By Christopher Jennison
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Law360 (October 22, 2020, 1:34 PM EDT) —
The COVID-19 pandemic has left lawyer parents trying to do their jobs while caring for their children. In this two-part series, a husband and wife, both practicing attorneys, candidly share what it looks like to balance responsibilities while working from home.
Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!I hit the 5 a.m. alarm on my phone and contemplate whether I can sneak in some more sleep.
Nope — no such luck. We’re a few months into this new normal work-from-home, parent-from-home pandemic and I need to get up and get some things done before my daughter and wife are awake. I grab my phone, see if anything needs immediate attention, and, seeing nothing immediately pressing, sneak downstairs.
Before the pandemic, my wife would be up and out the door almost before I woke up, so she could get her work hours in and pick up our toddler daughter, Ruth, from day care after work.
I, on the other hand, was the morning parent. I would be in charge of getting up with Ruth, feeding her breakfast and getting her dressed for day care in that day’s clothing theme. After dropping Ruth off at day care, I would double-back to the Metro and board a train for a 45-minute commute downtown, hopefully arriving in the office by 7:30 a.m. It seems like a past life now.
Pop! Click! Whirr!
I punch on the coffee maker and let the dog out. I put away dishes and, taking my first sip of my coffee, go into the dining room, keeping the lights off and the sounds low in the house.
The dining room: my new office during this new normal. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I worked off just my laptop, thinking that would suffice while we were out of the office for a week or two.
When a colleague told me that he went into the office and “stole” his whole setup — multiple monitors and a docking station — I remember thinking he was nuts. What could he really be doing in that short time that would require the hassle of this whole setup at home?
Little did I know I’d be running downtown to follow his lead within a few days, as I hit the document review phase of a new discovery production matter, necessitating multiple screens.
So, now, my three-monitor setup and docking station sit on the end of our dining room table. I turn on the computer and begin looking more closely at emails that have come through, to see if anything needed my attention that day. I finish working on a motion to compel for the discovery that I had been working on and send it off for my supervisor for the OK to file.
In the old normal, I’d go down the hall and chat with my colleagues; in the “new normal,” I look on Skype and see my colleagues greyed out, meaning they’re most likely not yet online.
“Hi hi hi hi,” I hear coming from upstairs. It’s not even 7 a.m. and Ruth must already be up. I pop waffles in the toaster and go upstairs to find her dancing in her crib — shaking up and down and ready to party.
I change her to get her ready for the day and go to see if Mama is up. She is — so we go out for a long walk together.
We have been trying to get out for these long walks through the neighborhood to break up the monotony of quarantine — but also to tucker out both the dog and Ruth so that maybe we could get a few hours of quiet work time. Ruth munches on her waffle on the go.
These morning walks have become the silver lining of the pandemic. Rather than riding the train and scrolling my phone, my wife and I get to sneak in a few minutes of conversation, running through the day ahead and get to spend some time with our daughter.
Ruth had been in day care full time during the week since she was a little over 3 months old. But, as the pandemic rapidly unfolded, the governor had closed schools and day cares — and with that move, parenting and working as a lawyer, alongside another lawyer, became a daily juggle.
By this point in the pandemic, the governor had announced that day cares would be opening on a restricted basis. For my wife and me, it wasn’t much of a call to keep our daughter out of day care — but we’re the lucky ones.
Our day care didn’t charge us to keep her spot while she’s been home, which I’ve heard was the case for others, and both my wife and I could lawyer from home. The science and precautions weren’t there yet for us to feel safe sending her back to day care, and we didn’t have anything forcing our hand to put her back in.
My parents also live about a mile from us, so my dad would come over almost daily to watch Ruth for a few hours in the afternoon to crank out some work.
After returning home and getting Ruth and the dog down for naps, I jump back on my computer just in time for a Zoom staff meeting. In the old normal, our staff meeting would be in our office conference room. A conference room of colleagues — that’s a quaint idea in these pandemic times.
After the staff meeting, I have a few virtual witness prep sessions. I’d been working for some time to first-chair a trial as an employment lawyer and we were deep in preparation. This trial was a big deal for me, the first time where I was calling the shots, but I was largely at the mercy of my witnesses’ schedules, too, given their roles with my employer and the fact that I’m a staff attorney who has only been practicing for a few years.
“Hi hi hi hi,” I hear coming from upstairs. It’s about 11:30 a.m. My daughter is awake after her morning nap and my dad isn’t due at our house until about 2 p.m.
I shout to my wife-now-coworker down the hall to see if she can get Ruth up because I’m hopping on one final witness prep session before I can catch my breath over lunch. She tells me she has a staff meeting but will have Ruth sit on her lap and join in on the Zoom meeting. She’s got her until I can take her: “Don’t worry.”
I log onto my last prep. It runs long and by the time it’s over, my wife’s staff meeting is done, so I couldn’t even give her a reprieve for part of her meeting.
