#HumansOfHubud: Liz Allen, the remote lawyer
It seemed like everyone was buzzing over the Royal Wedding. I’ll admit, I missed the live stream – I haven’t been following any of it very much. What I do know is that Meghan Markle played a paralegal turned attorney on “Suits,” an American legal drama television series, and she is now the Duchess of Sussex. I’ve never watched Suits (I think I should). Where am I going with this?
It’s an admittedly feeble attempt at creating relevance through pop culture reference. #clickbait
When we heard of Liz Allen’s profession during our new member brunch introductions, curiosity was piqued and eyebrows were raised. Remote lawyers are as scant as the British monarchy marrying outside royalty – sparse and buzzworthy.
In a conservative industry like law, where the transition to a “paperless office” is under review and “remote working” an even more foreign word, Liz Allen is as much a career renegade as Prince Harry is a royal renegade. So when one landed on our shores, we knew we had to find out more.
“Law is a pretty stuffy, old profession where the adage is ‘work hard and long.’ There is no ‘work smart’ in the legal field, like there is in tech. Tech believes ‘if you can get it done in 4 hours, get it done in 4 hours. As a lawyer, it’s not that easy, you work hard, fast, and long.”
“I’ve met zero remote lawyers. I have met some people who worked for the UN and do content writing in the policy world…(but not lawyers)”
We recently gave away an all-expenses-paid trip to our coworking space (Hubud) in Bali. What we received were loads of messages from people voicing their doubts about turning location independent. Concerns revolved around the transferability of skills, particularly when the industry’s norm seems to dictate being desk-bound.
“Am I just here because I’m here or do I actually physically need to be here.” That’s the question that Liz asked herself. Liz is a legislative lawyer working in policy. When she broke it down, she realised “that lawyering is mostly reading and writing.” “There’s not a lot of precedence to lawyers working remotely but it actually makes quite a bit of sense…even back home, my clients were all over the state, so I was doing most of my meetings via phone anyway. Right now I’m writing a brief – an 8 week section of mainly reading and writing, making some phone calls to the client, and that I can do from anywhere.
“There’s no reason why the majority of the lawyers can’t be remote in some capacity.”
Truth is, at the core of the digital nomad lifestyle is the concept that work does not need to be done in a specific place to be executed successfully. The rise of this trend is enabled with technological advancements over recent decades.
Jason Gershenson, founder of Gershenson Law, based in both Portland and New York City
Then why is there such an inertia for certain industries – like law, for example – to conceive such possibilities? ”One underlying reason may be the legal profession’s focus on precedent. The very nature of the practice of law largely rests on guidance from previous case law or interpretation of legislative intent.” Such traditional aversion has meant the legal profession has not been in the vanguard of new technology. This is opposed to the constantly-changing tech industry. As Thomas Friedman argued in his book, “technology is accelerating faster than our ability to adapt,” thus necessarily instilling a need for innovation within the industry.
For Liz, her passion for making an impact on the world and in particular for those who’ve been historically and systemically oppressed, is reflected in the type of law she practices. She necessarily has to envision what she thinks and hopes the world should be like and try to make it as close to reality as possible through working on new and emerging laws or regulatory schemes. In other words, she is constantly seeking innovation in her work.
“One of my mission statements is to undo systems.”
…and to build better systems. As a result, she’s become innovative within her personal work structure, too. In one of her projects, she, together with her boss, adopted a rotational structure. They take turns travelling long periods, agreeing that “the person who’s travelling is working 25% time and the person who’s home is working a 100% time…we (also) decided we’d pay ourselves 25% when we’re working 25% of the time.”
She admitted this is pretty unique in the legislative cycle and to this particular person, and she did face a little more push-back from another project, where the boss was much older. “They were skeptical, mostly because of the time difference…it was a 12 hour difference.” There was more negotiation on that side.
“Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end” – Robin Sharma
Such skepticism stems from the inhibition towards change. People genuinely believe (often on an unconscious level) longevity = goodness. Liz gives us a few tips on how to provide psychological comforts to your employer. Especially for people who aren’t so familiar with the concept.
“Don’t quit your job, move abroad and find something else. Instead, pitch an idea for a two-week research break in Bali. With both my projects, they were pitched to my bosses as vacations. So the beginning of Bali was a 2 week trip and then I told them, since I’m here, I really want to stay.”
