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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Have Aeron, Will Travel

There are so many jobs.
Just look and see!
If you could be anything,
What would you be?
—Dora the Explorer, What Will I Be?

Whatchoo gonna do now, Mommeep?
—Tyler Howell

A year ago at just about this time, I was having a conversation with Steve Gillmor. Steve asked me — in so many words, and in his hallmark I-will-brook-no-nonsense-so-don't-even-think-about-it manner — what I was going to be when I grew up. Steve's point, if I understood him correctly, was that there is much to be done in the context of "this big family we find ourselves born into," as he recently put it, and one cannot do it effectively and efficiently by serving two masters and banking on the ability of business-as-usual to piggyback on the inevitability of business-to-come (rather than being usurped by it).

Much has happened in a year. Mike Arrington, who at the same event was as tickled about the promise of his then brand new project as a boy with a brand new dump truck, has become a one man media force and kingmaker/breaker. Video has arrived. Audio has continued to remake all the rules. My son, now 2½, has — as of last week — started sleeping through the night. And Steve's challenge has been on a quiet but insistent loop somewhere just northwest of my epithalamus.

I'm happy to say I'm finally going to answer his question. I'm even more happy to say that while I don't yet know the contours of that answer, whatever they wind up being will involve upending the professional/personal dynamic that has dominated my life for the last two years. Instead of shoehorning my most important job — being a mom — into the discrete chunks of time can be wrested away from the demands of being even a part time lawyer at one of the world's biggest firms, my professional roadmap henceforth will involve only things that are washed through a stringent "how much do I really love that?" filter, and can be comfortably accomplished in the limited, catch-as-catch-can hunks of time that fall serendipitously out of the sky during the course of my other "duties."

Though I'm excited about this change of focus and employment, and might certainly (and perhaps inevitably) have precipitated it on my own at some point, I do want to be clear about one thing: I'm leaving Reed Smith now because I was fired last week. Apparently it's not uncommon for folks who find themselves in this situation to resign notwithstanding the fact they've been fired, in order to be able to hold themselves out as the "break-upper" and not the "break-uppee" during their search for other employment. This kind of fiction seems unnatural to me, not to mention a study in futility and counter to the sort of transparency I've advocated and admired here from the get-go. That said, the contemplated terms of my separation arrangement preclude my discussion of certain nonpublic, firm related matters. So while I'm not going to go into the whats, whys, and hows of my departure, I do have some thoughts on the legal profession and its business realities as I sit here in my home office surrounded by the boxed-up former trappings of my office-building office (which will live on now only as the inspiration for the banner graphic on my about page).

Kristin McGinn-Straub of Frankfurt, Germany (?) chides Vogue Magazine this month about a photo spread involving chic fashion and new motherhood:

I am shocked at this idea of a baby as an accessory. At a time when too many women are having babies and within a matter of weeks popping a bottle into their mouths and trotting them off to day care because the little ones do not meld well with a busy life of self-care and self-interest, this series of photos is simply in bad taste. Babies are not accessories. They are people.

Though Kristin seems to think there is a trend afoot away from active parenting, my own experiences and observations lead me to disagree; I think exactly the opposite is true. However, and certainly in the case of parents who seek to maintain their engagement and investment in careers that represent the sum total of the education and training that has occupied their adult lives, the danger of falling into the trap of relegating, delegating, and too often abdicating the parenting role is all too real. While I know countless lawyers who have done this, and I continue to see people do it, what I more commonly see and hear today (and what undeniably is true in my case) is that people — men and women — are no longer content to adopt such an approach and philosophy; they increasingly discern that the consequences are too dear and potentially too dire. Law firms seem at least to recognize this situation, if their lengthy struggle to address it is any indication. Reed Smith's managing partner Greg Jordan, a phenomenal and visionary individual, will readily tell you: "There's no question that firms need to be flexible and creative to recruit and retain top talent." But firms still have a long way to go before being "flexible and creative" transcends the realm of sound bite and recruiting/retention pitch, and enters that of core value. While some are bound to disagree, my take is that having formalized policies that contemplate part time schedules and family leaves is merely a good start, and cannot and should not be the end of the story. This is because it remains far too common for such programs to precipitate the dead-end — or the actual end — of one's career, rather than leading to an acceptable state of "balance."

