Associates: Telecommuting has its privileges

Associates: Telecommuting has its privileges
The electronic age gives lawyers more opportunity to work outside the office, but Carol Lynn Schafer has a word of warning: do it incrementally. “You don’t just tell your firm that you plan to leave the country, but they’ll still be able to reach you, so they shouldn’t worry,” says Schafer with a laugh. “You need to prove that telecommuting works. You do that in small portions. Once you show that you can get the work done, and they can still contact you, you’re okay. They’ll realize it doesn’t matter where you are.”


Schafer ended up telecommuting from France. Her law firm, Pitblado LLP, is located in Winnipeg. With thousands of miles separating the office from the command post she set up in Cannes, a picturesque town on the Mediterranean, the logistics might have seemed daunting. But with high-speed internet and international cellphone service, she may as well have been right next door.

Apart from the time-zone difference, there were no problems. She has geared her practice — which focuses on technology and privacy law — in such a way that she can work independently. She spends most of her time drafting opinion letters and contracts, so if she has her laptop and her phone to discuss issues with clients and colleagues, she’s good to go. “With my practice it doesn’t matter so much where I am,” she says. “I draft documents and do the research that lies behind things, so I don’t really need to be working with anyone. When I do, I’m usually discussing the documents, which I can do over the phone.”

When it comes to technology law, the documents she drafts tend to be novel, so she doesn’t require precedents. “We draft from scratch a lot,” she explains. “We work with web developers and video game creators who are trying to license their products. Often there are no precedents. That’s one of the reasons I can work outside the office. It’s not like I need to be flipping through a binder looking for them.”

Cannes was a good place to set up shop, Schafer says. “When the festivals and conferences aren’t going on, there are plenty of places to rent. And it’s very progressive, so you have lots of options for internet. My husband, who has his own internet company, and I could stay very connected.” That turned out to be one of their biggest issues when they were choosing a place to go. “We looked at going to Italy, but we just weren’t sure we could find consistent and reliable internet access there.”

As well as great beaches, the South of France offered an agreeable lifestyle. “Living there is different than just travelling,” she says. “You settle in. You go to the bakery every day and the grocery shop. It was great experience to do what the French do on a daily basis.”

Schafer’s telecommuting career began when she had her first child. She found she needed to scale back her work. “If I went into the office I would get too much,” she says. So she made the transition to working at home, which allows her the flexibility she needs to look after her son. “I don’t work normal hours. I work a lot more at night. I may go into the office once a week. I stop in, pick up mail, chat with a few people, but I don’t have a strict schedule for going into the office. I don’t actually have an office, so there’s no place to go to.”

That’s one of the advantages of telecommuting: it’s cost-effective for the firm. “They don’t need to provide an office for me,” she says. Another thing she doesn’t need is paper. “I print a document once a week, if that,” she says. “I try to run a paperless office. Even when people mark up a document with handwritten comments, they usually just scan it and e-mail it to me. And the more technology you get, the easier it is. For dictation, I can just speak into my computer and e-mail it.”

When she first suggested the idea of telecommuting, the firm was very supportive. “They were all for it,” she says. “My firm has done everything they can to make me feel included.” It can be hard being away from the office, though. “The most challenging thing about working from home is missing the social aspect,” she says. “You sometimes feel disconnected. You don’t get as much time to visit with the people you work with. You don’t have as much time to ask how they’re doing, and what’s going on with their life.”

She’s no longer in France, but back working at Winnipeg, pregnant with her second child. When the dust settles from that, Schafer and her husband are plotting where to go next. You don’t need a work permit when you’re telecommuting, so the sky’s the limit. “Next time,” she says, “we’re thinking of going to California.”

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