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Big-firm attorneys find comfort zone in practice outside the office

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Polly Dobbs’ view from work most days isn’t the one her Bingham Greenebaum Doll colleagues share from the top floors of Market Tower in Indianapolis. She doesn’t look out over the Statehouse rotunda, White River State Park or Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Right now I’m looking at my garden and some cows,” Dobbs said from the 6,200-square-foot, historic colonial farmhouse she and her family had restored.

pollydobbs004-15col.jpg Polly Dobbs works with Bingham Greenebaum Doll’s estate planning practice group from her home in Peru. (Photo by Bethany Brindle)

Her big-law practice sits on 2,500 acres between the city of Peru and Mississinewa Lake, about 75 miles north of Indianapolis, in her grandparents’ old house. It’s the house where she grew up; the house is where legendary Hoosier composer Cole Porter wandered home from Yale University about 100 years ago.

Dobbs, who works in Bingham’s estate planning practice group, is among a select group of attorneys at large Indiana firms who work from home. Dobbs, her husband, and their two children moved into the home last July in the culmination of her efforts to work with her firm to assure a work-life balance.

“I still have my very high-level practice, and I’m doing it from the farm,” Dobbs said.

Technology gives attorneys the ability to work almost anywhere. But working from home carries tradeoffs for the attorney and the firm.

“It’s solely dependent on the connections working, and you do have issues,” said Jim Reed, a partner at Bingham who was Dobbs’ practice group chair. “Our IT people are really good … there are times that it’s critical that you have to work in real time and collaborate; you have no choice but to do that.”

The technical connections must work, and so must the human connections. Before Dobbs made the transition to working at home, she and her colleagues prepared for the move for nine months and practiced scenarios.

The firm provided everything Dobbs needed to work from home, even sending an IT person to hook equipment up and make sure the connections were secure.

“We had to figure out a way to make this work. We did not want to lose her under any circumstances,” Reed said.

And for Dobbs, the move put her not only at home, but where she needs to be.

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“My niche is estate planning for high-net-worth farmers,” she said. “For my farming clients, I’m the girl in their hometown.”

Perceptions persist

Since the rise of telecommuting in the 1990s, attorneys have had the tools to work at home or while traveling, but a relative few committed to working from home full time.

Pattie Zelmer is a partner with Ice

Miller in Indianapolis who started working from her home in South Bend in 1998 and still does. “I’m probably the first one within our firm to do so, and I did it as a partner,” she said. Like Dobbs, she chose to work from home to have more time with her two young children.


 

“I think technology really came about at a time that I needed it,” she said with a laugh. “I thought at the time I was the luckiest person in the world, and I still feel that way.”

Zelmer, whose practice is concentrated in municipal finance, remembers some colleagues had dubious perceptions: “Does that mean you’re somehow not working as hard?”

Reed volunteers that at 55, he is of a generation that has had to warm to the idea of lawyers working from home. He recalled a recent time when “you never failed to be in the office when the boss was there. You had to be there, you had to be seen; it’s something the older lawyers are trying to understand and deal with.”

Younger attorneys who are likelier to be in mobile contact “don’t have that same sense of obligation to be present,” he said.

Reed said Bingham had experience with other work-from-home situations in the past, including attorneys who’ve worked in northern Michigan and Gainesville, Fla.

“The key part is just having a system and making sure everyone understands you’re not in the office every day, but what lawyer this day and age would be in the office every day?” Reed said.

workfromhomeSome firms remain reluctant about work-at-home situations.

Jeffrey A. Abrams, partner-in-charge of the Indianapolis office of Benesch, said the firm’s biggest office in Cleveland has an attorney who works on the West Coast, but for the nearly 30 attorneys in the Indianapolis office, working at home probably isn’t viable.

“We expect the lawyers to work primarily out of the office, but it’s not unusual for a lawyer to work from home if they have a lunch meeting and don’t want to come all the way downtown,” Abrams said.

“I think (like) most people, if I have an issue for a lawyer who has a niche practice, I would like to walk down the hall and talk to him.”

Not for everyone

Dobbs said that after her first child was born, she encountered the same pitfalls other working mothers face. Between commuting from Noblesville and the demands of parenthood, she said she was falling behind at work. “I tried very hard to keep full time. … Something had to give.

“The firm approached me and asked how they could help,” she said. “I said, ‘I really like what I’m doing, I’d just like to do it less.’”

That’s when Dobbs went on a part-time partner track where she could work on a flex-time schedule. She accepted two-thirds of her full-time salary to work two-thirds full-time billable hours. “It seemed fair to me,” she said.

The work-from-home arrangement began when she lived in Noblesville and continued with her move to Peru. Dobbs said she’s amazed at how much work she gets done at home. She sometimes works before or after the kids are awake. A nanny watches them during her working day, and she takes a break each day to have lunch with her children. But she also makes a clear delineation: “When I’m working, I’m working.”

 

pollydobbs001-15col.jpg Westleigh, the historic home near Peru where Polly Dobbs practices, also is home to Dobbs’ husband and their two children. It was Dobbs’ grandparents’ home and also was once home to Hoosier composer Cole Porter. (Photo by Bethany Brindle)

The transition didn’t convince everyone at the firm. Dobbs said one partner called her office extension just to make sure it rang in her home in Peru.

“I’m very mindful this is sort of a new-age, wacky way to practice law. I work hard to make it seamless on this end,” she said.

Working at home is something that Zelmer said Ice Miller decides on a case-by-case basis, and there’s no way everyone could do it. Many wouldn’t want to.

“Different people have told me, ‘I can’t believe you work from home. I could never do that. I’d get too distracted,’” she said. “When the children are little, you have to set some guidelines that you can’t be interrupted.”

Former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel joined Faegre Baker Daniels in Indianapolis in April to work in government relations and economic development. He’s worked from his Evansville home since, but he’s soon to move into new office space. For his purposes, working at home indefinitely wouldn’t do.

“The challenge is, if you want to meet with clients, you don’t want to invite them into your home. You really do need the office space to accommodate that,” he said.

Dobbs said finding her work-life balance continues, sometimes in unexpected ways.

“One thing I wasn’t ready for,” she said, “is the work is always here. I never leave it. After the kids are in bed, I don’t feel like I can sit on the couch next to my husband. I haven’t found that line yet.”

But she’s working on it.

“I so much appreciate everything Bingham has done,” she said. “I’m going to bend over backward to make it work out.”•

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