Remote Chance...
California Lawyer

Remote Chance...

August 2013

In February, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that company employees would no longer be permitted to work from home. All Yahoo employees, she reasoned, must be present in their offices, working side by side, communicating and collaborating. Mayer's play may seem like a reasonable one considering Yahoo's tenuous market position, but as far as I'm concerned it's the wrong move.

In fact, some of the best software developed in the open-source environment has come from people working together who have never met in person. Linus Torvalds created one of the world's most reliable and versatile operating systems, Linux, by allowing software developers from around the world to pool their knowledge remotely. Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica of the Internet age, has been built by millions of contributors who will never have a face-to-face meeting.

On a smaller scale, members of in-house legal teams who work remotely or have adopted alternative work arrangements are writing new chapters of success across the globe. But like Mayer, there are still many company heads who think they can only do business if their lawyers are in the office.

My experience puts me on the opposite side of this debate. A few years ago, I met the man who would become my husband. We may have seemed like an unlikely match - him, a farmer with 1,200 acres in upstate New York, and me, an urbanite born in Hong Kong, and now the VP and AGC of a Fortune 100 company in California. But not long after we started dating, we were married on a beautiful August day and became a full-time bicoastal couple.

My GC in California was sure I would box up my heels and quit to move east. Our then-CEO gently inquired how this would all work. I assured them and the other executives from our HR, treasury, controllership, strategy, and tax and business teams that I would not skip a beat, even though my husband lived in New York.

"What if you lose Wi-Fi when you're at the farm?" my GC asked. I told him that even though there was no Starbucks nearby, my husband's best friend lived "in town" and had cable Internet. I also reminded him that, as a last resort, when I was at the farm, I could drive to our company's Buffalo office. He breathed a sigh of relief, and I doubled my intensity and focus at work.

Though it would undeniably be easier for me to communicate in person, the reality is that my company, like many other businesses, has internal teams and business partners located in different states and countries. Making decisions behind a single office door is the last holdout to the new norm of global collaboration by in-house counsel.

On a recent car ride to dinner in Brussels, Belgium, with members of my legal team from around the world, we worked on a major transaction, with emails and phone calls flying back and forth between business and legal teams based in England, California, Indiana, and Singapore. As our car bounced across centuries-old cobblestone streets, our U.K. in-house lawyer passed the ball on an agreement to another attorney in Indiana for completion.

Such is the new global marketplace. Being able to provide legal support for our businesses across borders, regardless of local cost centers and where the in-house lawyer is located, creates a competitive advantage. An edict like that of Mayer's banning remote work would send our legal team and our business back to a bygone era.

However, this doesn't mean that our in-house practice is an endless series of faceless mobile interactions. Face-to-face meetings at least once or twice a year are a must to build trust and a rapport among colleagues, which in turn allows us to use shorthand to communicate on day-to-day projects.

Those of us away from the office make ourselves available around the clock. For example, when several members of our legal team attempted to climb Mount Whitney a few years back, we made a daily drive to "Blackberry Point," a sheer-rock outcropping down the mountain, where we could pick up a wireless signal to check in with our teams.

If one wants to work remotely, it helps to develop a bank of good will with business and legal colleagues. Establishing longevity of service and proven success before suggesting an alternative work arrangement will make it easier for people to accept. And those of us who already enjoy alternative work arrangements have the responsibility of making this a viable choice for our coworkers. (I suspect that a few who abused the privilege of working remotely ruined it for all the rest at Yahoo.)

I am grateful that my company believes working remotely and robust collaboration are not mutually exclusive. And I should note that I spend many more days at the California office than at my home office on the farm in New York. I also make extraordinary efforts to retain a personal life while still "leaning in," as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg urges women executives to do in her book. I recently flew to Washington, D.C., on a Thursday to be at a meeting with the SEC on Friday, then took the last flight from Dulles to Syracuse that same evening so I could enjoy spring at the farm with my husband. Then I was off to Brussels the following week.

Staying at the farm periodically, and being with my family, provides me with a renewed energy that translates into greater zeal for my work. And when I'm there, every now and then I savor the idyllic view from my bucolic home office: new fawns grazing with their mothers at the edge of our fields, a pair of geese gliding across our pond with their week-old goslings, and our daughter back from college, heading down the driveway to feed a hundred head of cattle. Then I feel instantly invigorated - and ready to review reams of documents and take phone calls from team members well into the night.

Lily Hughes is vice president and associate general counsel of Ingram Micro Inc., a Fortune 100 NYSE company in Santa Ana.

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