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In-house counselors: Attorneys cope with working from home

Family working at home

Attorney Betsy Lynch works from her Kansas City home on March 26 alongside her sons Billy, 5, and Jimmy, 9, and her daughter Kathy Madge, 7. Photo courtesy of Jake Lynch

Betsy Lynch has a busy law practice. She also has three children between the ages of 9 and 5 whose school has shut down during the COVID-19 crisis. So when she had a court hearing, she lined up a babysitter.

“Then it moved to a telephone hearing, so it seemed kind of silly to hire a sitter — hang on just a second,” Lynch said when reached at her Kansas City home by cellphone. After a moment, she was back on the line. “OK. I had to throw everybody outside. You can see the mass chaos situation we have going on.”

During the past two weeks, many Missouri law firms have responded to the pandemic by having their lawyers and staff work from home — and as major jurisdictions have issued stay-at-home orders, what was once prudent has become mandatory. The practice of law goes on, but Missouri attorneys find themselves jockeying for space and Wi-Fi bandwidth with spouses and children. Bedrooms become offices, kitchen tables are requisitioned as desks and clothing becomes more casual by the day.

For many lawyers, working from home is quite feasible. One can email documents, file electronically in the courts and meet with colleagues by video. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Sara Neill

Sara Neill of Capes Sokol, as seen in a screenshot during a recent Skype chat. Neill is juggling the needs of her firm and The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, of which she is the president, from home.

Lynch’s practice in Kansas City focuses on asset protection and estate planning. Although much of her work can be done remotely, she’s required by law to meet in person with some of her clients. For Lynch, that’s both difficult and terrifying: She also cares for two disabled parents who are in an assisted-living facility.

“If I was going to get this from a client and then walk into my parents’ nursing home, that would be pretty catastrophic,” she said.

In the meantime, Lynch is trying to keep her kids’ educations on track while their private Catholic school is closed.

“It’s insane. You get 400 emails a day from the school telling you, ‘Here’s the 4,000 things you can do to help your kids learn from home.’ Well, that’s great, but what if I’m actually expected to work from home while I’m teaching my children?” Lynch said.

Carly Duvall, an attorney at Spencer Fane in Kansas City, faces similar issues.

“If you ask for a Zoom meeting with me during the day, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see my daughter and my cat,” she said.

Her 4-year-old daughter’s preschool is closed at least through April, so Duvall tries to fill her daughter’s days with themed lessons and educational programs.

“I’m really sympathetic to what this must be like for her as a 4-year-old,” she said. “She went to school every day, we frequented the playground, we’d take her out often to places like the library and the museum, and she’s lost that interaction. I still want to keep as much of that engagement as I can.”

To pull that off, Duvall gets up early to work before her daughter wakes up, does what she can during afternoon naptime and puts in a few hours after her daughter goes to bed.

“I’m kind of working the same amount of time that I was when I working in the office two weeks ago,” Duvall said. “I’ve shifted from what was an 8-ish hour day to kind of a 24-hour day.”

Attorneys with older children face different issues. Bharat Varadachari of HeplerBroom in St. Louis is keeping his trial practice going from home alongside his wife, his 16-year-old son and his 12-year-old daughter. During the teens’ recent spring break, Varadachari worked from the kitchen while his son watched old basketball games in the living room, his daughter played on her phone in her room and his wife worked on her master’s degree online from their bedroom.

“It’s almost like we’re dogs marking out our territory,” he joked.

At the same time, the experience has brought the Varadachari family closer together.

“We’ve watched more movies as a family in this last week than I think all four of us have done in five years,” he said. “We’re trying to make the best of it. Everybody has a little cabin fever.”

Sara Neill, a partner at Capes Sokol in St. Louis and the current president of The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, also faces the mixed blessing of tight quarters with her loved ones. Her 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter might barge in during her constant stream of conference calls, but that’s not necessarily unwelcome.

“My son brought me lunch in my home office today and kissed me on the cheek, which I loved,” she said.

Meanwhile, she can hear her husband, Tom Neill of Gray, Ritter & Graham, talking on a conference call of his own.

“He just has a loud, booming, trial-lawyer voice,” she said. “So I can hear it on a totally different floor, maybe two floors.”

But she said she can’t be too upset with him: He, too, has been bringing her snacks.

“He brought me a cocktail at 6 o’clock last night just as I was getting ready to wrap up a call, which I thought was really nice and something that obviously would not have happened at our regular offices with our regular co-workers,” she said.

In other words, a lock-down during a pandemic is a certain kind of fun. At least for now.

“We should talk again in three weeks to see how we’re holding up,” Neill said.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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