Before it can successfully play a role in recruiting and retaining talented people, "work-life balance" has to be more than a buzzword in a firm sponsored Q & A that could readily fuel a Jeremy Blachman parody. To take these sorts of initiatives beyond starting point and sound bite, some simple steps might prove quite helpful:

Neutral Monitoring

I'm usually one of the last to think large firms need more infrastructure, but I'm also usually one of the first to think they need better infrastructure. So, while this might sound like the lead-in to some witty bit of satire or sarcasm, it's not: I'm serious that firms serious about the success of work-life balance should think hard about creating a new C-level position, the CWLBO — Chief Work-Life Balance Officer. It's perhaps tempting to think that workflow management and quality review processes already in place are sufficient to ensure that work-life balance programs do not devolve into interim stops on a person's journey out of a firm or out of the profession. But there are at least three reasons why formally and neutrally monitoring the progress of those who avail themselves of work-life balance programs, and actively fostering their success, makes good sense:

  1. People who go part time or on leave in order to be active and engaged parents, or to manage more crisis-triggered personal concerns, are in effect taking on two (or more) demanding jobs where before they had just one. While they may recognize this, they also may fail to appreciate (or may be in denial about) the impact of the new job(s) on the old one. Given the dilatory effects of things like sleep deprivation and stress, just as "work" time becomes more scarce, even those tasks that formerly were straightforward may suddenly become daunting, and — ironically enough — more time consuming than ever. As the parties directly involved struggle to reconcile limitations and expectations, frustration on all fronts mounts until someone decides to end the experiment because "things just aren't working out." A CWLBO could defuse this chain reaction through education, oversight, and intervention.
  2. A CWLBO would give work-life balance a warm body instead of a body count. Given adequate authority and resources, in addition to serving his or her primary role the CWLBO would also be a palpable testament to the firm's commitment to these values.
  3. Flexibility and creativity require an advocate, and none of the parties directly involved in this process on a day-to-day basis are naturally suited to that role. Part time or leave-taking people are likely to feel they already are imposing on the firm's generosity and goodwill, and their coworkers are likely to agree.


Legitimate flexibility in this context requires a Chinese menu approach ("One from column A, two from column B..."), not a cookie cutter one. The hours/compensation tradeoff should be revisited frequently and not expected to conform to a one-size-fits-all formula. And, particularly in the case of those motivated by family considerations, firms should recognize the considerable return on investment to be gained by keeping benefits in place even for those on significantly reduced schedules or leaves.


Here's the real challenge, and the real opportunity for vision and leadership. Commitment to retention and continued fostering of talent and value requires taking the long view, and realizing that leave-precipitating events also can be fundamentally life-changing ones that warrant a thorough reassessment of the employee's contributions in the near and long terms. There's a crucial role to be played by technology here: firms that invest in tools that leverage time-shifting, and enable whenever/wherever participation that is both frictionless and rich, will have considerably more success at keeping part time employees engaged, involved, and appropriately productive than those that don't. Despite the fact such tools have blossomed and thrived in recent years as never before, and despite the benefits to be realized, law firms continue to be notoriously slow adopters. The commercial legal world seems incapable of understanding that ubiquitous Blackberrydom does not amount to a free pass entitling bearers to ignore the Live Web and Web 2.0 with impunity. But more about that in a moment. To wrap up the creativity point, in addition to lowering barriers to participation and effectiveness through such things as forward-looking technology and the efforts of a CWLBO, firms should examine what valuable contributions an employee realistically can make now (perhaps radically departing from the kinds of contributions he or she has made in the past), and what he or she reasonably can be expected to bring to the table in the future, and go from there. Firms need to acknowledge the insignificance of infant care/maternity/paternity leave in the grand scheme of raising a child, and find ways to exploit the strengths of parents as their family obligations ebb and flow over the years. (If they don't, "work-life balance" becomes as much a lie and a farce as post-termination resignation.)

I have the feeling I'll get asked a lot whether my getting fired had anything to do with my blogging and related activities. The easy answer — not as far as I know — shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed along here over the years, since I've never been a terribly kamikaze or prolific blogger, and my post-Tyler blogging, etc. has been a relative trickle. (My son is an equal opportunity time hog, albeit a cute one.) But there's more to talk about here than just the easy answer. Kevin O'Keefe's client base and several thousand others notwithstanding, Evan Schaeffer is probably correct when he says that "outsiders" (including most of the legal profession) "remain skeptical." On the subject of the Yearly Kos, an anonymous aide to a Democratic presidential candidate is quoted in a recent Newsweek as saying,

It's a little bit like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' with these guys. You like what they're saying when they're coming in, but you don't know what they're going to do once you let them into your house.