It’s harder to convince bosses in fields unaccustomed to the digital nomad life. Making concessions to gain their trust is important. She set daily check-in times and face to face meetings every 2 months and assured her bosses she’d fly home if at any point either party felt it didn’t work. By being willing to “fly home and eat the 500$ that it would cost to fly home,” it showed she truly cared. In addition, instead of jumping all in, “we figured we’d give it a week or two to see how it went.” This makes it experimental rather than permanent and easier for employers to swallow.
Always be accessible. Conceptually and Literally.
Sometimes the idea of working from an island like Bali might be hard for others to swallow. They may not believe that you’re actually, well, working. Being in a coworking space allows them to conceptualize it as an office. Of course, it helps that there are Skype, meeting and conference rooms with excellent broadband to ensure virtual connectivity 24/7, reducing the logistical difficulties of time difference.
Side tip: “For traditional professions, like lawyers, dress nicely – like you would in an office in NYC. It reduces the cognitive dissonance between your work and your location, a location that for some may only mean vacation.”
To justify being remote, it’s important to prove your ability to work remote. Which means, you have to deliver quality. Thus, the importance of finding out what makes you productive. “Law has a lot of heavy reading so I have realised that for me to do a lot of good quiet work, I need a quiet air-conditioned space. Coffee shops are really hard, there’s just too much stimulation and so I really love Hubud’s air-conditioned quiet rooms because I can get into a deep flow. I’m also less efficient when I’m hot.”
Find a community
Man is by nature a social animal, and we seek out a sense of belonging. For Liz, she’s highly influenced by people around her and would find it really difficult if she didn’t have a really strong working culture around her. That’s what you get in a coworking space – everyone’s still hustling. In addition, if you’re new to the whole ‘work from anywhere’ thing, having a physical space where, “the welcoming arms of the digital nomad community” is fully tangible is really important. “There are people who can teach you things and how to do them so you don’t feel like you’re on your own.”
Ultimately – “If you can pitch your story, pitch an idea and a vision and you’re excited about it and you give people enough psychological safety, they’re going to let you do it, so you might as well try it. No one’s going to punish you for it.”
But here’s the deal. It’s about the work and always the work.
“It’s not just a job for him (my boss) and I. We’re Type A motivated individuals who really care about the economic opportunity we’re providing to people…we really care about the work we’re doing. So, when the rubber hits the road and it came to it, for both of us, if the option was 1) go scuba diving or 2) finish writing an analysis of proposed amendments to our bill, we’d both do the analysis because we care more about the bill than scuba diving.”
Much of the rhetoric surrounding the digital nomad lifestyle is portrayed through a rose-tinted glass. One of our Hubudians, Hanny, so very realistically tore this veil down in her article. To be a successful digital nomad, sacrifices have to be made. And it can be harder when you’re supposedly working from paradise. One has to be truly passionate in order to make sure it’s sustainable.
“The only way to do great work is to love the work you do” – Steve Jobs
Liz doesn’t sugar-coat it. “There’s a saying I like, “wherever you go, there you are,” which means you can’t escape yourself. If you have shit work habits, you’re going to have shit work habits in Bali. If you hate your job, you’re going to hate your job in Bali. You’re still going to be spending a lot of time working.”
“It’s not about escaping the regular world for better work life balance. It’s not about the fantasy of running your business from a beach chair. It’s not about the idea of working less….It’s about putting more life into your work.” – Steve Munroe in his TEDx talk.
And that’s what she’s trying to do now. Freediving and scuba diving as a cool side piece to her work. “Being here makes it easier to go diving than back home or to take a weekend to explore an amazing place that is different from what I know.” At the end of the day though, she’s excited to get back to work after this conversation. Which I’m not sure if is a subtle attack on me (just kidding).
Life and work aren’t meant to be incompatible. If work constitutes 90% of your life, it’s inevitable – Your work is your life and your life is your work. So make it work.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage brought into reality what the British establishment lacked the imagination to even conceive of as possible 17 years ago. Without presuming this is of the same significance, the point is, it always takes someone from the top to challenge something so fundamental and set the stage for a shift in the future.
“I think if there are people who are at the top who are partners, partners can work remote and if they’re willing to try it, then younger people will try it, then people below them will try it. But you really need people my age and above to set the precedence to try and push flexibility.”
So take a closer look at your existing structure and innovate. Are you a remote attorney? Already a work-from-home professional? Are you able to work part-time off site? Get creative and experiment.
“You only get one life — do the shit that you wanna do.”