Updated: Apr 10, 2020
This is a terrifying time. Being a lawyer is difficult enough in normal times, but in a reality where going to the grocery store feels like a life-or-death situation and buying toilet paper feels like a fantasy, facing the struggles of life in the law can feel impossible. Those struggles, however, don't disappear just because you are working from home in a hermetically sealed apartment. If anything, challenges like unclear expectations, competing deadlines, and oblique feedback are compounded by the lack of cues like body language and magnified by the fact that seeking support or advice feels less natural when you can't just pop your head into someone's office and ask for a few minutes to pick their brain. You still have to confront the pressure of making your billables, the challenge of parsing opaque feedback, the balancing act between home and work - but now you're doing so in isolation, fearing for your life and health and the well-being of those you care about.
So what's a lawyer to do? Use the time wisely - to invest in relationship, cultivate your professional reputation, and take time for what matters.
Invest in relationships. Human beings are social creatures - no more so than when we're under stay-at-home orders to protect public health. Healthy relationships - both personal and professional - are essential for human flourishing. In fact, a positive, respectful atmosphere at work is single the biggest contributor to employee satisfaction. And of course, there are pragmatic reasons to invest in relationships at the office: a warm relationship with an office-mate or assistant can make the different between being presented as diligent and hardworking when the senior associate finds you away from your desk, or being painted a slacker and a deadbeat. A warm relationship with the seniors in your group is the difference between getting constructive feedback after a mistake and being summarily written off.
So take the time to commiserate, celebrate and strategize with your peers. Ask after your assistant's children and pets. Be thoughtful of the seniors you work with, keeping in mind that what they may most appreciate is the confidence that you are doing your work thoughtfully and diligently, giving them one less thing to worry about. In the world of social distancing, text messaging and video-chat can be wonderful ways of staying in touch. Under normal conditions, a face-to-face chat or a phone call is better for bonding than email. And a hand-written note is always appreciated, no matter the circumstances.
Cultivate your professional reputation. Whether you are a junior associate, solo practitioner, partner, government attorney or in-house counsel, if you are a lawyer, you have clients. And those clients are almost certainly worried, at least occasionally, that you're wasting your time and their money. This is a constant preoccupation in large, impersonal work environments and with remote bosses, due to the difficulty of monitoring productivity, and the concern is magnified when everyone is working from home. For all they know, you're sitting in your pajamas watching Netflix all day. (No judgment from me if you are - background noise can help!)
So be mindful of optics. Take care, especially during these challenging days, to be very responsive and to check your email (and, if possible, send some emails) first thing in the morning and last thing at night each day, as well as responding promptly to email and voicemail during your normal working hours. Send updates on your work to anyone who may be interested at least once or twice a week. Err on the side of overloading the CC line if you're unsure of whom to include. Ask for updates on any dormant matters and, if things are slow, consider taking on pro bono or client development projects. Remember, it's not enough to be competent and intelligent and enthusiastic and conscientious - you have to look the part as well.
Take time for what matters. If there is one thing that many of us are learning from the current crisis, it is that our jobs are very important - but our health, our loved ones and the quality of the life we lead are all worth far more. COVID-19 has driven home that nobody - no matter how young and fit and accomplished - is immune to tragedy. While there are so many things outside of our control that can change our lives in an instant, we also have choices - about the work we do, the relationships we cultivate, and the ways we spend our precious time.
Take this time, when restaurants and bars and venues are all closed, to reflect on what matters to you. What goals and priorities are you excited to pursue? What values do you hope to embody? What knowledge and experience will help you get where you want to go? You are a conscientious professional, standing ready to sacrifice nights, weekends and long-held plans to meet the needs of your internal and external clients. It is so important - for your present well-being and your future success - that your needs be met as well.
We're all scared during this time. None of us knows what the future will bring. But you have control over how you spend your present. You can grow the immeasurable wealth of relationship,. You can cultivate your professionalism and reputation. You can be intentional about developing a vision of what kind of life you want to live and what kind of professional you want to be - and then creating a plan to make that vision a reality. Spending this dangerous time safe at home is a privilege much of the world does not possess. Let's make it count.