That seems like a decent approximation of the current attitude of law firms in general toward blogging and its ilk. Again with relatively few discerning exceptions, Live Web tools — to the extent they've even yet managed to hit the radar — can regress seasoned practitioners to the status of a two-year old taking in the Fourth of July fireworks show: they recognize something big, powerful, loud, and (when they dare look) beautiful is going on here, and they're fascinated, but they can't help being various degrees of terrified.

That will continue to change over time as law firms wake up to the fact they are classic long tail businesses and begin to act accordingly, and as it becomes apparent to all businesses that you're either in the conversation or out of it, and if you're out of it you're out of luck. The legal information cacophony cries out for trusted guides, and it is the individuals in the profession, one by one, unique ability and experience by unique ability and experience, who will fill that void (and simultaneously fill their or their employer's bank accounts). Law firms by and large actually get this. What they don't seem to get just yet is that the medium matters. That certain tools are capable of unleashing the power of the guides while others are not. That paper mail and email are dead, and the corollary, that Web site registration is offensive. That to be useful and absorbed, information, in addition to being compelling, has to be as readily accessible and locatable as possible. That knowledge management — or more precisely effective knowledge sharing, archiving, and searching — matters.

That last link is to Robert Scoble, someone for whom I have great admiration and respect. Though he went about it far more fearlessly and pointedly (and though as I understand it his blogging and related activities were actually and officially part of what Microsoft was paying him for), I hope that my blogging about the law while employed by Crosby Heafey and then Reed Smith helped me emulate Robert in some small way, and attached a human face to those organizations. I know it at least enabled me to connect several folks in need of excellent and conscientious legal assistance with the appropriate lawyers, and I feel great about that.

For the last 7½ years I've had a round-trip commute to work of anywhere from 2 hours to 4 hours a day. (Little wonder I'm such a proponent of podcasts.) Though the drive was much less of a grind during my post-Tyler, part time schedule, it almost always began with me kissing my son goodbye, telling him I loved him, and departing amid an ensuing torrent of tears that nearly justified triggering the wipers. (From time to time I'll sneak out when he's not looking, but that always feels like pulling a fast one, and he never lets it slide anyway; he freaks out once he realizes I've slipped away.) Recently, this well-meaning pattern has resulted in a dreadful side effect. Now, whenever I tell my son I love him he starts to panic: "Where Mommy go?!?" I've made it a point to tell him I love him a ridiculous number of times a day, but he can't yet seem to break the association between "I love you" and my leaving for what to him is a long, long time.

I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to putting a stop to that.

I'll be taking a blog break next week, but will be back at it at AO '06. If the gadget gods smile on me as well, I might even manage a podcast or two from there, I have some new gear to break in. Expect Sound Policy production to step up (there's already a Colette Vogele 'cast in the can that should be up very shortly I hope).

There's a Miuccia Prada quote in the current Vogue (yes, I just got my hair cut), alongside a cherry red, patent leather, Mary Jane platform shoe with a wooden gold rococo wedge:

I want to liberate the savage and passionate side of women, to do clothes that are both beautiful and mentally provocative.

I think I'll gender- and fashion-neutralize that sentiment and make it my new mantra, if that's ok with you. And with Steve. Or even if not.

One final note about the Aeron chair. It's an artifact of the pre-bust dotcom heyday, purchased at top dollar before you could pick 'em up for a song in liquidation. It's heavy, unwieldy, and not all that comfortable, and I almost donated it to Reed Smith (along with an eclectic assortment of electronics and briefcases) when the logistics of balancing it atop the boxes cramming my car made themselves clear. But then the chair spoke to me as an envoy from the past — from the days when I first read Cluetrain, Gonzo Marketing (Amazon tells me I purchased that item on October 27, 2001), and Small Pieces, when those books, and then their authors, and everyone to whom they directly or indirectly introduced me, quite literally changed my life and put me on the course I've been on and on which I hope to remain. I rearranged boxes, rolled up my sleeves with Roscoe from the mail room (who also exhorted me to bring a bottle of wine to the beach on a weekday some time soon, which I promised him I'd do), and trundled the chair on home.

hit the road, jack

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