I had suggested at one point that we split the day. I’d take 7 a.m. to noon for child care and my wife would take 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. We’d do additional work before or after my daughter is awake.
That plan worked for about two days before our jobs scrambled the idea: managers scheduling meetings at previously unscheduled times, colleagues asking if we could take a look at something urgently, clients asking for “just a minute” by calling on Microsoft Teams. The urge to be as responsive in my dining-room-office as I would be in my office-office was hard to overcome.
We get through a rushed lunch that my wife and I throw together and then it’s play time for my daughter. Ruth’s converted playroom — an intended formal living room — sits right next to the dining room — er, my office.
My wife had previously claimed our home office, which we were lucky to have and which had been infrequently used for telework in the old normal. The converted playroom gave us an opportunity for eyesight from both my “office” and my wife’s office, so we could see if a second set of hands was needed at some point.
It’s now approaching 2 p.m. and “buh-beep” my client in this big trial I’m first-chairing sends me a Zoom invite via Skype to chat “now,” if I’ve got “just a sec.” I ask my wife if she can cover for just a few minutes until my dad arrives while I get on the Zoom session.
I’ve started discussing a few questions the client had when my dad walks into the dining room, booming, “What’s going on? Where’s my Ruthie?” My wife, in the playroom with Ruth, also in my line of sight, shouts, “We’re in here Pop-Pop!” My client, meanwhile, just looks confused as to what’s going on while I’m in my office.
We play hot potato with my daughter for a few hours, giving my dad a set of hands when he needs it, but both my wife and I trying to slog through some work.
Around 5 p.m., my dad’s about had it with our daughter. In the old normal, I’d work until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. at the office, unless I had a big deadline coming up, so I could be home by 6:30 or so. In the new normal, it’s time for long walk number two with Ruth and the pup.
We have a quick dinner when we get home and I take Ruth upstairs for a short bath. After fighting her unwillingness to take a bath by YouTube-ing “Rubber Duckie” from “Sesame Street” on my phone, she quickly resigns herself to bed. Some things haven’t changed: I’ve always been the bath time dad.
I jump on a board call for the Rescue Squad where we’re discussing whether we can afford to keep providing meals to our volunteers as a small token of appreciation for their service during the pandemic. I have to leave the call midway through because I need to get more work done before I can go to bed.
After churning through a few more hours of work in the dim light of my computer on the dining room table, I call it quits for the night and wonder when I’ll next be in my real office again.
How has this pandemic changed fathering and lawyering? The real question is, how hasn’t it? I am incredibly lucky that I have gainful, secure employment that I enjoy and that my office has been accommodating to the idea that our home has become a day care.
There are a few strategies of how my office has confronted work during the pandemic that are worth sharing and that I wish my peer parent-lawyers would also see in their work environments.
For instance, my manager has been accommodating to shifting schedules, allowing us to work any time during the day to meet our workload and hours requirements. On the other hand, the expectations have been adjusted to the reality that we, as front-line attorneys, aren’t always on call the same way we were before the pandemic. This means I may send out an email at 5 a.m. but be offline from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. while playing with my daughter and get back to the client after that time.
I know this flexibility may not always exist in the private sector or with other employers but cutting some slack about the now-upside-down understanding of work-life balance can go far in showing appreciation to your lawyers. Be accommodating with your employees’ time; the old normal schedule will need some adjustment.
How have I seen this play out in my external practice when dealing with opposing counsel? I’ve had to schedule a few depositions during the pandemic around other attorneys’ caretaker responsibilities — and that’s OK. You can be a good lawyer while accommodating your opposing counsel, your colleagues and your clients, and vice versa.
In 2019, the American Bar Association adopted a policy of urging state courts to grant case continuances based on parental leave of involved attorneys for the new arrival of a child. I’m not going to argue that this principle should be extended to times of joint parenting and lawyering during the pandemic, but, much of the same reasoning is at play: Be accommodating to those you work with who have many balls in the air during this time.
On a recent video call with a client whom I was preparing for testimony, we had a candid conversation about the need to always be “on” with a video screen. Even in the old normal, conversations happened on the phone and eyes were not always on you.
In this new normal though, the expectation seems to be that you will always have your video on — and that need not be the case. Have trust that your clients and colleagues are listening to you, even without your video on; it will give everyone a break from that sense of constant watching.
Though I still long for the days of a work-life split, the silver linings have made this new normal more OK — getting the time with my daughter as she learns to walk and run, getting to have more than an exhausted conversation or a rushed phone call with my wife. Then again, perhaps it’s easier to see the silver linings because I just moved my office upstairs to a room with a door, so my “coworkers” at least have to knock before barging in while I’m on with a client.
Christopher Jennison is an attorney adviser at the Federal Aviation Administration‘s Office of Chief Counsel. He is also speaker of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Portfolio Media Inc. or any of its respective affiliates. The article was written in the individual’s capacity and not on behalf of, or reflecting, the employer. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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