced the email traffic.
As critics point out, other disadvantages of telecommuting include lack of social interaction, limited managerial control over confidential information, and issues and barriers pertinent to labor and employment laws. Nevertheless, I believe that overall benefits to the employee, employer and environment outweigh the costs. Telecommuting, even on a part-time or “as needed” basis, would merit serious consideration.
Our national landscape makes an integrated workforce inevitable. More and more employers are proclaiming diversity as a vital issue for their work environments. However, diversity should mean far more than a photo of a racially mixed group of sharp-suited individuals smiling harmoniously in a firm brochure. It should be practiced on a day-to-day basis.
Telecommuting, flex-time, shortened hours, paternity leave, job sharing — these can be powerful tools to help create a more integrated, more dynamic, more global workplace.