Thursday, March 4, 2021

Working Life Lately

via Unsplash

Every so often, I'll get the idea to write about an ongoing situation in my life, something - whether it's big and somewhat serious or small and relatively light - that's been on my mind for at least a few months. Then I'll search through my blog archives to identify the last time(s) I wrote about that topic, in order to link to those entries as a way of providing context for a newer post. 

Often, I'm slightly confused and surprised to discover I didn't actually write at all about this topic that had been on my mind. Or if I did write about it, I was so vague and indirect no one could possibly fully grasp what I was talking about. I'd probably thought about writing about the recurring issue, but decided against it. Or maybe I wrote a draft entry that started off with substantially more detail, but decided to get rid of most of it during the two or three rounds of editing I typically do before publishing anything. Sometimes the draft was never finished or never published.

Today's post is about how my current work from home life is going. Alas, it's also more about market forces and other things outside my direct control than it is about anything else. 

First, some good news: I've been part of the team on two major litigation victories recently. (For the bigger, more significant one, which actually has great importance to society at large, I was such a small part of the team it admittedly wouldn't really be proper to actually claim that victory as partially mine. But it was huge!) In the pre-COVID era, my colleagues and I would have celebrated together. Unfortunately, these are not normal times. 

Billable Hours, Then and Now

One past topic I didn't write about as clearly or as often as I thought was how incredibly busy I was at work this time last year. From January through early March 2020, I was solidly on track to bill ~2,800 hours for the year if I continued working at that pace while also taking a normal amount of vacation days. The schedules for my primary cases - and my colleagues' cases as well - were such that it was reasonable to expect we would all stay close to that busy for at least several more months. 

I'd also been consistently busy in late 2019. I was at ~2,600 billed hours/year pace from September through December, even taking into account plenty of vacation time, including for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a number of sick days. (But because early 2019 was much slower, my year-end total was still only ~2,250 hours billed.) In other words, by January 2020, I was already running on fumes. I was being pushed beyond my physical limits for how much work I could do, billing all those hours on top of an intense schedule of international business travel

Something I couldn't explicitly say back then was that I was starting to wonder if I'd end up needing to quit my job suddenly because I just couldn't keep working like this with no real end in sight. I wasn't in the best financial shape for such a drastic decision - I still had ~$85,000 left in student loans compared to the ~$28,500 I have now, and I hadn't quite saved a full one-year emergency fund yet, particularly one that took into account the cost of COBRA and my health insurance plan's yearly out-of-pocket maximum yet - but if I needed to do it, I would make it work. 

Then came the announcement of the US government's planned European travel ban while my colleagues and I were in Luxembourg, forcing us to turn around and rush straight home. Shortly after that came the COVID-19 shutdowns in NYC and throughout the world. Everything changed, practically overnight. 

My primary case - the one with all the international business travel, which had also been a significant part of my workplace's total business for years - was put on ice. Some other disruptions - mostly not due to COVID - resulted in the loss of other business at my office. I went from being on pace for a ~2,800 hour year in 2020 to barely making it to ~1,550. That's also the story for many of my fellow junior colleagues. So far in 2021, things haven't been looking all that much busier. You can probably guess that this isn't... a particularly good situation to be in when one's industry is run on the billable hour. 

In-Office Time in the COVID-19 Era 

Before March 2020, my current job was not at all work-from-home friendly. We were significantly more old-fashioned on that front than your average biglaw office. So when my workplace immediately allowed us to start working fully from home on March 13, 2020 - at least a few business days before some NYC biglaw firms would do the same and more than a week before NYC's full government-mandated shutdown began - I was surprised and extremely grateful. 

Now, nearly a year on, and with returns to white-collar offices like ours officially allowed since last July - provided that certain social distancing and quarantine precautions are in place - I'm feeling some... pressure to go back to the office at least two or three days a week, even when there's not any work that actually needs to be done on-site. I don't mind going into the office when there's a project that requires it - this has happened twice since last March and I expect it to start happening more often later this month - but I remain uncomfortable with the idea of going in for no real work-related reason. While business has been down for reasons not within any individual attorney's control, all the junior attorneys at my workplace have had at least some opportunities since last March to prove they can do their work well from home. 

So that's the other big conundrum I'm facing at present. I'll be comfortable going in full-time again once I'm fully vaccinated, but I'm not eligible right now. New York is currently vaccinating people aged 65+, certain categories of essential workers, and under-65s with a number of preexisting health conditions. I don't fall into any of these categories. I've heard that New York plans to open up eligibility to the general public by May or June, so my current dilemma may go away in a few months, but until then, it's quite a stressful situation to navigate. 

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