September 29, 2005
The Time for Telecommuting
Posted by Christine Hurt

Earlier this week, President Bush made an almost noticeable call for Americans to conserve energy and forego car trips that aren't "essential."  Like President Carter's "68 in the winter, 78 in the summer" thermostate rule of thumb, this advisory will probably fall by the wayside.  Most Americans drive because they have to drive.  Prices are sufficiently high that most adults probably aren't going for two-hour joy drives or dragging main street for fun.  Adults drive to work, to the store, to school, etc.  At some level, there are opportunities for combining errands and car pooling, but these opportunities are small.  We could trade in our cars for cars with better gas mileage, but trading in automobiles has high transaction costs.  We could use public transportation, if we lived in a city with a good one and had regular working hours, but I have never met either of those criteria.

I am hoping that high gas prices have a silver lining for telecommuting.  Today's technology allows many people to do their jobs anywhere, at anytime.  As we know, technology has mostly allowed many people to drive to work, do their jobs, drive home, and continue to do their jobs.  Surely room fulls of people consulting their blackberries and emailing others from that room could suddenly realize that they didn't all have to be in that room.  My impression from talking to nonlaw friends is that the legal profession is behind the curve here.  Culture keeps everyone driving into the office 5 or 6 days a week, so that attorneys can sit in their offices, interfacing with people all over the globe and sending documents via the server to their secretaries outside their door.  In major urban areas, people spend a lot of time commuting, and support staff generally have even longer commutes than attorneys.  In Houston, a town with very few public transportation opportunities, many oil companies had an 80/9 week in which employees would work 80 hours in 9 days, with every other Friday off.  Law firms could definitely do something like that with support staff, and ask attorneys to telecommute 2-3 days a week.  However, law firms don't have much of an incentive to reduce their employees' gasoline bills.  If the entire office could be closed more days, though, a firm could reduce their own energy costs of heating, cooling, lighting, etc.

Obviously, telecommuting has some downsides -- less camaraderie, reduced team building, possibly.  But perhaps a balance could be profitable for employers and employees.

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